“We had a lot of data on Patriot’s performance in the Gulf War. It appears that Patriot almost certainly did not even destroy a single Scud warhead…the system just failed catastrophically, it just had no ability to destroy [a] warhead.”
Chris Masters interviews physicist Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology, and National Security at MIT
So Ted, how significant was George Bush Junior’s speech of of May 1?
Well, it was significant in the sense it was a political commitment, it was significant in terms of saying nothing that tells you anything about what he plans to do and it’s my guess that he had no idea of what he was going to do when he made the speech and now months later I still think he has no idea what he’s going to do.
So what did the speech actually say?
Well, what the speech basically said was that the President believed that we needed to build a Missile Defence and that his administration was going to pursue Missile Defence technology in what’s called the boost- phase – this is the period where a rocket is in powered flight- where you could try to shoot it down in the mid course, which is the period where the warhead and decoys are in the near vacuum of space coasting toward, in this case, the United States and then in what he calls the re-entry phase, re-entry being when the decoys and warheads encounter the effects of the atmosphere as they come to lower altitudes and in fact it was a very interesting choice for the President to talk about re-entry because the only reason you would engage in re-entry defence is if you thought the mid-course wasn’t going to work.
So based on what was said and and what you know, what is the logic of proceeding with a Missile Defence programme?
Well, I think if you look at the Missile Defence programme from the point of view of a scientist or engineer I think you would be baffled by this programme. The the only way to explain this programme is in terms of the domestic politics of the United States, which is really an opportunistic struggle between the radical right and other opportunists associated with the radical right and other members of the American political establishment. So basically what it appears to be driven by is that you have a small group of people in the radical right who are basically Republicans and who are to the far right of most Republicans actually, and who are ascendant in the political establishment at this time, and so their power is disproportionate to their numbers. So this group of radicals who don’t understand science, have a faith that things can be done whether or not they’re in violation of the principles of science and believe that the United States should go its own and that the United States, in order to go its own way, is going to have to defend itself from pretty much anything. Missile Defence is one of the things that we need to be able to do to defend ourselves from the rest of this irrational world, not like us who are rationale, but this irrational world. Now, my own view is that this is a profoundly illusionary view of of the world but these people believe what they’re arguing and then there’s a group around this particular political group who really don’t believe this but see it as a political opportunity to portray themselves as patriots who are willing to do what needs to be done to defend the United States while others, who are critics, who have doubts are not patriotic. They use this or try to use this as a political device to paint people who are concerned about what this programme could do, as not patriotic. Its sort of wrapping yourself in the flag while you’re stealing from the national treasure, you know, it’s that kind of behaviour.
Let’s take in a little bit of history and and go back to 1975 when Safeguard, that other anti-missile system was decommissioned after about 2 hours I think. 70 billion dollars system – what was wrong with that one?
Well, Safeguard in my judgement was a more capable system than the one the United States now wants to build, at least the system that is the mid course system where almost all the resources have been put at this point. Um the Safeguard system basically would attempt to intercept ballistic warheads in the near vacuum of space which I can describe later as a fundamentally difficult environment to operate in, and it would use large nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapons would in fact blind the radars in the process of shooting at the warheads; this fundamentally made Safeguard unworkable. In addition, Safeguard had what what is called a a two-layer defence, it had a ah long range missile called Spartan which had a multi-megaton warhead, this is a big warhead that would be used at many hundreds of kilometres from the area that was being defended at high altitudes in space. And then it had a particular kind of interceptor called Sprint, it’s an interceptor that looked like little cones, not so little though, weighed about seven or eight thousand pounds, The Sprint would work at low altitude, low altitude being ah tens of kilometres altitude and it had a small nuclear warhead in it, probably in the kiloton range or fractional kiloton range, a thousandths, one thousandths of a megaton warhead and it would try to ah destroy warheads at lower altitude after they had filtered through the upper altitude layer of the defence. And the system was basically unworkable because the nuclear environment created by the interceptors would basically blind the radars and make them unworkable. Today, in fact, radars have been improved substantially and the nuclear intercept problem is still significant, but not nearly as severe as was the case when Safeguard was built. It still doesn’t mean Missile Defence is possible, but it certainly is much less problematic using radars in in these kinds of environments; nevertheless I think it would still not work.
I think another reason was it not that ah it could be overwhelmed by multiple warheads, which says a lot about building defensive shields. There’s a simple way to overwhelm them and that is with a superior attack force?
Yeah, well the the the argument in the Cold War was that if you built a defence the adversary would expand their their offence in response. So even if the defence worked you would you would still lose in the end because the expansion of the offence was much less difficult and expensive than the expansion of the defence. And that was certainly a valid concern. Now the advocates of defence in the United States today would say that’s not an issue any more. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Russia’s exhausted. I always like the joke, we all know in 1945 Russia was exhausted and we were never going to hear from them again. But in any case, the attitude is that Russia’s exhausted, of course you have China which has a small nuclear force but because of China’s development at this point, could not be significantly expanded. And the argument is, we’re not really aiming at Russia and China, which incidentally is not necessarily true when you look at what people are doing, but this is the argument. And we’re concerned about these rogue states, these are third world countries that are not at all advanced and we can deal with those states because they can’t arbitrarily expand their arsenals or build counter measures. So, let me let me frame this argument in logical terms, because the logic is a little difficult to follow.
