Gordon Mitchell
Northwestern University

Abstract: In 1994, BMDO commissioned Sparta, Inc. to produce a report on the topic of theater missile defense (TMD) compliance with the ABM Treaty. The objective of the Sparta study was to examine one specific article published by four MIT researchers in the April, 1994 issue of ARMS CONTROL TODAY. Although the Sparta study was kept secret for over a year, it's eventual release triggered an international controversy over TMD "footprint" methodology, a computer tool used to assess theoretical capabilities of missile defense systems. This piece focuses on the communicative dynamic at play in the dispute. By bringing into relief some rhetorical connections between the science and the policy elements, the piece clarifies the arms control stakes involved in the conflict. By highlighting concrete policy costs entailed by BMDO strategic deception, the piece constitutes a normative argument for independent, objective, and public review of the controversy.


While the 1972 ABM Treaty clearly prohibits widespread testing and deployment of strategic missile defense systems designed to counter long-range ICBMs, it does not cover theater missile defense (TMD) systems. TMD systems (e.g. Patriot, THAAD, ERINT) are designed to intercept short and medium-range ballistic missiles such as the Scud used by Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. However, apparent post-Gulf War engineering advances have endowed planned U.S. TMD systems with the potential capability to intercept long-range strategic ICBMs and short range Scuds, eroding the boundary between theater and strategic defenses codified in the ABM Treaty. Attempting to find a way to continue development of these advanced TMD systems without undercutting the ABM Treaty, the Clinton administration embarked on an effort to "clarify" the treaty in late 1993, by seeking a negotiated "demarcation threshold" between theater and strategic ballistic missile defense systems.

Since 1993, this effort to develop a TMD demarcation threshold under the ABM Treaty has taken center stage in U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations and spawned spirited and sometimes contentious debates in Congress and the arms control community. In each of these contexts, TMD demarcation discussions have been arduous as interlocutors have struggled to find common ground at the interface between complex questions of physics and sensitive aspects of international politics.

In April 1994, a group of MIT physicists (Gronlund et al), published an article in Arms Control Today which utilized computer "footprint" methodology to support the contention that the planned Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) TMD system would possess dual capability to intercept both theater and strategic ballistic missiles. Because this footprint analysis directly challenged the Clinton administration's strategy of establishing a TMD demarcation threshold to bring THAAD within the parameters of the ABM Treaty, it attracted substantial interest in the U.S. and Russia.

Subsequently, the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) commissioned a study by Sparta, Inc., to "review" Gronlund et al and to "understand why the conclusions reached [in Gronlund et al] were at odds with [those of] the BMD community." Sparta's review yielded the conclusion that Gronlund et al's findings were in error, and that a THAAD-like TMD system would have no defensive footprint against strategic targets.

Although the Sparta study was not initially cleared for public release by BMDO, Sidney Graybeal and Keith Payne cited it in a January, 1995 editorial published in Defense News to support the argument that a THAAD-like system "has little or no significant capability against any realistic strategic missile attack."

Upon reading Graybeal and Payne's piece, Theodore A. Postol, one of the authors of the April 1994 Arms Control Today article, obtained a copy of the Sparta study from Payne. In a detailed technical critique to BMDO Director Malcolm O'Neill, Postol responded that the Sparta study was "riddled with substantive basic errors," and that he "found it hard to understand how such a fundamentally flawed document could have been released by the BMDO."

One explanation, Postol posited, "may be that there is no effective oversight or quality control mechanisms to prevent such inadequate work from being performed and disseminated by the BMDO." On a technical level, the disagreement between Postol and Sparta pivots on several fine points of computer "footprint" analysis, a modeling process which yields estimates of the probable ground area TMD systems could defend from incoming missiles. Postol's model uses a calculation which strikes an optimal balance between footprint area and radar search area, while Sparta's model eschews this optimization mechanism (called "goaltending" ) because "that's not how we currently configure our systems in any of our theaters."

The two models also employ different radar range equations and factor the significance of threat azimuth uncertainty differently. Despite these substantial technical disagreements, defense analyst Ted Gold believes the Postol - Sparta dispute is "entirely a policy issue; I think a lot of the so-called "technical" disagreements just marshal policy perspectives."

What are the competing policy perspectives in play in the Postol - Sparta controversy, and what are the policy stakes involved? This piece puts forth several possible answers to these questions in the course of examination of the relevance of the TMD footprint controversy to the ABM demarcation negotiations (part one), and consideration of the possible impact of the TMD footprint controversy on prospects for ratification of the START II Treaty in the Russian Duma (part two).

