UCI Libraries - The Quest for Peace Interviews: Roald Sagdeev Interview Transcript
UCI Libraries: Quest for Peace


Critical Issues Before the Democracy


Roald Sagdeev, 1987

Professor Roald Sagdeev is Director of the Space Research Institute of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Science in Moscow. His scientific disciplines include Plasma Physics, Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion, and Space Research. Among the awards conferred upon him are the 1984 Lenin Award for achievements in Plasma Theory and the 1986 Hero of Socialistic Labor Award for his scientific leadership in cometary missions. Today Professor Sagdeev shares some of his central insights into the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Professor Sagdeev, can technology recreate the world that existed prior to the explosion of the first atomic bomb?

Sagdeev: I think the path of history is irreversible. It is impossible to reconstruct that old world, and besides, I don’t think that the old one was stable enough.

Whiteley: Is defense possible in the nuclear age?

Sagdeev: Defense was never efficient in any war. Defense against bomb bursts was inefficient, so this is why the most destructive impact during World War II came out of bombing raids. Defense was never efficient against tanks even if you would consider the greatest tank battle in history, The Battle of Kursk in 1943. No defense against tanks produced any effect at this battle. It was only offense against offense, battle between tanks, it was most decisive. And I think when we have entered into the nuclear era we have lost the last chance for defenses because with the destructive power of nuclear warheads, even a small fraction of warheads - nuclear warheads - which would penetrate through defenses, even a percent - even less than percent would be sufficient to inflict enormous casualties.

Whiteley: You’ve written that the strategic relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States is now one of parity. What do you mean?

Sagdeev: I mean that both sides have credible deterrence so they could inflict unacceptable damages in the case if they would be forced to retaliate. This means that we live with parity. And this parity is rather stable nowadays because even rather significant fluctuations, changes in the level of nuclear armament on both sides, would not violate the creditability of an existing retaliatory strike. But there are trends which

Whiteley: What are those trends?

Sagdeev: One trend which we were witnessing during the last ten, fifteen years was due to technological development: Counterforce capabilities, providing better navigation, better terminal guidance targeting for the missiles and warheads. We are creating a technological possibility for these warheads to be navigated, to hit the deterrence forces of the opposite sides in their silos, on their submarines. If this trend would go on, the survivability of retaliatory forces would be in danger. This is one trend - dangerous. Especially I would like to mention that next generation of such strategic missiles probably would possess some type of counterforce capability; I mean the Tridents, the D-5, probably your military experts would list some of Soviet potential offensive vehicles. A second trend which might be even more dangerous is trend toward defenses against ballistic missiles, because the instability which could be introduced by such forces would support counterforce capabilities. With these counterforce capabilities there would be a chance to strike retaliatory forces, and with defenses, it would be possible to hide behind this defensive shield against, to survive the retaliation.

Whiteley: I’d like to ask you to return to some of your writings where you’ve reflected upon the American Strategic Defense Initiative and indicated what you see its purposes to be from the perception of the Soviet Union.

Sagdeev: Defense is against ballistic missiles very common since late 50s and I think the 60s, very crucial for realizing, for understanding, why they may violate strategic parity, strategic stability. But at that time everything was resolved with the ABM Treaty which allowed only point defense for one site on each country. So overall strategic balance would not be controlled, would not be strongly changed, because of this certain small sites in each country. But when the SDI doctrine was suggested in a speech of President Reagan in March of 1983 it became clear that such a global shield, overall shield, territorial defense, this one might change the strategic parity.

Whiteley: Do you believe that such a shield would indeed make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete?

Sagdeev: I think since the very existence of such a shield, even hypothetical existence of such a shield, protecting one of us would be extremely destabilizing. The other side, if it would be clever, certainly would try to destroy it, to counteract, and modern technology provides many different ways which seems to be much much easier and cost efficient against such a shield.

Whiteley: What kinds of countermeasures do you believe the Soviet Union would take in the face of deployment by the United States of an SDI system?