We postulate an adversary who we call the third world state, let’s for the United States, North Korea’s the villain but it could be Bolivia as far as I’m concerned. And the postulated adversary can build Intercontinental range Ballistic Missiles, or they already have the science and industrial base to build this enormously complex device. In addition they can build nuclear warheads that are compact and light enough to fly on top of this ICBM, this Intercontinental range Ballistic Missile, but they can’t figure out how to build a balloon that will decoy the warhead: that’s the argument basically. And if it sounds ridiculous then you’ve picked up the problem in its essence.
In 1991 the Patriot missile was applauded for knocking out Scuds – there was quite a media fanfare about it. What what was the true record of the Patriot?
Well, by every measure we could take in our research and our research is um quite detailed, we had a lot of data on Patriot’s performance in the Gulf War. It appears that Patriot almost certainly did not even destroy a single Scud warhead. Now, we were actually were able to tell quite a bit about the details of the Scud’s performance because we had all these crazy press people who had run up to the roof of hotels and in Israel and Saudi Arabia when Scud attacks were occurring and they turned their cameras to the sky and the Patriots are readily seen because the the flame from their rocket motor allows the camera to follow them into the sky and the Scuds are readily seen because when they come in they look like little meteors that are burning up. They were heated incandescence and so you could really see quite clearly what was going on and you could study the attempt to shoot the Scud down, frame by frame in one thirtieth of a second intervals. And the system just failed catastrophically, it just had no ability to destroy warhead.
And yet at the time I think they said they were claiming a 96% success rate. I mean, how does that happen. Why the disinformation and why wouldn’t soldiers want to know the truth about the quality of their weapons?
Well, I think good soldiers do want to know the truth, the problem is the fraud that occurs when you get people involved who have either their career advancement or profit. What seems to have happened during the Gulf War was that the press initially failed to understand that Patriot was not working and when the military and political leadership realised that, they kept misleading the press for reasons that I think were understandable and defendable at the time because the Scud attacks were really not significant in terms of their military threat, but they did have enormous political significance and it was quite effective in nullifying much of the political leverage that the Scud attacks might otherwise have had if it was known that Patriot wasn’t working. So so I think to be fair, if I were in a position of authority at that time, I would have lied too, because the greater evil would have occurred by telling the truth at that moment. But what happened after the war was inexcusable. The lie continued, the lie was used by the contractor, Raytheon, that tried to increase its sales, selling a defensive system that didn’t work to people trying to do that. The US Army, Air Defence Artillery in the US Army was aggressively trying to portray themselves as having done a fantastically good job in an area where they had failed catastrophically, so there were career interests involved, and the lie was propagated because of institutional and economic interests.
You said it had greater political significance – because the Scud had the ability to blackmail nations, is that the main reason that thinking shifted after the Gulf War?
Well, the sense that people had was that the Scuds could do a lot of damage, now if you analysed it, if you knew what the characteristics of the Scud were, you would have understood that there was very little damage these missiles could have done. If they were nuclear armed of course they could do a lot of damage but that’s because it’s a nuclear weapon not because it’s a ballistic missile. And ah people didn’t understand that, there was a sense that the Scuds were fantastically capable and this causes fear in the population which in turn generates pressure on political leaders. Saddam was trying to take advantage of these pressures in the hope that he could break the coalition, for example possibly get Israel to attack Iraq, then all of a sudden Arab members of this coalition would be fighting alongside the Israelis and so he had this theory about how to break the coalition. Whether or not that’s the case I have no idea, but this seems to be what the thinking was, and by basically saying, well it doesn’t really matter, the Scuds really aren’t getting through, you are in effect doing the same thing as saying, the Scuds are meaningless anyway, but people didn’t believe this latter point, so as a political lie but again one that is less of an evil than what would occur otherwise, I believe it was justified, so I would even defend those people who were saying these wrong things at the time. But now of course, it’s a different situation and when there’s a question of morality and when you tell people it’s safe when it’s not, you’re really doing something quite immoral, you’re exposing them to unnecessary risk – so, to me it’s a highly immoral thing to have a weapon system that’s supposed to defend your soldiers and to be repeatedly telling them that its working and it will work for them in the future when you know it won’t. And that really raises profound moral questions here. And in that case the lie is more evil than anything you could do to justify it.
Let’s talk about the more recent tests between 1997 and 2000. What did they reveal about the physical possibility of hitting a bullet with a bullet? Just what have we learned from those tests?
