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The Target Is Russia by Theodore Postol
Published on March 2, 2000 in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
The Target Is Russia:
The Clinton Administration Has Put Us On The Path To A New Arms Race
by Theodore A. Postol
 

 The Clinton administration is relentlessly moving toward an ill-informed decision this summer to deploy an untested and fundamentally unworkable national missile defense (NMD) system. The administration claims this technically flawed defense is needed to negate an unproven long-range missile threat posed by "rogue" states.

The cost of this defense will not simply be measured in dollars. It may include an end to further nuclear arms reductions with Russia, an increased Chinese effort to expand its nuclear forces in response to the defense, negative reactions from U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia--who know that their security will also suffer from this ill-thought out American initiative--and an eventual collapse of global arms control and nonproliferation efforts.

The Clinton administration, already confronted by strongly negative and adverse public reactions from Russia and China, insists that this defense system would not upset global efforts to reduce the dangers from existing nuclear arsenals and potential nuclear proliferants.

Instead, the administration sticks to its false claim that the proposed system will be sharply limited, and that it will not compromise Russia's retaliatory deterrent forces.

Although Iran and Iraq have been named as targets of this defense, North Korea is the alleged serious and immediate threat. But if the proposed national missile defense system is to be aimed principally at North Korean missiles, why is the United States deploying a radar that is ideally suited for gathering intelligence for such a system on the northern tip of Norway, less than 40 miles from the Russian border?

 

Vardo Radar
The mysterious Vardo radar, with inflatable dome (top of page) and after the dome was blown off by a November storm.
[Norwegian Defense Forces photo]

Strawmen

On September 8 and 9 in Moscow, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott presented Russia with a proposal to modify the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow the United States to deploy a light but rapidly expandable national missile defense system.

Talbott told the Russians that if they did not accept the U.S. proposal, the United States would simply withdraw from the treaty and proceed on its own.

Not surprisingly, the Russians viewed Talbott's statements as a threat and an ultimatum rather than as a proposal for serious and honest discussion about matters of fundamental importance to both nations.

Talbott's heavy-handed approach to the Russians was another notch in a perfectly consistent record of Clinton administration actions that add up to a coherent pattern of hostility and deception toward Russia. This record has created throughout the Russian political system a deep distrust of and anger toward the United States.

In its seven-plus years, the Clinton administration has piled blunder upon blunder in dealing with Russia. The administration's initiative to expand NATO eastward has created a constant threat that the United States and Russia will stumble into an unwanted crisis that could easily escalate to nuclear alerts.

The administration's continued emphasis on maintaining a hair-trigger nuclear strike force serves no constructive purpose and endangers the United States, Russia, and the rest of the world by threatening Russia's increasingly vulnerable nuclear forces.

And now the Russians have been presented with an insulting pretense that the United States is vulnerable to long-range missile attacks from the likes of North Korea, Iran, or Iraq.

The latter two countries have no substantive long-range missile programs. Although North Korea does have a program, it is based on primitive, scaled-up Scud technology.

The Russian Scud is based on the work of German engineers captured by the Russians at the end of World War II. The Scuds themselves consist of modest improvements over the German V-2 missile, first flown by Nazi Germany in the early 1940s.

Despite the vast resources available in Nazi Germany, and the dedicated and well-supported national effort in the Soviet Union that followed, the first ICBM was not achieved until 1957. The United States now tells the Russians that it has an urgent need for a national missile defense to protect itself from an imminent ICBM attack from a state that has a gross domestic product smaller than Delaware's.

Against a backdrop of years of misrepresentations by the Clinton administration, the North Korean, Iranian, and Iraqi "threat" is seen as a strawman by the Russians and Chinese.

The Russians and the Chinese also understand that the administration's "limited" defense is in fact a system that is indistinguishable from one aimed at them. They correctly understand the full technical implications of the administration's proposed battle-management upgrades of early warning radars at Fylingdales Moor, Britain; Thule, Greenland; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Clear, Alaska. These upgrades are exactly those that would be needed for a national missile defense system aimed at Russia and China.

And now comes the most recent addition to the array of misrepresentations to the Russians--installation of a state-of-the-art, NMD-capable radar in Vardo, virtually on the Russian border.

The administration claims that the radar's purpose is tracking space debris in earth orbit. It is obvious to any technically informed person that this claim is simply another misrepresentation.

A poke in the eye

The certain principal use of this X-band radar, along with a second one planned for Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, some 1,500 miles south west of Anchorage, will be to collect detailed intelligence data on Russia's long-range ballistic missiles.

