The Mineshaftgap Report: Star Wars for Dummies

February 15, 2002

Comment: #439

Discussion Thread - Comments relating to loose nukes and the poor man's nuke #s - 216, 218, 219, 220, 222


[1] Steven Weinberg, "Can Missile Defense Work?," The New York Review of Books, February 14, 2002 Excerpts.

[2] President Ronald Reagan, "Address to the Nation on National Security," March 23, 1983 Attached.


The following email was sent to me by a conservative member of the Congressional staff. This blaster is an attempt to answer the question it poses.


 "Chuck, what is the likelihood that a terrorist or rogue state could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver its payload to another continent with a more than 98 percent probability of success?

According to a CRS (Congressional Research Service) report, fewer than 2 percent of shipping containers entering US ports are inspected. Ergo, any terrorist state with nukes could count on a 98+ percent success rate in delivering a weapon of mass destruction to these shores by putting it in a shipping container.

All this is quite apart from the fact that, unlike the missile, the container would leave no return address. And the "launch" of the container in some foreign port would be inherently more stealthy than setting up a missile launch complex. Finally, the warhead "physics package" capable of being developed by third world technology is much easier to design and more likely to survive its journey in a shipping container than at the front end of a ballistic missile.

[Note: The threat posed by and the benefits of using a poor man's nuke with no return address were discussed in the comments noted above.]

This is pretty easy to figure out; so how come some people just don't grasp it?"


Good Question. The short answer is "MONEY - WHERE IT COMES FROM AND WHERE IT GOES."


The centrality of money was driven home to me with pile-driver clarity 18 years ago, right in the middle of Ronald Reagan's "Stars Wars" speech.

It was Wednesday night, March 23, 1983. As usual, I was at Happy Hour - an open roundtable of irreverent military officers and enlisted men, civilians, congressional staffers, and members of the defense press, some active and some retired, some high ranking and most low ranking. This group has convened every Wednesday night in a prominent officers club in Northern Virginia for at least 28 years. While it has no avowed aim, it has come to serve as a forum to celebrate the madness in Versailles without going insane.

We had run out of beer at the round table. So my good friend and mentor, Pierre Sprey—who is known among us as the "all-purpose schwerpunckt" [note: a leadership tool used to give focus and direction to a fluid operation] and to his many enemies as the "dark and satanic force"—and I went to the bar to order a couple of pitchers. Like most bars, there was a TV droning in the background. No one watches it of course, but this time President Reagan was making THE speech. There was no way Pierre and I knew where he was taking us, but the Gipper was playing the audience like a fly fisherman plays a fish, dangling the bait and pulling it back, and then sending it out again. Insensibly, it dawned on our incredulous minds that he was talking about resurrecting some kind of missile defense— not again, after all, we has just trashed Safeguard [a Nixon-era missile defense program] as unworkable.

While the Gipper was playing with our minds, Pierre and I could not help but overhear a nearby conversation between two men. Standing next to me as was a tall, good looking Naval officer talking to an even slicker looking civilian. The civilian was decked out in the Gucci shoes and the grey silk suit that are the uniform for the army of greaseball influence peddlers who inhabit the K-Street Cubes in DC.

Referring to Reagan, the Naval officer, in a voice rising with tremulous expectation, said to the lobbyist, "He is going to do it. He is going to do it."

Then, Reagan set the hook by calling on the scientific community to render "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." Joy erupted between the Captain and the lobbyist. Their words, which Pierre and I cannot forget, said it all: "He did it! He did it ... We're rich! We're rich! We're rich!"

Immediately, the Navy Captain said "I gotta go … I gotta go," and ran off to the phone, saying he had to tell his wife the good news.

That conversation remains the most powerful metaphor for Star Wars, even though today's missile defense program bears almost no resemblance to the Gipper's 1983 vision.

In 1983, Mr. Reagan painted a picture of an impenetrable shield protecting every man, woman, and child in the United States, but that vision that did not even last as long as the Soviet Union. By 1987, it was replaced by a far more narrowly defined missile defense vision of protecting our missile fields. Thus rather than making nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete, it mutated into a shield intended to deter their use, which implied they were potent and not obsolete. But this new vision, like all visions produced by the visioneers in the Pentagon, lasted only a few years before mutating again. In 1991, faced with the evaporation of the Soviet Union, President Bush added the "Brilliant Pebbles" to Star Wars vision but truncated its desired capabilities again, this time to a system capable of intercepting only 200 warheads. Mr. Clinton truncated the vision yet again in 1997, and left us with our current vision—a limited defensive system capable of intercepting 5 to 20 simple warheads launched by a primitive rogue state or by accident.