Well, I think from my point of view, there’s never been a question in my mind that you can hit a bullet with a bullet. The problem is – can you hit a bullet with a bullet when the adversary is making a determined effort to hide the bullet as it comes at you with various means available to them and that’s a very different problem. And what the Ballistic Missile Defence Organization learned in 1997 when they did their first, what’s called fly by, was something that any competent military scientist would have known and should have known. It was simply that if you look through a telescope at distant objects in space, all of which simply appear like points of light, that many of these objects are going to look similar to each other and they’re going to look in many cases, similar to the warhead and you’re not going to be able to reliably tell one from the other and they really should have known this. This accident occurred because of some combination of ignorance and incompetence on the part of the highest level of management and in part because of the competence of lower level people involved in the programme, because what happened I believe, although I don’t know for a fact, is that the people in charge have no idea what they’re doing, by all the evidence I’ve seen. But at lower levels there are people who are competent doing different parts of the scientist programme and what happened is, there was this group at Sandia National Laboratory, one of our weapons labs, who was asked to build a sweep of decoys and these characters went out and built this sweep of decoys that were good, were credible, pretty much not knowing that they were expected to build decoys that are supposed to be non-credible and, and the people at the top were so ignorant and incompetent that they didn’t understand that it was possible to build these kinds of credible decoys and all of a sudden this stuff was flying in front of their their kill vehicle and they couldn’t tell one object from the other. And then the question how do we cover this up began to be a big issue.
So how were the findings disguised?
Well, let me back up and give you a little primer on the question of what’s called discrimination, telling the warheads from the decoys. These objects are all in the near vacuum of space because the warhead is launched at hundreds of kilometres altitude, there are other objects surrounding it that are supposed to fool the defence into thinking they’re also warheads. Now in the near vacuum of space if I have a rock and a feather, the rock and the feather will travel along together because there’s no air to cause air drag to slow up the feather relative to the rock, so it just never slows up. And if the rock is tumbling slowly and the feather is tumbling slowly, they’ll both again have their tumbling motion – will not be modified by air drag and an object can tumble in any way, in any – of a wide range of ways ah which are not determinable from just looking at, it doesn’t tell you anything about the physics of the object. So, if I have a warhead that might look like an ice cream cone with a nose front, I can make a balloon that’s shaped like a warhead and in the near vacuum of space that balloon that’s shaped like a warhead is going to travel along with the warhead and if the warhead is slowly tumbling, and the balloon could be slowly tumbling, more slowly than the warhead or more rapidly than the warhead – because there’s no way to know because it’s an accident of the motion that’s imparted when things are pushed off the upper stage of the rocket. So we have all these objects and if you were floating along in a space suit and could look at them with your eyes, you would have no way of knowing which was which by looking at their shape and their motion – and in fact, for example, just to show you how complex you could make it – if you thought the warhead were more distinguishable you could put a balloon around it and you know, so you could essentially make it fundamentally impossible for the human eye to select the object based on what you can see. Now, if you can make it fundamentally impossible for the human eye to not be able to determine which object is which, then a sensor that’s operating thousands of kilometres away that has much lower resolution than a human eye, a radar or an infrared telescope has even less of a chance of being able to tell one object from another. So that would come to discrimination, how would they discriminate, by that I mean pick one object from the other. What they do, is they construct a template, by that I mean a set of estimates of what they think each object is going to look like when they’re looking at it. So this by itself is a complicated thing to do because if you think of each object as acting like a light bulb, it’s lit up under its own temperature. But I can paint the stripe on the light bulb and make it look different and um, so what I do is I have this template and I look at how bright each object is relative to each other, of course there’s no physics in that I have to know what each object is prior to looking at them, and then it turns out what they also use is how much the object scintillates as it’s seen from a great distance. And a way to understand why an object would scintillate is to imagine a pen as a light bulb and it is so distant that it just looks like a point of light to you, but when it’s nose- on you see less bright area than when its side on – so it looks brighter side- on than nose- on, and if it’s tumbling end over end, you could see from a great distance a point of light that got brighter and dimmer, brighter and dimmer, and that might indicate that this was a tumbling pen. Of course, if the pen were tumbling straight, it wouldn’t scintillate at all – so the orientation of the object is important, too. So, what they did is they had these ten objects, a mock warhead, the upper stage of the rocket that deploys the warhead plus eight decoys and they looked at these objects, basically what happened is there was a bunch of these objects couldn’t distinguish one from the other, in spite of the fact they expected them to look somewhat different. And the reasons for that have to do with, well actually we don’t even know now all the reasons, we don’t know how much of the failure was due to bad physical modelling which is one possibility, another part of the problem is that objects didn’t deploy as they expected them to. Bear in mind that, if you’re looking at an object that’s scintillating because you think it’s tumbling, if you deployed it you expected it to tumble end over end but instead because of some accident of what you didn’t expect, it was tumbling like this, then it doesn’t look as you expect it to. So they had these ten objects, all of which they expected to look a certain way, some of which did not look as they expected and led to a situation where they couldn’t tell the warhead from these other objects with reliability. So what they did is they changed the template. They took the data and this template where they amass these things, they took the data, changed all the positions in the template and then they claimed that they could match. Well that’s fraud. This is like um, this is like me having a computer programme that I claim will predict the price of stocks at some future time and I tell you that um you give me the price of different stocks on the stock market at this time and I’ll put in some other parameters and it will predict the price of the stocks as time goes on and you’ll know what stock to buy. And it turns out that the programme does one thing and the stock prices do another but at some small interval they happen to overlap, so what I do is cut out the prediction in in these other areas. I don’t tell you that they didn’t match in these other areas and I say, here, see I got a match. So it’s fraud.