This data will cover the entire trajectory of the missiles, including their powered flight, "bus" maneuvers, deployment of warheads and countermeasures, and reentry into the Pacific near the Kamchatka peninsula.

The data collected by these radars will be of primal value to a U.S. national missile defense system. The information will be fed into the NMD data base, which will increase the discrimination capabilities of the proposed system against Russia's ballistic missiles.

It is not clear that the Vardo radar, code-named HAVE STARE, is a formal violation of the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. But it is clear that the radar could be added to an NMD sensor system in a way that would unmistakably violate the intent if not the letter of the treaty.

It is also clear, both to Washington and Moscow, that the basic infrastructure of the proposed limited national missile defense system could be rapidly scaled up to become an overtly anti-Russian system.

The Vardo radar may be "treaty compliant." But it is also one more threatening and insulting poke in the eye of the Russian bear.

Fingerprinting

The HAVE STARE radar was developed in the early 1990s by Raytheon, under the direction of the Electronic Systems Center, the air force's lead organization for the development and acquisition of command-and-control systems. According to the Defense Department, HAVE STARE is "a high-resolution X-band tracking and imaging radar with a 27-meter mechanical dish antenna." It became operational at Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's coast in 1995, where it was used in early developmental tests of the national missile defense program.

In late 1998, HAVE STARE was quietly dismantled and sent to Norway, where it is being jointly reassembled by the United States and Norway under the Norwegian project name "Globus II." It is located at a Norwegian military intelligence facility and its mission, according to the U.S. and Norwegian governments, is to track and catalog space junk in high earth orbit.

Space junk is no trivial matter. There are many thousands of manmade objects orbiting earth, ranging in size from paint flecks and nuts and bolts to booster rockets. But the new location of the HAVE STARE radar, publicly revealed in April 1998 by Inge Sellevag, a Norwegian newspaper reporter, is nearly the last place on earth one would choose for a radar with the purpose of tracking space debris. Because many objects of concern are in orbits that can never be seen from a far north location, a space tracking installation is in fact best placed much closer to the equator.

But the location of the radar is ideal for collecting very precise data on Russian missile tests. The Vardo machine is--at least for now--the most advanced tracking and imaging radar in the world.

The HAVE STARE radar potentially has a resolution of roughly 10 to 15 centimeters, which means it could provide detailed radar images of Russian warheads and decoys. In contrast, U.S. early warning radars have a resolution of--at best--5 to 10 meters.

When a pulse from the Vardo X-band radar illuminates a target, reflections are generated mostly by the numerous edges, surfaces, and other geometric details of the target. These distinct reflections are, in effect, a radar-fingerprint of the object.

Because the radar-fingerprint of an object varies with the frequency of the radar, it is especially important that the Vardo radar operate in the X-band, the same frequency range of the NMD X-band radars.

In addition, the radar signal will not simply be a complex mix of the many individual reflections. The signal will fluctuate in time as the targets of interest rotate and precess, providing yet additional fingerprint data that could be exploited by the NMD X-band radars.

In short, the Vardo radar can provide critical information for a national missile defense system aimed specifically at Russia.

Further, the Vardo radar and the planned radar for Shemya Island at the western end of the Aleutians could, operating together, collect precision radar signature data on virtually every phase of Russian tests of missiles and decoys, within minutes of launch from the Plesetsk test range, about 150 miles south of the White Sea, to splashdown 4,000 miles away, near Kamchatka.

Of particular importance, HAVE STARE will be able to obtain precision signature data at X-band frequencies and in mid-course--the critical point at which warheads and decoys separate from the "bus." Previous U.S. radars at Vardo and Shemya have lacked the ability to perform such measurements at X-band frequencies.

Even though both the United States and the Soviet Union (and now Russia) have long been capable of defeating missile defense systems by deploying decoys and other devices along with warheads, this well-focused intelligence-gathering activity understandably appears to the Russians as a determined and planned step towards a U.S. National missile defense capability aimed at Russia. The existence of this radar at this location further adds to Russian perceptions that the Clinton administration is again being deceptive about its true intentions.

What is "real time"?

U.S. officials have said little about the export of the HAVE STARE radar to Norway, leaving Norwegian officials to explain its uses. Sellevag, a reporter with Bergens Tidende in Bergen, Norway, stirred the pot in the spring of 1998 with stories revealing that HAVE STARE was moving to Norway and that it had a potential national missile defense capability.

In response, Dag Jostein Fjarvoll, Norway's secretary of defense, assured parliament that the Globus II radar (HAVE STARE) was "under full Norwegian control." At best, that was misleading. Norwegian personnel may man the system but the radar will be directly linked, according to a viewgraph prepared by the air force's Electronics Systems Center, to "Cheyenne Mountain and NMD." (The nerve center of the proposed national missile defense system will be buried deeply within Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain.)