The only thing that did not get truncated or cramped during this evolution was the enduring vision of the money flow as seen originally by the Captain and the lobbyist.

Today, after spending $100 billion or so on missile defense, we have no deployed defense capability, with the questionable exception of the trouble-prone Patriot Pac III missile. Moreover, by using a logic comparable to one that would have justified building a Maginot Line AFTER Germany conquered France in 1940, the neo-conservatives are now hyping Clinton's Cramped Vision by telling us that suicide bombers hijacking airliners prove that the world is a dangerous place and therefore we need to accelerate the deployment of and spending for an anti-rogue state missile defense system.

So, two things are now clear

The Navy captain and the Gucci greaseball were dead right: He did it, and they are rich.

The wreckage of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the memory of over 3000 lost souls proves there are people in the world who want to hurt us.

Whether our country will be made safer by throwing more money at mutating visions of missile defense for threats that do not yet exist is not so clear, however.

I asked my good friend Dr. Hermann Mineshaftgap to analyze the question of whether or not spending money on missile defense will protect America from the killers who are out to kill us, now and in the future. What follows is his report.

Mineshaftgap holds a PhD in a hard science. He has over twenty years experience designing and analyzing weapons, including nuclear weapons and missile defense technologies. At my request, he kindly submitted the attached report, which it is my pleasure to forward for your consideration.

The Mineshaftgap Report

"National Missile Defense: Fatally Flawed "

Hermann Mineshaftgap, PhD (nom de plume)
The Bland Corporation
February 1, 2002

The Bush administration has displayed a remarkable obsession with National Missile Defense (NMD) for defense against intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attacks from "rogue" countries, something along the lines of Scarlett O'Hara's bizarre lust for the wimpy Ashley Wilkes. Since September 11, supporters of NMD have even claimed the terrorist attacks provide further proof of the need for NMD, even though NMD would have done nothing to protect the United States on September 11, even if such a system had been operational at that time. The thesis of this paper is that NMD is unlikely to provide an effective defense against attacks by rogue states, because terrorists will be the preferred mechanism for delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the United States, without regard for whether the United States has NMD. Moreover, there is a reasonable basis for doubting that NMD, as currently envisioned, would provide an effective defense against small-scale ICBM attacks. The organization of this paper is as follows:

  1. A brief description of what NMD is supposed to do.

  2. A discussion of why an ICBM attack is the least likely method that a rogue country would use to attack the United States.

  3. A description of one scenario where NMD might respond to a plausible threat. This section contains a discussion of why a plausible NMD system probably would not work in this case.

  4. A list of some references that discuss technical problems with NMD. This paper does not contain a detailed discussion of why NMD, as currently envisioned, might fail catastrophically in even a small-scale ICBM attack. However, many defense experts hold this opinion.

  5. Conclusions.

1. What NMD Is Supposed to Do

The purpose of the proposed NMD system is to protect against "small" ICBM attacks from "rogue" countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea. The word "small" means 1 to 20 warheads carried by ICBMs. However, the first phase of the NMD system would include interceptors only in Alaska. These interceptors could (in principle) protect against missiles launched from Korea or China, but not from the Middle East. Of course, these rogue countries do not have ICBMs, although North Korea is trying to build ICBMs. North Korea may have a few primitive nuclear warheads that are too big and heavy to be carried by any ICBM that North Korea could plausibly possess in the next few years, but this is far from certain. The other countries do not have nuclear weapons. [note: at least they have not tested such devices, and so we can assume they have no deployable nuclear weapons.]

I have not heard any discussion of Pakistan as a potential "nuclear rogue". However, Pakistan has a small number of nuclear weapons, has short-range ballistic missiles, is developing longer-range ballistic missiles, and is at risk of turning into an Islamic radical state. Moreover, the first phase of the proposed system could not shoot at missiles from Pakistan, even though Pakistan may be a more likely source of attack than the "rogue nations" actually named. In addition, Pakistan might supply nuclear weapons to other Sunni Moslem states, or to terrorist organizations.

2. Why NMD is Unlikely to be Useful: How Would Rogue States Attack the United States with Nuclear Weapons?

NOTE: The remainder of this paper will focus on nuclear attacks against the United States by "rogue countries." However, most experts think that rogue countries would be much more likely to use chemical or biological weapons, or conventional explosives, delivered by terrorists, than to use nuclear weapons. It is not certain that any rogue country has nuclear weapons, whereas several rogues already have chemical and/or biological weapons, and everybody has explosives. Moreover, a successful biological attack could rival or surpass a low-yield nuclear weapon in terms of casualties inflicted, especially if the biological attack employed a highly contagious agent such as smallpox.