TMD Footprints and ABM Treaty Negotiations

U.S. - Russian demarcation negotiations ground to a halt in November, 1994, when the two sides declared an impasse during a meeting of the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC) in Geneva. Discussions were subsequently shifted to "political" channels in which State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials undertook informal efforts to lay the foundation for an official demarcation agreement.

At the May 1995 Moscow Summit, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin issued a joint statement on missile proliferation and missile defenses that constituted endorsement of a set of "basic principles" governing demarcation. While not legally binding, this statement reflected a consensus regarding the need to establish and deploy effective TMD systems, as well as a consensus that such defenses "must not lead to violation or circumvention of the ABM Treaty." Specifically, the joint statement set out new criteria demarcating the types of TMD systems permitted by the treaty: First, TMD systems must not "pose a realistic threat to the strategic nuclear forces of the other side," and second, such systems must "not be tested to give such systems that capability."

The United States interpreted this joint statement as constituting a fundamentally new paradigm for determining ABM Treaty compliance. Where traditionally, compliance had been determined on a "one-on-one" basis, with the strategic capability of TMD systems assessed vis-a-vis single targets, U.S. officials interpreted the "realistic threat to the strategic forces" language as indicative of a shift to a "force-on-force" criteria, where only those systems that would have realistic capability to neutralize the entire collection of opposing strategic ICBMs would be prohibited by the ABM Treaty.

From the perspective of U.S. officials, this new force-on-force approach rendered theoretical concerns such as the ones raised by Postol's footprint analysis largely irrelevant in the demarcation debate. After the May 1995 summit agreement, theoretical TMD capability against single strategic targets was no longer a "governing factor" in treaty compliance determinations, explained ACDA Assistant Director Michael Nacht.

Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe said these basic principles meant that the ABM Treaty "does not apply to [TMD] systems that may simply have a theoretical capability against some strategic missiles but which would not be militarily significant in the context of operational considerations." However, these statements may significantly overestimate the extent to which Russia shares the American interpretation that the May 1995 "basic principles" represent a fundamental shift to "force-on-force" as the controlling treaty compliance criterion. In subsequent negotiations, Russia has proposed precise quantitative restrictions on TMD systems that reflect continued commitment to the traditional "one-on-one" compliance framework.

In the words of Robert Bell, Special Assistant to the President for Defense Policy and Arms Control, the "heavy overlay of detail" in these post-summit Russian proposals "raised the question as to whether they understood the summit statement the same way we did." Specifically, Jack Mendelsohn has speculated that the difference of interpretation may pivot on opposing views of the summit statement as a definitive bar on objective demarcation criteria (the American view) versus a starting point for future open-ended discussions (the Russian view): For the United States, the adoption at the May summit of 'basic principles' was an effort to differentiate between TMD and ABM systems without using objective criteria, such as limits on interceptor velocity. For Russia, the new criteria in the 'basic principles' represented the starting point for the elaboration of specific parameters to better define permitted TMD activities. Anything less, the Russians said, 'could lead to irreconcilable differences concerning compliance with the ABM Treaty as a result of differing interpretations.'

The view of U.S. arms control officials that the TMD footprint controversy has been rendered moot by the new force-on-force criterion may very well be based on a misreading of the Russian position. For example, ACDA Deputy Assistant Director Lucas Fischer's statement that "doing footprint analysis is not a Russian government obsession" inappropriately glosses over serious lingering Russian concerns about TMD footprints in hypothetical one-on-one engagements, and too quickly dismisses the possibility that this type of theoretical analysis will play an increasingly prominent role in future SCC negotiations.

Fischer's position is in direct tension with concerns expressed by Alexei Arbatov, Chair of the Subcommittee on International Security and Arms Control in Russian Duma. In a 1995 letter to BMDO Director Malcolm O'Neill, Arbatov stated, "[t]he Arms Control Today article has become widely known in Russia and its results are extensively used in the discussion about the problems associated with the ABM Treaty modification ... a review of the Sparta study, made upon my request by Russian independent experts, raised some questions about the correctness of its results." This statement, made after the May 1995 Clinton-Yeltsin Summit Agreement, suggests that many in the Russian arms control community are still interested in the Postol-Sparta TMD footprint controversy as a potential demarcation issue, notwithstanding American assurances to the contrary.