Sagdeev: We try to compile the list of countermeasures, and the practical measures, the concrete measures, would depend on the specific scenario of SDI. And since there is no such scenario, there are many options, so we still would keep many options for countermeasures. Maybe I should mention some of them. Suppose, as a main SDI technology, exotic laser beams would be used, lasers on space battlestations which would be trying to kill intercontinental ballistic missiles during the boost phase, during the active phase of launching. Technology, the technique to kill them would be to burn the holes through the walls of the booster fuel tanks. Then the simplest countermeasure, just very straightforward without any sophistication, would be to add material, heat resistant material, to protect, to obtain better protection for the walls. And a very straightforward analysis would indicate that if there would be competition, escalation, more power in lasers on one side, more wall protection for the boosters on the other side, in terms of cost efficiency, in terms of money, this particular scenario of competition looks like one to fifty in favor of countermeasures of protecting the boosters.

Whiteley: You’ve written that another response by the Soviet Union to SDI would be to expand your offensive forces.

Sagdeev: Yes, if this simple measure of providing survivability for the boosters in their active trajectory, if it would be accompanied with the proliferation of offensive rockets, this would be certainly very efficient countermeasures. By the way, in the late 60s, American military planners always had in mind the increase in the number of offensive forces as a simple countermeasure against Soviet ABM.

Whiteley: A recurrent theme in your writings is the centrality of the ABM Treaty as a way to preserve peace in the nuclear age. What are the components for you of that assessment?

Sagdeev: I think the most essential part of the ABM Treaty is its spirit, its main goal, to protect both sides from slipping into global territorial defense: To restrict, to stay within, these limited ABM, one site in each country. In order to provide this guarantee from slipping into defensive posture, many particular items are included in this formal ABM Treaty. There is a prohibition, there is a ban on system tests, not speaking even about deployment, even tests were prohibited, tests of the systems as well as a test of components. There was a definition of components relevant to that traditional type of technology of earlier 70s. And the Treaty had in mind that future substitutes for that old components also should be prohibited, and it had in mind that in case if some ambiguity would arise in the future, what would be the definition of the component, with the future technologies, these exotic technologies. Both sides would sit down and talk in details how we should define, how we should extrapolate the old definition of components to the newer one, and this job has to be done in Geneva by negotiators. And I know how much our negotiators are worried; with the American negotiators stand that there is no discussion possible, we are not going to use SDI as a bargaining chip.

Whiteley: I’d like to turn to American concerns about the Soviet Union’s own strategic defense system and ask you to comment upon some recent statements by American spokesmen. As you perhaps know, Edward Teller, a distinguished scientist in America, considers the Strategic Defense Initiative to be more properly named the ‘Strategic Defense Response.’ And further, Secretary of Defense Weinberger has recently articulated a number of very specific concerns about the Soviet Union and its approaches to strategic defense. First is that the Kremlin has the only operational ABM system and anti-satellite system.

Sagdeev: Both sides had a chance to have such a one site, one point defenses, and apparently, the American side a few years ago abandoned the anti-missiles from the site indicated in America. And it was a deliberate decision because military planners thought that to have this type of point defense is meaningless because it could be saturated with a few more offensive rockets. I don’t think it plays any role in the military parity, military balance. My personal opinion is the same; it’s rather insignificant to keep such type of single-point defense.

Whiteley: Given the importance to the national security of the Soviet Union and the United States of an effective satellite warning system, Secretary Weinberger has indicated that the Soviet Union has the only operational anti-satellite system.

Sagdeev: You know, we had some tests a few years ago, the tests of oldfashioned anti-satellite systems, which were descending from the earlier American version. It was a typical example of our stereotype response to American initiatives. And the American side abandoned this type of ASATS because they were considered old-fashioned, inefficient, and a new American ASATS, much smaller, compact accurate rockets launched from F-15s, from aircrafts, this is a new generation. And we stopped, abandoned this oldfashioned, in 1983 when President Andropov was alive. And since that time we persistently were asking Americans to sit down and agree on complete ban of any kind of activity in ASATS, in anti-satellite weaponry, including dismantling of existing systems if they exist, including any level of verification.