Let us suppose that Sodamn Insane is the leader of the rogue nation Insanistan, and that he hates the United States. Suppose further that he possesses a handful of nuclear weapons and a small number of land-based ICBMs. Is he going to fire nuclear-tipped ICBMs at us? Will he even be able to fire nuclear-tipped ICBMs at us? Let us consider three general approaches for attacking the United States:

  • A nuclear-tipped ICBM.

  • A nuclear-tipped cruise missile, launched from a submarine or a disguised merchant ship.

  • A terrorist delivery. Later in this paper, we will consider different variants on the terrorist delivery technique.

We will evaluate these delivery methods against the following criteria:

  • Feasibility of executing the attack.

  • Likely effectiveness of the attack.

  • Consequences to Insanistan. A technique that allows Insanistan to avoid being identified as the source of the attack is much to be preferred over a technique that allows the United States to identify the attacker with nearly 100% certainty.

Nuclear-Tipped ICBMs


To begin with, it is doubtful that a first-generation, indigenously produced, rogue-country ICBM could carry a first-generation, indigenously produced, rogue-country 15-kiloton nuclear warhead over a distance of 5000 to 8000 miles. The first US nuclear weapons had yields of about 14 to 23 kilotons and weighed about 9000 to 10,000 pounds, whereas a first-generation, indigenously produced, rogue-country ICBM would probably have a "payload on target" (over intercontinental ranges) of somewhere between 500 and 1200 pounds. Of course, it is plausible that a first-generation rogue nuclear warhead would be more advanced than the US's Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Overall, the worst plausible threat for a first-generation indigenous rogue-country ICBM carrying a first-generation indigenous rogue-country warhead is probably a warhead of a few kilotons mounted on a missile that could reach the eastern United States from the Middle East or the western United States from North Korea.

No country has yet sold ICBMs or nuclear weapons, as far as we know. It is questionable that Russia or China would sell ICBMs or nuclear weapons to a country like Insanistan, out of fear that Insanistan might turn against them later. The general state of chaos in Russia does, however, open up the possibility that Insanistan might be able to buy tactical nuclear warheads directly from military units that control such weapons.

Assessment: The feasibility of using indigenously produced ICBMs to deliver indigenously produced nuclear warheads is low. The feasibility of buying modern ICBMs is low. The feasibility of buying nuclear warheads is uncertain.

Likely Effectiveness

The United States has ICBMs that are accurate and reliable. However, the United States has conducted hundreds of test flights from the United States to remote Pacific islands, mainly Kwajalein Atoll. The simulated warheads on these ICBMs relay data back to satellites and/or ships. The Soviet Union conducted similar test flights within its own huge borders. By contrast, a country like Iraq or North Korea could not test an ICBM in a meaningful manner. Hence, there would be a high risk that a rogue-country ICBM would fail to fly the full distance to the target, or that it would miss its target by many miles. In addition, the United States has reliable nuclear warheads. However, the United States has detonated more than 1000 nuclear warheads. There are reasons for doubting the reliability of a first-generation, rogue-country nuclear warhead, especially if mounted in the harsh environment of an ICBM. In other words, there is a significant chance that the warhead would not go off, or would not obtain its intended explosive effect, even if the ICBM reached its target.

Assessment: Even if Insanistan makes an ICBM that can carry an indigenously produced nuclear bomb, there is a significant probability that the attack will not destroy any US cities.

Consequences of Using the Mode of Attack

The United States already has an excellent capability to detect ICBM launches, to determine where the launches occurred, and to track the trajectories of those missiles. If Insanistan launches one or more nuclear-tipped ICBMs at the United States, the United States will promptly engage in overwhelming retaliation, with disastrous consequences for Insanistan. If Insanistan has any border that is accessible to the United States (such as a coast), the United States will then invade and occupy what is left of Insanistan after the initial devastating retaliation. The Insane regime will cease to exist, and Sodamn Insane will probably be killed. If he succeeds in escaping from Insanistan, he will face the prospect of having a $1 billion "dead or alive" bounty placed on him. Unless Sodamn Insane is a lot crazier than most third-world tyrants, he will not find this sequence of events very palatable.

Supporters of NMD sometimes mention the Arab suicide bombers and imply that entire countries will behave in this manner. This is very unlikely. The leaders of some terrorist movements exploit gullible idiots in a callous and calculating manner, in order to enhance their own power. The leaders of these movements have never, so far, blown themselves up. They are happy to sacrifice the lives of their followers, but not their own lives. The suicide bombers are never the sons of the leaders of the terrorist organizations or of other important individuals. In fact, the suicide bombers are almost always poor, frustrated, unemployed young males—expendable people. Similarly, the leaders of organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas are not willing to see the group that they lead wiped out, even if it does a lot of damage to a hated enemy in the process.