This information clearly indicates that Fjarvoll's assertions that the radar could not "contribute to any eventual American defense" were false. Indeed, they seemed deliberately crafted to mislead the Norwegian parliament.

The minister added that "only Norwegian personnel have access to data in so-called real time." His use of "real time" was repeated, perhaps for emphasis. "In other words, there was no connection between Globus II and the U.S. Air Force in real time. . . . The radar can therefore not contribute to any eventual American missile defense."

To those not familiar with how acquisition and tracking systems work--and members of the Norwegian parliament surely fit that category--the no-real-time argument might seem compelling. From a commonsense point of view, if a sensor system does not supply data in real time, it is useless for missile defense.

In fact, none of the existing U.S. early warning and tracking systems, or those projected for the national missile defense system, operate in "real time"--as the defense minister seems to define it.

They are not real-time systems because they collect vast amounts of data that are not sent directly to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. All of these systems--in place and projected--extract critical information from the mass of data after short processing delays. Once the data are extracted, only then is it sent to operational command centers.

Each Defense Support Program satellite, for instance, collects about 170 million bits of information per second. These data are then sorted by a vastly powerful signal processing system on the satellite. By the time the data sorting is completed, only one million bits per second are actually transmitted to the ground.

Once on the ground, the data are further processed. That processing takes place in 10-second batches, creating a vastly simplified but supremely accurate surveillance "picture" of the earth below. In turn, that information is updated and further processed every 10 seconds.

In cases where there is very clear data indicating a missile launch, it takes 20 to 40 seconds before the system can "initiate" tracking of the launch. The operators of the system would not see this information for 30 to 90 seconds, depending on specific circumstances.

Hence, the Defense Support Program satellites in high earth orbit, currently the heart of the U.S. early warning array, do not comprise a "real time" system according to the definition implied by the statements of Norway's defense minister.

Why Norway?

What is the purpose of the HAVE STARE radar at Vardo, which the Norwegians call Globus II? Its purpose is clear to the Russian civilian and military analysts I have talked to. It is an intelligence-gathering system optimized to collect data on Russian ballistic missiles that can be directly used by a U.S. National missile defense system aimed at Russia.

The technical information on HAVE STARE released by the U.S. Air Force and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization indicates that it is a very capable tracking and imaging radar. Testimony given in Congress and statements made elsewhere further confirm this. On June 18, 1996, for instance, Rear Adm. Richard D. West, then acting director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, testified before the House National Security Committee about the NMD program.

In his testimony, he described plans to upgrade existing early warning radars "for inclusion in the NMD architecture." He added, "If needed, other existing forward-based radars (such as Cobra Dane or HAVE STARE) could also be used to support the NMD system."

More recently, Sellevag has tracked references to HAVE STARE's potential usefulness to the NMD program. A mid-1990s air force environmental impact statement provided by the U.S. Air Force Atmospheric Interceptor Technology Program, noted:

"Two existing U.S. Air Force radar systems have high potential for NMD application. The upgraded Precision Acquisition Vehicle Energy-Phased Array Warning System (PAVE PAWS) radar located at Beale Air Force Base (AFB), California is a wide-looking potential target detection element of a future NMD system. The HAVE STARE tracking radar located at Vandenberg AFB, California represents a candidate design to perform the narrow-looking, target tracking radar role in a future NMD system.

"To fully understand the utility of these radar systems in an NMD role, the [air force] plans to integrate and test these systems using realistic threat scenarios. California is the only location where these radars are close enough to be tested together. The PAVE PAWS radar initially detects an incoming target and hands over specific target tracking to the HAVE STARE."

The tests were carried out. Two Minuteman III launches were picked up by the Defense Support Program's early warning satellites; in turn, that data cued PAVE PAWS and HAVE STARE, which tracked the missiles.

Sellevag documents that HAVE STARE was later involved in two test flights in the NMD program. In June 1997, a Minuteman II lifted off from Vandenberg with dummy warheads and balloon decoys--targets for sensor payloads aboard Boeing's Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, launched from Kwajalein. A similar test of Raytheon's entry into the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle sweep stakes took place in January 1998. (Both tests were of the sensors; no intercept of the target was attempted.)

Occasional air force and Ballistic Missile Defense Organization briefing viewgraphs and slides allude, directly or indirectly, to HAVE STARE in future NMD architecture. One December 1999 slide produced by the Strategic and Nuclear Deterrence Command-and-Control Program Office shows HAVE STARE clustered with a host of "Global Awareness" sensors, all of which are linked to Cheyenne Mountain & NMD.