Further, this Russian interest is likely to be evident in future meetings of the Board of Directors for Theater Missile Defense, a body established at the November 8, 1995 meeting between U.S. Undersecretary of State Lynn E. Davis and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov in London. Created as an adjunct to the SCC, one of the first tasks of the board will be to conduct a study that would include "an exchange and elaboration of computer models and other analyses of notional TMD systems."

The goals of the study as specified in the Framework Agreement reached by Davis and Mamedov are to "provide a technical basis ... to assist that side in judging the compliance of candidate TMD systems with the ABM Treaty, ... [to] formulate both qualitative and quantitative methodologies for applying the joint statement of principles, and [to] address notional TMD systems in all basing modes."

To competently carry out these duties as co-chair of the Board of Directors for Theater Missile Defense, the Deputy U.S. Secretary of Defense will need to have a sound grasp on TMD footprint methodology.

Given Russian interest in the Postol methodology, and in light of questions raised about the Sparta study by independent Russian experts, it would behoove the Congress to order an independent review of the Postol-Sparta footprint dispute so that the U.S. representative to the Board of Directors for TMD will be better prepared to competently execute the mandates of the board as laid down in the November 8, 1995 Framework Agreement on Demarcation.

Should Postol's criticisms of the Sparta study prove correct, it would be a major mistake for the U.S. to carry on with this joint TMD study without first checking the soundness of its official footprint methodology in an objective, independent review process. But even if Postol's criticisms eventually prove groundless, because the assumptions of the Sparta study generally embrace a "force-on-force" approach, while the assumptions of the Postol study generally favor a "one-on-one" perspective, an American negotiating strategy which naively privileges Sparta's footprint methodology in the absence of an objective independent review may well be perceived by the Russians as an attempt to strong-arm a "force-on-force" TMD demarcation criterion.

TMD Footprints and START II Ratification

A popular argument by U.S. TMD advocates is that on questions of ABM Treaty compliance, capability, not intention is key to determining a given system's legality. While such an approach may be technically correct, it may not necessarily be politically expedient in the present strategic milieu. Even if a TMD system is technically legal under the ABM Treaty, if Russia perceives that such a system is being packaged to circumvent treaty parameters, testing and deployment of such a system may be just as damaging to strategic stability as outright abrogation of the treaty.

It is precisely this dynamic which has led Russia to link it's ratification of the START II arms control agreement not only to continued U.S. observance of the ABM Treaty, but also to satisfactory resolution of outstanding TMD demarcation issues. Russian Foreign Minister Primakov "has linked ratification to clarification of outstanding issues in the ABM/TMD discussions ... He simply said that there has to be progress on this issue before he believes the Duma will actually ratify [START II]." Mikhail Demurin, First Deputy Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's information and press department, stated that the question of strategic balance "is assuming such importance at the moment that any attempt to circumvent, downgrade, or subvert [the ABM Treaty] may also have an adverse effect on the ratification of the START II treaty."

Fear of U.S. TMD "weighs heavily in START II ratification deliberations," wrote START I negotiator Yuri Nazarkin and former ACDA START specialist Rodney W. Jones; "Members of Parliament and Russian defense experts have clearly linked the outcome of START II ratification to their concerns over the ABM Treaty." Vladimir Lukin, head of the International Relations Committee, will be the floor manager of the START II bill when it comes out of committee in the Russian Duma. "He said, in effect, that the development of these [TMD] defenses could torpedo ratification [of START II]."

These statements suggest that Russian linkage of START II to U.S. ABM Treaty compliance is more than a technical issue; it is also a rhetorical issue. Russian officials have made it abundantly clear that their assessment of American intentions regarding missile defense deployment may be as important as their determination of extant American capabilities as a factor determining whether or not to ratify START II. The conclusions of a study commissioned by the Russian Duma prior to the July, 1995 START II hearings explained the basis for this viewpoint.

The Duma study, written by the parliament's analytical center before the July START-2 hearings, strongly attacks U.S. plans to develop limited anti-missile defense systems. It states that, `In reality, deployment of such a limited ABM system, coupled with radical cuts in strategic nuclear forces, is no less destabilizing a factor than constructing a full-scale ABM system. Since a limited ABM system requires establishing a full infrastructure ... it can grow very quickly to a size at which a retaliatory strike by our strategic nuclear forces could be neutralized.' Thus, the report concludes, it is essential for the Duma to lay down an unbreakable link between strategic force reductions and observance of the 1972 ABM treaty.