So they dumbed-down the test to begin with, they manipulated the data and they covered up.
Yeah, in fact they removed data from the experiment in addition to what I was describing to you. They only did this game of changing their template during the period in which they had data for the experiment, about one fourth of the data was used, three fourths of the data was censored, not talked about and basically the fact that it existed as far as I could tell, was hidden, so we still don’t know everything about what was going on with the data – the general accounting office and agency of the US Congress is in the process of trying to find out.
And you’re talking about the ’97 tests are you?
I’m talking about the ’97 tests and these tests are very important. There was a test in ’97 and another one in ’98, essentially the same exact test but using two different infrared sensors, and one of the arguments that the Missile Defence programme office tries to give is that the different infrared sensors lead to different results and this is like me telling you that if I’m looking at these distant points of light and I can’t tell what’s going on in their brightness and their ah scintillation with a red filter in front of me, with a green filter I can – it’s ludicrous.
So why did scientists at the BMDO go along with such a disguise?
Well, I’m not aware of any scientists at the BMDO myself. I mean I never met anybody at the BMDO that I would call a scientist. I know scientists who are involved in Missile Defence activities – some of them are even my friends, although I don’t admit to it in public, but nobody at the main office appears to know anything about either science or engineering. It seems to be a big public relations activity.
How big a step was it for you, Ted, to write that letter to the White House when you evaluated the information?
Well, I felt the like the last person manning a machine gun in a pass where you knew that you had to hold the line because you’re retreating, colleagues need the time to regroup to defend themselves because I didn’t want to do it but I felt I had to and it turned out not to be as difficult a thing for me as I had expected it to be, it was not at all like the experience I had ten years ago when I raised questions about Patriot. It turned out my credibility was so high probably because of the past experience with Patriot that people immediately accepted what I said and I was able to expand on the issues and help people understand it in greater detail rather than trying to convince people that I knew what I was talking about. So it was not a difficult thing after the initial decision to write.
And looking back at it now, what’s the wash up? Is it still about deception or was it as – say the FBI have suggested – more about a difference of opinion?
Yeah, well I think it is deception. It’s fraud. It’s certainly absolutely and unambiguously scientific fraud. Whether or not it’s criminal, that is to say the law is structured in a way that you can bring criminal charges against people, is a matter still to be determined. In my view it should be but that I’m not a lawyer and I can’t determine that. I think the FBI is going to have a lot of explaining to do from this supposed investigation they did. They in fact misrepresented their contacts with the general accounting office to the Congress. They claim to have met with the general accounting office and found out about their findings. They met with the general accounting office at a time when the general accounting office had no findings: I talked with the people at the general accounting office. It’s hard for me to believe that the FBI didn’t know that when they wrote this in a letter to the Congress saying that they had completed their investigation. I’m troubled that the FBI would characterise it as a disagreement between scientists because certainly the FBI people I talked to were not versed in science well enough to make that judgement and I don’t believe there’s anybody in the FBI who could stand up in a public discussion and explain how they reached that position. I’m very troubled that they said in a memo I saw released that one characterisation of my statement is trying to criminalize this. I’ve always been very clear that this is scientific fraud, I don’t know whether its criminal, I do believe it should be, but that’s a very different statement from claiming its criminal.
The tests in ’99 and 2000, the three tests, it was claimed a mixed success, one strike and it was also claimed that some of the failures were successful failures. Did that suggest that there was progress, that we’re getting better at say, identifying the decoys?
Well, there were no decoys in the three tests where they had one hit and two misses. There was a warhead and a beacon, that’s really the way it should be described, not a warhead and a decoy and basically what the kill vehicle was programmed to do was to look at the warhead and beacon, see that there was a beacon that was very bright relative to the warhead and home on the warhead – I don’t regard that as discrimination and I don’t know anybody who would agree that that was discrimination. Let me give you an example of a simple way of the system would have been confused. I could take the balloon that was being used as a beacon and make another balloon like it and put the warhead in it. Then you would have two beacons out there and they wouldn’t know which to choose. That they can’t deal with. Now if they think an adversary is going to be so incompetent that they’re not going to know how to do that, then maybe they have a chance of building a defence, but I wouldn’t want my to be defended by that defence.
Indeed that is one of their defences of this defence. That it only needs to be designed to shoot down crude warheads from rogue states. What do you think about that?
