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Rude awakening to missile-defense dream

By Scott Ritter / January 4, 2005



DELMAR, N.Y.

On Christmas Eve 2004, the Russian Strategic Missile Force test fired an advanced SS-27 Topol-M road-mobile intercontinental ballistic Missile (ICBM). This test probably invalidated the entire premise and technology used in the National Missile Defense (NMD) system currently being developed and deployed by the Bush administration, and at the same time called into question the validity of the administration's entire approach to arms control and disarmament.

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From 1988 to 1990, I served as one of the American weapons inspectors at the Votkinsk Machine Building Plant in Russia, where the SS-27 and its predecessor, the SS-25, were assembled. When I started my work in Votkinsk, the SS-25 missile was viewed by many in the US intelligence community as the primary ICBM threat facing the United States. A great deal of effort was placed on learning as much as possible about this missile and its capabilities.

Through the work of the inspectors at Votkinsk, as well as several related inspections where US experts were able to view the SS-25 missile system in its operating bases in Siberia, a great deal of data was collected that assisted the US intelligence community in refining its understanding of how the SS-25 operated. This understanding was translated into several countermissile strategies, including aerial interdiction operations and missile-defense concepts.

The abysmal performance of American counter-SCUD operations during the Gulf War in 1991 highlighted the deficiencies of the US military regarding the aerial interdiction of road-mobile missiles. Iraqi Al-Hussein mobile missiles were virtually impossible to detect and interdict, even with total American air supremacy. Despite all the effort put into counter-SCUD operations during that war, not a single Iraqi mobile missile launcher was destroyed by hostile fire, a fact I can certify not only as a participant in the counter-SCUD effort, but also as a chief inspector in Iraq, where I led the United Nations investigations into the Iraqi missile program.

The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union did not leave much time for reflection on the American counter-mobile missile launcher deficiencies. In mid-1993, the Department of Defense conducted a comprehensive review to select the strategy and force structure for the post-cold war era. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the threat to the US from a deliberate or accidental ballistic missile attack by former Soviet states or by China was judged highly unlikely. In Votkinsk, US inspectors observed a Soviet-era defense industry in decline. SS-25 missiles were produced at a greatly reduced rate, and the next generation missile, a joint Russian-Ukrainian design, was scrapped after a few prototypes were produced, but never launched.

After the resounding Republican victory in the midterm 1994 congressional elections, a new program for missile defense was proposed covering three distinct "threat" capabilities ranging from "unsophisticated threats" (an attack of five single-warhead missiles with simple decoys), to highly sophisticated threats (an attack of 20 single-warhead SS-25 type missiles, each with decoys or other defensive countermeasures). Funding for this program ran to some $10.8 billion from 1993 to 2000.

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