Whiteley: Another statement by Mr. Weinberger is that the Soviet Union has outspent the United States approximately fifteen times to one on ballistic missile defense research.

Sagdeev: You know this question is rather, you know, ridiculous. If we would compare the GNP of both countries, the development of technology, especially of high technology, it is so clear that while our economy during the last fifteen years was stagnating ( and General Secretary Gorbachev now is trying to break it, to create a breakthrough in our technological economical development), you have a quite successful development in most areas of high tech. As a matter of fact, I have a recent list of where both countries stand in technologies relevant for military balance, published by a joint staff, by authoritative experts on your side.

Whiteley: This was published by a Joint Staff of the United States Department of Defense.

Sagdeev: Yes. So a year ago they have published such a list of technologies indicating that within three different categories: U.S. Superior, U.S./USSR Equal, or USSR Superior. In the list of twenty different disciplines there was no one in which the USSR would be superior. In most technologies, Americans were very superior. Only in six technologies out of twenty are we very equal. For example, we were equal in the development of nuclear warheads; then a very recent list shows that again, nothing in which we are superior. In six technologies we are rather equal, the same as a year ago. The only change I have discovered here thanks to Sidney Drell who noticed such a nice story here, a small nuance, that some change - a trend appeared in the development of nuclear warheads on our side, moving from being equal with the American side toward being superior. And this is remarkable example because if one would consider eighteen months of unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests, and such a new trend appeared during the same period, it probably shows that the best way to achieve technological superiority is to stop testing.

Whiteley: With very different views of what the other is really doing, with very different views of the intentions of the other, and with a common position that neither country can trust its national security to trust, the issue of verification becomes one’s absolutely central. As you’ve reflected on what’s possible with verification, where does your thinking lead you?

Sagdeev: Verification issue certainly should play crucial role in any kind of future agreements, and as a part of general rethinking, general reassessment of our strategic policy, of our approach to arms control, we have developed now in our country absolutely new approach to verification. Several times General Secretary Gorbachev had the chance to express his view based on such a reassessment that any serious type of arms reduction agreement should be accompanied by serious verification arrangements, including not only national means of verification, which are rather unilateral, but also by deep on-site inspection. This is in the interest of both sides because it doesn’t seem likely that we are going to trust each other or to love each other, but we have a common interest, a common goal in going down with the risk of nuclear war.

So it could be done only with real verification. What kind of on-site measures? Different items in arms control will require different approaches. For example, a comprehensive nuclear test ban would require certain seismic stations on both sides. The number of such stations which could be monitored, for example, internationally on the basis of cooperation even with the Third World. Some of great countries of the Third World expressed their readiness to participate in such verification monitoring; maybe the number could be twenty or thirty in each country. But in order to prove that we are ready to move in that direction, a group of American seismologists was invited to Russia about eight months ago, and they already had a chance to deploy with seismic equipment.

To verify the number of missiles, of warheads, of different kinds, probably another approach would be needed - some kind of on-site inspection which could from time to time to count the number of warheads, for example, on the particular launchers. A similar approach could be used to verify the number, the limit of movable missiles. This problem is becoming increasingly important because military thinkers (for example, on your side I would refer to General Brent Scowcroft), they believe that future strategic stability should be based on single warhead movable strategic missiles.

Whiteley: What verification problems do those present?

Sagdeev: The problem for verification is with the movables. There might be some risk to miss some of the rockets, and to miss the opportunity to check if the number of such rockets is in compliance with an agreement. Then there are different techniques with our colleagues among the American scientific community interested in arms control; we were discussing even radio beacons which can be switched on periodically from time to time, to have a chance to confirm how much - how many such rockets are on the other side.

Whiteley: Thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.