Could HAVE STARE act as an early warning and tracking radar if a national missile defense system is deployed? Yes--but only as a backup to other sensors closer to home or parked in safe orbits.

The U.S. Air Force would have to assume that in the event of an intentional missile attack by Russia, Vardo would be immediately destroyed. (According to Sellevag, the idea that the Vardo radar might put northern Norway at the top of Russia's nuclear target list has unsettled at least a few members of the Norwegian parliament.)

But the real value of the Vardo radar and of the not-yet-built Shemya radar is that they can do critical advance work for the national missile defense system. They can collect radar signatures--"fingerprints"--from a host of Russian missiles, warheads, decoys, and other devices as they are tested in east-west flight high above the Russian hinterland.

These fingerprints constitute vital information for any system designed to counter the Russian missile "threat," which must function perfectly within minutes of the need to do so. A system that cannot quickly separate warheads from everything else is fatally flawed.

If the purpose of a national missile defense system is to protect the United States from North Korean missiles, why is the world's most advanced tracking and imaging radar about to go online at the northern tip of Norway instead of northern Japan?

Why Norway? is an especially intriguing question in the context of the threats made last September by Strobe Talbott to the Russians, when he said that the United States was considering unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty

Meanwhile, the administration may soon make a decision to deploy a national missile defense that could well end whatever momentum is left in the U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction process.

The truth is that domestic politics in the United States has led to false claims about the promise of missile defense technology--as well as fantastic claims about "emerging threats."

Both the Republicans and the Democrats have been involved in a charade trying to make each look less concerned about national defense while they together drive the United States toward a disaster of historic proportions.

If the administration decides this summer to deploy the national missile defense system, it should at least be honest about it. The Pentagon still defines the principal missile threat as Russia, not North Korea. That is why HAVE STARE is in northern Norway instead of northern Japan.

A new arms race?

In his visit to Russia last September, Talbott assured the Russians that the proposed system would only be capable of handling "tens of missiles." Apparently Talbott thought that would reassure the Russians and not alarm the Chinese.

But the Chinese have, according to the CIA, only 20 missiles capable of reaching the United States. The Chinese have long said that the proposed "limited" system has an anti-Chinese face. And the Russians clearly believe that a system that could be rapidly expanded and upgraded looks like an anti-Russian system.

Talbott's words got an immediate response from Russia and China. When I was in Moscow in October, only a few weeks after Talbott's visit, I was told by several government officials about a meeting in Beijing, from which they had just returned.

The meeting was sponsored by the foreign ministries of Russia and China. However, most of the participants were from the Russian and Chinese ministries of defense. The purpose of the meeting was to begin Russian and Chinese political and technical cooperation to deal with the threat of a U.S. National missile defense system.

George N. Lewis, John Pike, and I published an article in the August 1999 issue of Scientific American, which attempted to show that the proposed U.S. National missile defense system could be defeated by the simplest of countermeasures. I personally know missile experts in Russia and China, and they agree.

A U.S. decision to deploy will nevertheless result in a strong negative, coordinated, and unequivocal reaction from Russia and China. This is because there will be constant concerns that the United States may eventually expand and modify the defense with nuclear-armed interceptors instead of the pitiful hit-to-kill interceptors now planned for the system.

A modified and expanded nuclear system could also be readily defeated, but the Russians and Chinese would have to dedicate more resources to the task. Most important: They might want to expand their offensive capability, following the Nuclear Age dictum that a good offense beats any defense.

The Russians and Chinese also will not want to agree to a cutoff in the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. After all, they may need these materials to expand their nuclear arsenals in response to upgrades in U.S. missile defenses.

They will want to reserve the option of nuclear testing, so that new nuclear weapons designs--hardened to the effects of U.S. nuclear interceptors--can be tested.

And they will certainly not be interested in engaging in further arms reductions. Instead, they may need to expand their forces in response to changes in the U.S. National missile defense system.

While this game is going on between the United States, Russia, and China, the non-weapon state signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be watching their security erode along with that of the three great competing powers. Some states may choose to withdraw from the treaty while others may choose to stay.

However, some of the states that withdraw may create pressures on neighboring states to also withdraw, especially if there are traditional tensions between these states.

Thus, a decade after the end of the Cold War, the Clinton administration has put us on the path to a new arms race and a breakdown of the entire international regime of treaties that has been built over the past 30 years.

It is bad enough if the administration simply does not understand what it is doing.

It is even worse if it does.

Theodore A. Postol is a professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has worked as a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and on missile-related issues at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He has done extensive work on the Patriot anti-missile system's performance during the 1991 Gulf War.

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2000 The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

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