Well, I actually feel that this argument is not only ludicrous I actually think it borders on racism because anybody who is a citizen of the world knows that American ingenuity is not unique and I actually have contacts in China and Russia who have built ballistic missiles – because of my work I know such people and I’ve actually had several of them stay in my home when they visited the United States. These are enormously well educated, clever people, they come from poor countries, the industrial base of these countries is nothing like the United States, but if you’re looking for ingenuity and skill, their’s is as high as anybody I’ve ever met in the United States and to suggest that these people could build a warhead but can’t figure out how to build a balloon is really at best self deception and at worst a lie to your own countrymen that could lead to a military disaster.
Another defence is that we’re unable to discriminate against the decoys now, but we’ve got to walk before we can run, we have to learn to hit the missile first.
Yeah and there’s a difference between in walking ahead and walking in a circle and if you look at their test programme, they have absolutely no science or technology under development that advances them one iota toward their solution. In fact, when you look at their test programme you see that after the first two tests where they’ve discovered they had these problems with a particular class of decoys, the way they dealt with this particular class of decoys is they removed all these decoys from all subsequent tests, so the entire system would never be tested against the decoys that in the first two tests they realised they couldn’t deal with. This is what I call test for success.
What about – in a broader sense – would you accept that there is benefit in a deterrent policy that is based on small countermeasures, you know, the handful of missiles that Rumsfeld has spoken about, and that accommodates reduction? People like Richard Perle say that the United States mightn’t need more than a thousand warheads. Is there any benefit in the global chess game of this new policy?
Well, there could be a benefit if there was logic behind the argument. Let me give you the logic and then you can query me further. Imagine that I could build a defence that was robust. That’s not the case, but let’s imagine I could. And so I could in fact create a defence that it pretty much didn’t matter what an adversary did in response to it because I still gain the benefit of the defence because by definition a robust defence is able to deal with attempts to counter it by the adversary. So in that situation one can imagine a benefit from this kind of activity. The other extreme is a defence that effectively has little or no capability, which is the situation we now have. Now because this defence could have some capability in the eyes of the nervous adversary, the adversary will react to it and since the defence in reality has little or no capability, the net result is you’re worse off. This is equivalent of taking a toy gun and waving it in front of a nervous adversary who has an automatic rifle. Now if you can wheel out a tank and say, look, I don’t want to fight with you but if we have to fight, this is what you’re facing, that’s one way of causing people to sober up. But waving a toy gun in front of somebody who’s nervous and might get into a fight with you is really not a good choice. And that’s really what the choice is.
But if they don’t know that it’s a not a toy gun, doesn’t it provide useful leverage against blackmail?
Well, if they don’t know, it might or might not, but ah one of the problems you have with doing things that are bluffs is your adversary could try to hit you harder simply because they’re nervous about how much capability you truly have, in which case you’re worse off. So, that’s one problem. The other is we’re again getting back to this question of who is the adversary? If the adversary is able to build ICBMs and nuclear warheads the adversary probably has the scientific acuity to be able to decide whether or not this defence is as good as some people – some politician are claiming. Because they have the same ability to analyse these things as I do at this university, which is really outside the military establishment.
What do you think about the rogue state scenario? Are there dangerous rogue states? Hitler might have, if he’d had a warhead, he might well have dropped it on London in 1944 when the V2s were flying over. We don’t know about people like Saddam Hussein, what they would do? What do you think about that prospect?
There are dangerous rogue states, I think North Korea is potentially a very dangerous state, especially if you’re South Korean, as far as the United States is concerned. I don’t think it’s a big problem except that South Korea is an important ally of the United States and we should keep our commitments to our allies, including commitments that say when the allies are trying to diplomatically negotiate with the North, we don’t undercut them like President Bush did. So there are dangerous states. Saddam Hussein is in my view, a very dangerous political leader and if I had had my way, if I were in a position of authority, I wouldn’t have stopped when the United States Senate and the Coalition stopped it during Desert Storm. I would have gone a lot further, would have made sure that none of those Republican Guard Units that we had trapped survived. So I would have made sure, at a minimum, that that was the case. We have faced great dangers in the past, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, there’s no question that there are states of very serious concern that we have dealt with and will continue to deal with. The question is whether we have a sensible policy that is based in a realistic understanding of what you might be able to do to achieve your ends or whether you’re living a fiction, thereby creating a potential for a more serious disaster in the future. And I think that’s what we’re now doing with this missile defence activity.
The Taepo Dong launch in 1998 from North Korea, was that a cause for genuine alarm?
Well, it did demonstrate a greater industrial capacity than, for example, my colleagues and I thought was the case so I want to be totally honest here. We were a little surprised because this was a three stage ballistic missile, they successfully separated the second stage from the first stage which is a technical, a technically complicated next step that we were not sure they would be able to do very quickly. The third stage failed which is again hard to know whether to be surprised or not. But if you look at the technology there were some surprises, for example the rocket motor on the first stage of this North Korean was a single rocket motor. We guessed it would be a cluster of smaller motors. But then when you take this thing and scale it up to a giant ICBM, that’s really going much too far by any measure that I could take. So I would in all honesty say that there were elements of the North Korean launch that surprised us. I don’t want to overstate this like we were stunned. But we didn’t expect it. Did it transform our understanding of their capability? No. But it certainly indicated that they had ah advanced in some respects further than we had guessed.