In fact, the use of suicide bombers by organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad is a rational, albeit evil, strategy from the standpoint of advancing the power of the organization. The terrorist organization almost always inflicts more damage, at lower cost, by using suicide bombers than by engaging in an open fight. The strategy is irrational only from the standpoint of the bomber. As an additional example, everyone denied responsibility for the September 11 terrorist attacks; this provides strong evidence that the perpetrators wished to do everything possible to avoid, delay, or minimize US retaliation. Use of a ballistic missile would maximize, expedite, and accelerate the US retaliation.

Moreover, the United States successfully deterred the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, even though:

  • The Soviet Union had a nuclear arsenal, and other military power, many times greater than that of any future rogue state.

  • The Soviet Union had a small chance of successfully executing a first strike that reduced the US retaliatory capability to such an extent that the Soviet Union could withstand the US retaliatory blow. A rogue state, by contrast, would have no chance of a successful first strike and no chance of avoiding devastating retaliation.

If the United States could deter the mighty Soviet Union, why is it impractical for the United States to deter enormously weaker rogue states?

Finally, the United States successfully deterred Iraq, a rogue state, from using chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War. Iraq had a large inventory of chemical and biological weapons in January 1991, and could perhaps have altered the course of the war by using these weapons aggressively. Iraq refrained from using these weapons out of fear of the possible consequences—a US nuclear strike and/or US prosecution of the war until the capture of Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Rogue countries can be deterred!

Assessment: The consequences of launching an ICBM at the United States would be absolutely ruinous for the rogue country that conducted the attack. No nation has ever deliberately destroyed itself in this manner.

Nuclear-Tipped Cruise Missiles


It is doubtful that a cruise missile could carry a first-generation, indigenously produced, rogue-country nuclear warhead. Rogue countries have a questionable capability to design and build effective cruise missiles, but building such a cruise missile is easier than building an ICBM. Moreover, many countries have succeeded in purchasing cruise missiles. Hence, if Insanistan can succeed in buying or building a nuclear warhead that can fit on a cruise missile, then it should be possible for Insanistan to get the cruise missiles.

Of course, cruise missiles do not yet offer the long range of ICBMs. Insanistan would have to get the cruise missile(s) within a few hundred miles of the United States to use them. There are two techniques for doing this: hiding the cruise missiles on a modified (and disguised) merchant ship, and carrying the cruise missiles on a submarine. Many third-world countries own submarines that could launch a cruise missile through the torpedo tubes, if suitable cruise missiles were available. Modifying a large merchant ship to fire one or two cruise missiles would not be difficult.

Equipping a submarine to carry large numbers of cruise missiles would be more challenging. The submarine in question would be large, and it would look conspicuously different from an average submarine. Buying or building such a submarine would probably alert the United States that Insanistan possesses the capability to launch a cruise-missile attack, thereby making Insanistan one of the leading suspects in the event of an attack.

Assessment: The feasibility of using cruise missiles to deliver indigenously produced nuclear warheads is low. The feasibility of using one or two cruise missiles to deliver Russian or Chinese nuclear warheads from submarines or disguised merchant ships is moderate, if the rogue country can acquire the warheads.

Likely Effectiveness

The United States currently has no defense against cruise missiles and there is no funded program to develop such defenses. Cruise missiles are, on the average, more accurate and more reliable than ICBMs. In particular, it is practical to equip a cruise missile with Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance, which can yield delivery accuracy much better than is needed for delivering nuclear warheads.

Moreover, the cruise-missile attack would probably inflict more psychological and political damage than would an attack using an ICBM. If a rogue country hits the United States with a nuclear-tipped ICBM, then the United States would promptly obliterate the offending country. This retaliation would help ease the national anguish and would remove worries about additional attacks from the same source. A successful, anonymous nuclear cruise-missile attack, by contrast, would invoke a wave of hysteria all through the United States, inspired partly by fears of additional attacks, possibly leading to the downfall of the government.

Assessment: A cruise missile would be more likely to hit its intended target than would an ICBM, is at negligible risk of being shot down, and would be more likely to induce a wave of hysteria than would an ICBM.

Consequences of Using the Mode of Attack

More likely than not, the United States would not detect the launch of the cruise missile. If the United States did not detect the launch, and the cruise missile flew some sort of evasive path to its intended target, with several turns along the way, then it would be almost impossible to track the missile back to its launch point. This means that the zone of possible launch points would be large. If the Navy succeeded in detecting and trapping the submarine from Insanistan, then the crew could commit suicide by scuttling the submarine. The crew would probably face the death penalty if taken prisoner, so they would have little to lose by sinking their own ship. Sinking the ship in this manner might prevent the United States from ascertaining the ship's country of origin, given that the sinking would almost certainly occur in deep water.