Pavel Podvig, arms control expert at Moscow Centre for Disarmament, Energy and Ecology argued that THAAD "will lay down a basis for the country's [U.S] anti-missile defence system." In a similar light, Anton Surikov, general director of Russia's Institute of Defense Studies, contended that, "[t]hese [TMD] plans are essentially another attempt at dragging the SDI idea in through the back door and they present a significant threat to strategic stability in the world."

The gulf between American assurances of ABM Treaty compliance and Russian perceptions of covertly planned U.S. ABM Treaty breakout is a rhetorical chasm that threatens to swallow up the START II treaty. Unfortunately, this chasm is widened by Russian perceptions of U.S. strategic deception on TMD demarcation issues. Surikov's "back door" SDI hypothesis is strengthened each time the U.S. deliberately under-represents TMD capabilities to Russian demarcation negotiators. In the case of TMD footprints, should Russian officials perceive that American negotiators were employing a methodology which systematically understates TMD capability against strategic targets, such a perception would likely chill the negotiating climate and bolster the hand of START II ratification opponents in the Russian Duma.

As Chair of the Subcommittee on International Security and Arms Control in the Russian Duma, Alexei Arbatov exercises significant control over the fate of the START II Treaty. "There is a considerable number of Duma members concerned about possible strategic capabilities of advanced theater defenses and this issue is very likely to be raised in connection with ratification of the START II Treaty," Arbatov stated last year; "It is therefore very important for us to have clear and unambiguous understanding of the issues associated with discrimination of theater and strategic defenses."

Apparently, the recent BMDO-sponsored briefing to visiting members of the Russian Duma, in which Sparta's study was presented, did not impart a sufficiently clear and unambiguous understanding to satisfy the Russian delegation, and Arbatov has requested "any additional information concerning the validity of the Sparta study." If Congress is interested in improving prospects for Russian ratification of START II, it should take steps to ensure that Arbatov and other members of the Russian Duma receive an objective and independent assessment of the Postol-Sparta TMD controversy. Suppression of such an independent assessment would not only fuel Russian perceptions of strategic deception and lend credibility to Surikov's "back door" hypothesis, but it would also likely frustrate technical improvement of footprint methodology on both sides.


The tentative agreement reached in the first round of SCC talks recently concluded in Geneva has prompted optimistic statements by U.S. officials such as "THAAD is not a problem with the Russians any more." But new Russian conditions on demarcation laid out in Foreign Minister Primakov's June 25, 1996 cable appear to have rendered such optimism premature. Responding to the cable, Thomas Pickering, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, delivered a diplomatic note warning that the Primakov's new demands would "ensure protracted discussions" in the demarcation talks.

In addition to re-opening new lines of previously closed discussion in the SCC talks, "[t]he new Russian negotiating position is expected to rekindle a fierce debate within the Clinton administration." Perhaps the Russian backsliding is a blessing in disguise; as Spurgeon Keeny commented on the demarcation issue, "[p]ossibly the most disturbing aspect of this entire situation is the lack of serious public discussion, and apparently governmental discussion as well." As John Rhinelander observed in a similar light, "The THAAD-1 may be a 10-year program involving many billions of dollars at a time when there is a budget deficit ... This issue clearly needs public debate."

Unnecessary secrecy always spawns mistrust, and in the present arms control context, the U.S. can ill-afford unnecessary acts of strategic deception. The success of the U.S. arms control agenda depends in large part on rhetorical persuasion, and persuasion depends on credibility. Public statements of Russian officials suggest that the BMDO's current position on TMD footprint analysis may be sapping U.S. arms control credibility in ABM Treaty demarcation negotiations, while also undercutting support for ratification fo START II in the Russian Duma.

Prior to commencement of the upcoming second round of SCC talks in Geneva this October, it would be prudent for the U.S. government to commission an independent, objective, and public review of the issues raised in the Postol - Sparta TMD footprint dispute. The Administration should desire such an open review, because credible dismissal of Postol's claims would constitute significant reassurance to currently skeptical Russian arms control figures such as Duma member Alexei Arbatov. The U.S. public should desire an open review, because the long pattern of strategic deception in the American missile defense bureaucracy has shown that an unsupervised BMD program has a tendency to manufacture scientific data, thwart public understanding and pursue its policy goals with disregard for the principle of democratic decision-making.