So some of the hawks in the United States cheered and the doves held their heads in their hands did they?
Well, I think It’s one thing to understand this from the point of view of a professional engineer or scientist, it’s another thing to view it from the point of view of a person who understands how politics plays out and it was clear to me and to my colleagues I should add that this launch was going to have momentous implications for the American political debate. So I would, I don’t want to try to mislead you into thinking that we were totally surprised by it, we expected that. And that’s why we were concerned in fact. We expected that this thing would be spun into something it really wasn’t and in fact that’s what happened.
We’ve talked about the rogue states. If realistically they don’t pose a significant threat, where is the threat? You suggested earlier that that Russia and China are not to be dismissed, but what do you think a realistic threat assessment suggests?
Well, I’m just sitting here as a person who is concerned about the security of the United States and its allies, so let me just look from that perspective. By far the most serious danger is the situation in Russia I think. I think the Russians have large and capable nuclear forces. I don’t think they have any intent or desire to attack the United States and its friends and allies, but I think the situation in Russia is serious, a lot of economic stress and the Russians have been pushed very hard by the United States and they are quite angry and in my view understandably so about the way they have been mistreated and marginalised and really treated with disrespect by the United States and you combine that with the possibility of a crisis and the fact that the Russian systems are vulnerable to American strike and their early warning system is really in very bad shape so they would not have a clear picture of what was going on, if they thought something was happening, you have the small possibility but significant possibility of a massive nuclear launch from Russia by accident, just simply because things have gotten so bad there. If I were in a position to influence the American agenda on dealing with threats, this is the threat I would focus on. I would focus on doing something to create a more, a higher sense of co-operation and partnership with the Russians, that’s a really political thing to do. I would transfer technology or develop co-operative activities with the Russians that would help them rebuild their early warning system because if there’s an accident with that early warning system, I can tell you that we’re going to get a large portion of those warheads if something happens, so it’s in our interest. And I would basically try to not push at the edges of Russia so hard, the Russians have legitimate security concerns so when United States or in fact NATO start pushing closer and closer to Russian borders, we arm the nationalist elements in Russia who say, well we never should have given up Eastern Europe, it’s your fault. I mean, what happened, what happened at the end of the Cold War was a wonderful thing, the Russians loosened their grip on Eastern Europe, there was a wonderful magnanimous act and it has not been rewarded nor has it been acknowledged and I think that, to me, is one of the gravest mistakes that we have done in the last part of the 20th Century and I hope and pray we won’t pay for it in the 21st Century.
What about a threat from, what sort of threat does China pose?
I believe that China is not a significant threat really. China is a mid-level industrial power at best and it is going to grow, if it continues to a much stronger economy, but it’s not going to be a super power, not for the foreseeable future as far as I’m concerned. These arguments that it’s going to be a super power I think are really stretching things very far and as a military threat, China has really no ability to project beyond its borders except, you know, if you’re immediately adjacent to them and you’re a land power, and basically the only thing they have are a few long range nuclear warheads which would take hours to arm and, in fact, if you were crazy enough, you could probably even successfully attack them before they’re launched, although I would never be one to advocate that. And those forces are basically the slim thread that the Chinese have, that they hope they might use if they get into a face to face confrontation with the United States, to basically keep us off them and the last thing we want to do is to play a game that makes them think that they need to preserve this little thread, this slim thread, by expanding that arsenal in a significant way.
And that is what’s happening, is it not?
Yeah, I think what we’re very likely going to do if we continue along this route is cause an expansion in the long-range nuclear missiles and very likely the short range nuclear missiles as well, and that is actually quite serious too, because an expansion of the shorter range nuclear missiles would make sense from a Chinese military point of view because it allows them to increase the threat to allies of the United States in the region, particular South Korea and Japan. Of course Taiwan is there as well. And by increasing this local threat that’s kind of an insurance policy against the coercive threat of the long range missile not being adequate, because through your allies you would hope to try to coerce the United States. Now taking that step will create the appearance of an increased threat to India and this will arm the factions in the Indian political system, who are arguing for ‘weaponisation’ of the Indian nuclear systems and if that happens, then of course Pakistan will certainly follow. So you have this peculiar situation where this abstraction of a pathetic Missile defence deployed in Alaska leads to Pakistan increasing its nuclear capability. It’s a funny chain of events not causal in the sense of physics, you can’t predict that this will happen, but it certainly is not out of the realm of possibilities.
Ted, at the moment the BMDO and Department of Defence are not prepared to say what they will propose. What do you expect will be proposed, what will be the outcome of this review?