Assessment: Although there would be some risk involved, there is a good chance that a rogue country could carry out a cruise-missile attack and still remain anonymous, thereby avoiding retaliation.

Terrorist Delivery

Terrorist delivery encompasses three distinct techniques:

  • Smuggling the nuclear weapon into the United States and then delivering it in a vehicle, a light plane, or, if the weapon were small enough, in a backpack.

  • Smuggling the nuclear weapon onto a cargo ship bound for the United States, and then detonating the weapon when the cargo ship docks.

  • Smuggling the nuke into a country close to the United States, and then flying the bomb into the United States on a "kamikaze" private plane. This technique could employ a kamikaze yacht instead of a kamikaze airplane, but the kamikaze yacht would offer no obvious advantages over the "cargo ship" approach described above.


Smuggling a weapon into the United States involves some risk of being caught. However, the United States intercepts only a small percentage of the illegal drugs that are smuggled into the country, so this approach has a good chance of success.

Smuggling a nuclear weapon onto a cargo ship is probably the only feasible method for delivering a large, primitive, first-generation nuclear weapon. ICBMs, cruise missiles, nuclear car bombs, and small kamikazes all depend on compact nuclear weapons that a rogue country would be unlikely to build in the early years of an indigenous nuclear weapons program. This technique is limited to attacking seaports, but the two largest US cities would be vulnerable.

The kamikaze aircraft approach could be used only for delivering compact nuclear warheads against cities that are close to another country. However, such large cities as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Miami would be vulnerable. In the absence of warning of such an attack, there is little chance that the United States would shoot down the kamikaze.

Assessment: All three terrorist techniques would be feasible if the rogue country possesses compact nuclear weapons, which would probably have to be purchased from rogue Russian military officers. The cargo ship approach would be feasible even for large, primitive weapons.

Likely Effectiveness

All three terrorist techniques could deliver weapons with great accuracy and with high reliability, if the terrorists were not intercepted. On the average, a terrorist attack would tend to inflict more direct damage than would a nuclear-tipped ICBM, because of the greater accuracy and reliability associated with the car/kamikaze/ship bomb. The "kamikaze cargo ship" also has the potential to deliver a more powerful nuclear warhead than could an ICBM, cruise missile, automobile, or small aircraft.

Moreover, the terrorist delivery approach would probably inflict more psychological and political damage than would an attack using an ICBM. If a rogue country hits the United States with a nuclear-tipped ICBM, then the United States would promptly obliterate the offending country. This retaliation would help ease the national anguish and would remove worries about additional attacks from the same source. The overwhelming US retaliation would also set a "good example" for other rogue states that might be contemplating action against the United States. A successful, anonymous nuclear terrorist attack, by contrast, would invoke a wave of hysteria all through the United States, inspired by fears of additional attacks, possibly leading to the downfall of the government.

Assessment: The terrorist approach would, on the average, be more effective than an ICBM.

Consequences of Using the Mode of Attack

There is some chance that the United States could obtain definitive evidence that Insanistan carried out the attack, but there is a good chance that Insanistan could remain anonymous, so that Sodamn Insane could enjoy watching the weeping and wailing after he kills a million people. If the idiots from Insanistan get caught, they can detonate the bomb on the spot and still kill a lot of people—and destroy the evidence.

Assessment: The terrorist approach would be much less likely to get the rogue country annihilated than would use of an ICBM.

BOTTOM LINE: Even if the United States does not have NMD, rogue nations will prefer to use terrorists [car/kamikaze/ship bomb] to deliver nuclear weapons against the United States. The next-most-likely approach is to use cruise missiles that could be launched from the torpedo tubes of submarines or from disguised merchant ships that have been converted to carry one or two cruise missiles. Nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles are the least likely method of attacking the United States. Nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles are for use against countries that cannot annihilate the guilty party in retaliation, or to deter the United States from intervening if the "rogue" attacks a country that is a US ally.

The December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) entitled "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015" was in full agreement with these conclusions. This NIE stated that a rogue country WMD attack against the United States would probably rely on surreptitious weapon delivery by means other than a missile, because:

  • Terrorist delivery costs less than developing and producing ICBMs.

  • Terrorist delivery offers the hope of remaining anonymous and avoiding retaliation, whereas the use of an ICBM would guarantee massive retaliation.

  • Terrorist delivery is likely to be more accurate than delivery with an indigenously produced rogue-country ICBM.