Well, I think that this is a political game that’s being played here, there’s nothing substantive in terms of military capability, but having said that I think I can make a guess of what they’ll try to do. They’ll try to use this mid-course system that is currently under development where there’s been so much fraud in its development programme as a main piece of their defence, they’ll try to dress it up and say it’s different in some way because it’s a bad Clinton system and it’s a good Bush system, but it’ll be a smoke and mirrors show. They’ll talk about this re-entry phase missile defence. We know what the re-entry phase is, it’s a system called ‘the theatre of high altitude area defence’ which up until very recently was a Theatre Missile Defence when in fact we at MIT were saying it’s not a Theatre Missile Defence, it’s Strategic Defence. All of a sudden its become a strategic defence and they’ll use that as part of a claim that this is going to form a re-entry component and then they’ll do some work on a system called the airborne laser, it’s a giant 747 that has 2 or 3 megawatt laser in it that has some ability to shoot down missiles at long range – could work at some level, and then they’ll claim to do research in, on boost- phase systems and in particular they’ll talk about using navy ships for boost phase and it’ll be a hodge-podge of technically and militarily meaningless programmes dressed up to look like it’s something different and serious for the defence of the country.
So we’re seeing increased proliferation already in East Asia. We’re seeing the potential collapse of the ABM treaty, so we’re seeing some significant negative outcomes of the debate even at this stage. After the Bush visit the Europeans don’t appear to get what this is really about. What do you think it really is about?
I think it’s about ideology and the political opportunism for people who are involved. It’s despairing for example, to see the National Security Advisor, Condi Rice, who was a friend of mine at Stanford who I know knows better, just talking about Missile Defence, something she knows nothing about. I mean I know her very well, she knows nothing about this, talking as if she actually knows something, and talking about the ABM treaty like it’s rhetoric, it’s a cold war relic, without explaining it. I mean, she’s supposed to be a scholar, she likes to and wants to present herself as a serious scholar. You don’t make these rhetorical statements, the question is can you explain it. I can explain why I believe the ABM treaty is still critical to global efforts to stem proliferation. You may disagree with the arguments that I give you but if we can go through those arguments just making a rhetorical statement “that it’s good or bad” without connecting the dots and showing where the logic is, is just being a political hack. The national security advisor is supposed to be somebody who’s providing sound advice on this thing, not just some political hack and this is the character of the administration at this time. Now I want to be clear, I’m not just speaking about the Bush administration although that’s the thing we have at the moment. This went on in the Clinton administration as well. The National Security Advisor in the Clinton administration was essentially as far as I could tell, looking at domestic political polls and advising the president based on what he thought the domestic political polls would do for the President’s popularity. To me these are unprofessional uses of people in jobs that, while they’re political in the sense that you try to choose people you have confidence in and who share in one way your vision they should be professionals who are trying to help you make a sound decision on these very important security questions. And the last two national security advisors we had, including my former friend, Condi Rice, have been jokes in this regard. It’s not good for the country.
And how bad is it to lose that ABM treaty?
Well, the ABM treaty is in fact critical to controlling the impulses to proliferate across the world. Now the reason the ABM treaty has merit today is really rather different than the merit it had when it was negotiated. So in fact I believe it’s a true statement to say the situation’s different. The main reason for the ABM treaty when it was negotiated in 1972 was basically to make it possible for the United States and Soviet Union to be able to cap the upward growth in their offensive armaments. Both agreed not to build offences because the impetus to respond to the other’s defences would be impossible to deal with, and thereby it would be impossible to control the control the upward growth of these gigantic arsenals. It was a sound decision at that time as far as I’m concerned. Today Russia is in fact exhausted, not finished, but exhausted, and I don’t think that there will be a big upward growth in the Russian arsenal. On the other hand it’s in the interest of Russia and the United States and the rest of the countries in the world for both of these countries to reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals. That is not going to happen if the United States pulls out of the ABM treaty and the Russians don’t have confidence that they’re not going to be dealing with extensive defences. So it’s a different situation but it still serves the objectives of both the countries. In addition, China was not a player in 1972. Nobody was worried about China being a significant ballistic missile power. It now is a significant ballistic missile power today and it has the potential to be a significantly larger ballistic missile power in the not distant future. And China’s not a signatory to the ABM treaty but is a beneficiary of the treaty just as the United States and Russia are. The fact that the Chinese military planners know that they’re not going to be dealing with defences even if they’re not very capable but they cannot ignore allows them to keep a lid on these activities and so the ABM treaty is in a different situation today. In some respects it may be more important than it was in 1972 and if Ms Rice or somebody else in the administration can sit down and explain how the logic of what I’ve described to you is flawed, then I welcome a discussion on this issue. But it hasn’t happened at this point.
Looking for a portrait of this coterie of advisers you spoke about how President Bush appears to have been captured by the extreme right. What is their ideology?
God, it’s hard to know. I mean there’s a high degree of irrationality: you can see it in various forms. For example, statements like we are going to be more independent than the allies, we’re going to take unilateral actions. We being the United States we’re not going to let our other people intervene in our actions. That’s a really very silly statement for somebody who’s supposed to be in a position of responsibility to make. United States has alliance relations all over the world and to talk that way suggests that you don’t value those alliance relationships and I certainly do as an American who’s concerned with American Security Planning and I think almost all Americans who are involved in these activities feel the same way so there’s something peculiar about that kind of statement and what appears to be behind it is a strange idea which I don’t want to be mistaken as in any way defending or justifying, just describing that somehow the United States doesn’t need other countries. We can go it alone. We we can be ourselves and that we know better and if we’re just free to take what actions we can do with our near infinite power, we’ll be better off and in fact so will the rest of the world. There’s this kind of underlying belief. Now I think it’s absurd that anybody could embrace such a view and if they were truly educated and understood how the world works but it does appear to be a powerful underlying ideological position.