  • Terrorist delivery is likely to be more reliable than delivery with an indigenously produced rogue-country ICBM.

  • Terrorists are suitable delivery vehicles for nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, whereas ICBMs are optimized for delivering only nuclear warheads.

  • Terrorist delivery would circumvent US missile defenses. For example, even if the United States had possessed an effective NMD system on September 11, it would have done nothing to protect against what the terrorists actually did.

This analysis was conducted before the NIE was published, and independent of the NIE, but the conclusions are identical.

3. Would NMD Ever be Useful?

There is one limited scenario where NMD might be useful. Suppose that Insanistan has a few ICBMs with nuclear warheads, and that Insanistan invades a US ally. The United States intervenes and defeats the army of Insanistan. If the United States decides to capture the capital of Insanistan and depose Sodamn Insane, then Insane might decide to launch his ICBMs, even though this would be strongly contrary to the interests of Insanistan. His frame of mind might be "I am going down, so I am going to take a few million Americans with me, even if this causes my country to be destroyed." [note: this was apparently Hitler's "logic."] In such a situation, NMD could, in theory, give the United States the flexibility to conquer Insanistan. There is, however, one major stipulation. The United States would have to be almost 100% confident that the NMD system would work perfectly. This level of confidence has never been obtained with any other defensive system, and there are compelling reasons for thinking that the proposed NMD system would not be sufficiently reliable to allow the United States to disregard the nuclear arsenal of an opponent in this manner.

4. Why the Proposed NMD System May Not Work

Many defense experts think that the proposed NMD system is fatally flawed in both concept and technology, and would probably fail catastrophically even against an attack from a rogue country, with only a handful of ICBMs.

In concept, there are three general types of NMD systems: boost-phase, exo-atmospheric mid-course, and terminal defense. The type most likely to work, but also the most expensive, is "terminal defense" and the type least likely to work is "exo-atmospheric mid-course". The proposed system is, of course, "exo-atmospheric mid-course".

Upon launch, an ICBM undergoes about 200 to 300 seconds of rocket propulsion. This is the "boost phase". The boost phase ends in the upper atmosphere, perhaps 50 to 70 miles up. A boost-phase missile-defense system would aim to shoot the enemy missile down while its rocket was still burning. This would require proximity to the launch site or use of space-based systems (e.g., big lasers) that "fly" over the launch sites. The huge thermal signature of the ICBM's rocket motor would provide a conspicuous target.

"Mid course" begins when the rocket motor burns out and ends when the warhead re-enters the atmosphere. For an ICBM, "mid course" is mostly or entirely outside the atmosphere, where there is no air resistance. A typical ICBM gets about 500 to 1000 miles above the ground at the highest point of its trajectory.

"Terminal defense" refers to hitting the enemy warhead after it re-enters the atmosphere. Compared to the other two approaches, this is a piece of cake. However, a terminal-defense interceptor battery can protect only a few tens of thousands of square miles. Hence, a site located halfway between Washington and Baltimore could protect Washington and Baltimore, but not much else. Thus, a system that could provide effective defense for every large city in the United States, plus high-value military assets, would require dozens of interceptor sites. This would still leave medium-sized cities undefended. However, this approach would work, at least against a small attack, if the administration were willing to spend a sufficient amount of money.

The proposed system is an exo-atmospheric mid-course defense system that relies on guided kinetic-energy interceptors (i.e., guided bullets). The interceptors do not contain an explosive charge - they work only if they score a direct hit on the enemy warhead. An enemy warhead would probably be smaller than an average refrigerator. The enemy warhead and the US interceptor would be approaching each other at several miles per second. That is, one second before the (hoped for) collision, the US interceptor will be several miles away from a very small target. This is not good. In fact, it is extremely bad. And this is the easy part of the problem.

As soon as the enemy post-boost vehicle gets about 70 miles up, it can pop off little decoys that inflate to resemble the real warhead. These decoys can be very light, and very compact, while in their compressed state prior to deployment. There is no air resistance at this point, and the warhead is not accelerating. Hence, the inflatable decoys and the real warhead will fly along in formation, gradually drifting away from each other. There may be several dozen decoys for every warhead, and telling the difference between the real warhead and the decoys will be a daunting task. If the NMD system starts shooting at an appreciable percentage of the decoys, then it will quickly run out of interceptors. This paper does not explain why it would be hard for the NMD system to distinguish between warheads and decoys. Detailed discussions of this subject exist. Interested readers can consult:

  • "Why National Missile Defense Won't Work", Scientific American, August 1999, pages 36 to 41.

  • "The Continuing Debate on National Missile Defense", Physics Today, December 2000, pages 36 to 44.

  • Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US National Missile Defense System, April 2000, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists and available for order from their Internet site at  This document costs $15 and is approximately 200 pages long.

  • "A Defense that will not Defend", Richard L. Garwin, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2000. The full text of this article is available for download from the Federation of American Scientists web site at 

  • Deployment Readiness Review, by the Defense Department's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, August 2000. The Defense Department provided this document to Congress on 31 May 2001. This document is available for download from the Federation of American Scientists web site at,  under the title "Coyle Report". (Philip Coyle was the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation at that time.)

All of these articles or books deal, wholly or in part, with the severe problems faced in telling the difference between decoys and warheads.


There is very little risk that a "rogue state" will launch an ICBM at the United States, because such an attack would cause the rogue regime, and much of the rogue country, to be annihilated. Chemical and biological weapons would probably be preferred over nuclear weapons. Moreover, if the leader of a rogue state chooses to carry out a nuclear attack against the United States, terrorists would be the preferred delivery mechanism. If the rogue state has submarines that can fire land-attack cruise missiles through their torpedo tubes, or disguised merchant ships that can carry one or two cruise missiles, then cruise missiles might be a viable delivery technique, although less likely than the use of terrorists. The proposed NMD system would defend only against the least likely method for attacking the United States and may not be very effective at defending against such an implausible attack.

If the United States wants to make itself more secure against nuclear attacks by rogue states, then it should take steps to make it harder to smuggle nuclear weapons and/or terrorists into the country. This would involve expansions in the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol, and equipping those organizations with devices that could detect the radioactivity from nuclear warheads or radiological weapons. Additional defenses against biological weapons and general terrorism would also be more useful than NMD. Moreover, the Immigration and Naturalization Service needs to do a better job of keeping track of foreigners who come into the United States legally but do not leave when their visas expire. Finally, the United States needs to work with Russia to prevent the spread of nuclear and missile technology to rogue states; irritating Russia by unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty could make the United States less secure by stimulating the transfer of Russian missile/nuclear/biological technology to rogue countries.

End of the Mineshaftgap Report

Mineshaftgap is not the only scientist who questions whether Missile Defense will work. Steven Weinburg, a winner of the Nobel prize in physics, also addressed this question in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, a trendy publication of the liberal intelligentia (Mineshaftgap is a conservative). It is attached as Reference 1 below. I urge you to read it and compare its analysis and conclusions to those of the Mineshaftgap Report.

Just remember, this may be physics but the real subject is true political science, and the fundamental particle is $.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

The New York Review of Books
February 14, 2002


Can Missile Defense Work?

By Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg holds the Josey Regental Chair in Science at the University of Texas at Austin. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics and the National Medal of Science, and he has been a consultant to government agencies on national defense issues. A collection of his essays, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries, has just been published. (February 2002)


As a member of the JASON group of defense consultants, I worked in the 1960s on the problem of discriminating decoys from warheads, and learned how difficult it is. Like others before me, I gradually also became influenced by a powerful argument against deploying any missile defense system: that in the conditions of the times it would simply induce the Soviets to increase their offensive intercontinental missile forces, leaving us worse off than before.

Despite such arguments, the Johnson administration came under powerful political pressure to go ahead with some sort of missile defense.


In response to this opposition, the Nixon administration moved the proposed Sprint missile sites away from cities and renamed the system "Safeguard." Its declared purpose was now to defend our offensive missile silos instead of our cities against a missile attack.


The Safeguard system was scotched by doubts about its effectiveness (especially concerning the vulnerability of its radars) and fears about its cost.


In July 1999 President Clinton signed a National Missile Defense Act that had been passed by Congress a few months earlier. Like the Johnson administration's Sentinel initiative, this was more of a defense against Republicans than against external threats. The act committed the US to deploy a national missile defense "as soon as technologically possible."


The first test of the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) was made on October 2, 1999. A dummy warhead that had been sent into space by a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was hit over the Pacific by an EKV from an interceptor missile fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. But there was less to this success than met the eye. The EKV was at first off course, so that its telescopes did not pick up the Minuteman warhead. When the EKV widened its field of view, at first it saw a large bright balloon decoy, and corrected its course, after which it saw the warhead and managed to hit it. If the warhead had not been accompanied by a decoy it might have escaped detection, and if the decoy had looked more like a warhead the EKV would have hit the decoy instead of the warhead. Even so, it seemed that under the right conditions a bullet could hit a bullet.


President Bush has taken the movement toward national missile defense in a new direction. Where the Clinton plan called for spending $5.75 billion in 2002 for all forms of ballistic missile defense, the Bush plan calls for spending $8.3 billion on the same tasks.


It seems to me likely that the problems that bedeviled the early tests of the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle can all be solved. The fourth and fifth tests in July and December 2001 were successful, though the kill vehicle booster failed in a test later in December. The big problem, as it has been since the days of Nike X, is that any number of interceptor missiles could be used up in attacking decoys that had been sent by the attacker along with its warheads.

This is a particularly acute problem for such missile defense systems as that planned as the first phase of the Clinton-Bush National Missile Defense, which rely on intercepting warheads in midcourse, above the earth's atmosphere.


There has been no realistic test of the ability of an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle to hit a warhead that is accompanied by such penetration aids.


There is another way that the US can avoid being subject to nuclear blackmail by states like Iraq or North Korea. It is occasionally mentioned in discussions of missile defense, though briefly and perhaps with some embarrassment. It is preemption. (Or, as it is sometimes called, pre-boost phase interception.) If a country like Iraq or North Korea were suspected of having nuclear weapons, and we saw that it had tested a ballistic missile of intercontinental range, would we really watch them begin to erect these missiles without taking steps to destroy them on the ground?

Reference #2

Address to the Nation on National Security By President Ronald Reagan March 23, 1983

The calls for cutting back the defense budget come in nice, simple arithmetic. They're the same kind of talk that led the democracies to neglect their defenses in the 1930's and invited the tragedy of World War II. We must not let that grim chapter of history repeat itself through apathy or neglect.

This is why I'm speaking to you tonight--to urge you to tell your Senators and Congressmen that you know we must continue to restore our military strength. If we stop in midstream, we will send a signal of decline, of lessened will, to friends and adversaries alike. Free people must voluntarily, through open debate and democratic means, meet the challenge that totalitarians pose by compulsion. It's up to us, in our time, to choose and choose wisely between the hard but necessary task of preserving peace and freedom and the temptation to ignore our duty and blindly hope for the best while the enemies of freedom grow stronger day by day.

The solution is well within our grasp. But to reach it, there is simply no alternative but to continue this year, in this budget, to provide the resources we need to preserve the peace and guarantee our freedom.

Now, thus far tonight I've shared with you my thoughts on the problems of national security we must face together. My predecessors in the Oval Office have appeared before you on other occasions to describe the threat posed by Soviet power and have proposed steps to address that threat. But since the advent of nuclear weapons, those steps have been increasingly directed toward deterrence of aggression through the promise of retaliation.

This approach to stability through offensive threat has worked. We and our allies have succeeded in preventing nuclear war for more than three decades. in recent months, however, my advisers, including in particular the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have underscored the necessity to break out of a future that relies solely on offensive retaliation for our security.

Over the course of these discussions, I've become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence. Feeling this way, I believe we must thoroughly examine every opportunity for reducing tensions and for introducing greater stability into the strategic calculus on both sides.

One of the most important contributions we can make is, of course, to lower the level of all arms, and particularly nuclear arms. We're engaged right now in several negotiations with the Soviet Union to bring about a mutual reduction of weapons. I will report to you a week from tomorrow my thoughts on that score. But let me just say, I'm totally committed to this course.

If the Soviet Union will join with us in our effort to achieve major arms reduction, we will have succeeded in stabilizing the nuclear balance. Nevertheless, it will still be necessary to rely on the specter of retaliation, on mutual threat. And that's a sad commentary on the human condition. Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are. Indeed, we must.

After careful consultation with my advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I believe there is a way. Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today.

What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?

I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century.

Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it's reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn't it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.

In the meantime, we will continue to pursue real reductions in nuclear arms, negotiating from a position of strength that can be ensured only by modernizing our strategic forces. At the same time, we must take steps to reduce the risk of a conventional military conflict escalating to nuclear war by improving our nonnuclear capabilities.

America does possess--now--the technologies to attain very significant improvements in the effectiveness of our conventional, nonnuclear forces. Proceeding boldly with these new technologies, we can significantly reduce any incentive that the Soviet Union may have to threaten attack against the United States or its allies.

As we pursue our goal of defensive technologies, we recognize that our allies rely upon our strategic offensive power to deter attacks against them. Their vital interests and ours are inextricably linked. Their safety and ours are one. And no change in technology can or will alter that reality. We must and shall continue to honor our commitments.

I clearly recognize that defensive systems have limitations and raise certain problems and ambiguities. If paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that. But with these considerations firmly in mind, I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I'm taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves. We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose--one all people share--is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

My fellow Americans, tonight we're launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks, and results take time. But I believe we can do it. As we cross this threshold, I ask for your prayers and your support.

Thank you, good night, and God bless you.

Weapon System Effectiveness