The US does obviously have a sovereign right to defend itself; if it can do so why should it not do so?
Well I think if it could, it would certainly be worth considering seriously. Let me build on this example I gave earlier. Imagine again that we’ll take this leap of faith that the United States knows how to build a defence that’s relatively robust so that the reaction of an adversary would not necessarily cause a decrease in American security. Now you might ask, well would you be for or against building a defence under those conditions? and my position would be, I would be seriously interested in considering it. So you say, well I’m hedging. Well not really, because am I willing to defend myself a little bit better at the cost of South Korea. Maybe what happens is my action increases the threat to South Korea because the adversary of concern realises they can’t get at me through this route so they go another route which increases the threat of allies of the United States. Now maybe after you think it through you decide, OK South Korea’s an important ally but it’s more important for me to defend the United States and so they’re on their own. You’d really have to seriously think through what you were doing so the idea that you can just take an action independent of other obligations you have is really quite ludicrous. You wouldn’t do it in your own life. I always joke that I have a wife who’s a big executive. You know I wouldn’t take any important moves without consulting with my wife. I have a relationship that I’m concerned about and there are things I might want to do that she wouldn’t want me to do and I’m willing to sacrifice those freedoms for the benefits of this relationship and it’s true in all aspects of life so this idea that somehow you walk tall and do what you want independent of all other obligations is really quite silly and unrealistic.
How much do you think that ideology is influenced by a belief that the US and the US alone has the moral authority to behave rationally?
Well it’s difficult for me to know. I mean I’m not a historian of culture but based on my best guess recognising I’m not an expert in these areas, it seems to me that it’s one of the negative products of American culture. I believe American culture has enormously wonderful things about it and I’m actually sickeningly patriotic about many aspects of American culture but there’s often a down side and the down side here is this sense that this manifest destiny carried to the next level of, “we’re better than other people”. We’re smarter. We have a great society and other people don’t have a great society because they’re not as smart as we are and we have a great democracy and democracy’s good so we’re going to propagate that to everybody else and we’re going to tell them how to do it and if they just follow our advice we’ll be fine. There’s this mentality, I think of it as the rooster that crows and thinks that the sun comes up because it’s crowing. Apart from the great industry, cleverness and hardworking character of the American people there’s also a large component of luck and everybody should understand that and this is not understood by certain people. They somehow think it has something to do with their superiority.
And on these questions of culture tell me, and this is more along down your street anyway, but the US faith in technology and hardware which is very much a part of this…
Yes I agree.
… I mean how evident is that?
Oh I think it’s overwhelmingly prevalent and it’s again a consequence of ignorance of combined with exuberance. You can’t find a little device that I wouldn’t have fun looking at. I’m in many respects a product of American culture. I love technology. Everything little thing from the pen I use, to my watch which I can programme through my computer screen influences the way I like to do things. But that’s different from having a religious belief that science doesn’t matter. I can do anything and one of the problems you have in a society that that has this blind faith in technology is that you get people believing you can do anything. The benefit of a society that has a high faith in society, in technology is that the society as a culture is willing to take risks and innovate and that that leads to wealth and success and diversity which you see in the American economy but the downside is when you have people who really don’t understand the limits of what science and technology can produce and they treat it almost as if anything is do-able and they forget there are principles of science and technology here and we see this overwhelmingly prevalent in this debate over missile defence.
So the research has got to be done before the hardware is developed and the opposite is happening? ‘The cart before the horse’?
The way I describe this to dramatise it is I say, well you know somebody comes to you and says I want to build an anti- gravity machine and so instead of saying well you know we have no idea what anti gravity is. We don’t even know if there is such a thing. You say well let’s go down to the store, we’ll buy some screws, we’ll buy some sheet metals of paint and we’ll you know start putting this thing together and in a few years maybe we’ll be able to build an anti- gravity machine. Well that’s a joke. It’s like putting razor blades onto pyramids and claiming that they’re going to get sharpened. It’s just not based on anything that we know about the physical and technological world. It’s just a fiction.
But it’s not a joke that’s funny. It’s a joke that’s extremely dangerous.
Well you know if you were a monkey that jumps for branches that don’t exist you never live to be an ancestor and I think this is the problem here. If you have imaginings of what you can do, that becomes critical to your survival, it really in fact causes your survival to become in greater jeopardy which is in fact what’s going on now. Then there is a real danger and this is one of the reasons why I have been so outspoken on this issue because I feel like I’m sitting on a bus that’s being taken over by a group of lunatics who haven’t thought about what they’re doing and we’re just careening along a cliff waiting for someone to drive us off the edge.