The Best Defense, or the Worst one?
Physics and politics in the history of Russian ABM program

Gennady Gorelik
Center for Philosophy and History of Science,  Boston University

2003 HSS Annual Meeting, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 20-23 November.


Antiballistic missile defense was a major battlefield of the Cold War. The USSR initiated the race in ABM and gained an apparent lead in the early 1960s. However, by the late 1960s the very concept of strategic ABM defense was drastically reevaluated. Major figures in this reevaluation were scientists the top experts in strategic weaponry. While there were prominent public discussions of the issue in the USA, the Soviet government kept it secret. Two outstanding Soviet scientists were engaged in the issue with dramatic consequences. For Andrei Sakharov, "the father of Soviet H-bomb", his involvement triggered his 1968 transformation into a public figure and human rights advocate. Aleksandr Mints, the top expert in radio engineering, had to resign from his directorship of major Radiotechnical Institute. I am going to consider the role of scientists on the Soviet side of the antiballistic problem on the eve of negotiations that led to 1972 ABM treaty. The issue involves the question of professional and social responsibility of scientists that will never fade in our hi-tech civilization.

My subject is the relationship between scientific expertise and political authority in the history of Soviet antiballistic defense program.

Antiballistic missile defense was a fundamental issue in the second half of the Cold War. It was one of the most representative competitions between the two rival social systems that involved an array of science, technology and political decision-making. The Soviet Union initiated the ABM race and apparently gained an early lead with the first successful test in 1961. By the late 1960s, however, the ABM program generated a controversy in the Soviet Union, as it did in the US.

While the American component of this debate has been well described and analyzed, the Soviet one has not been investigated in earnest. Matthew Evangelista in his "Unarmed forces: the transnational movement to end the Cold War" (Cornell University Press, 1999) presented, in detail, the visible - public and political - segment of the Soviet ABM activity but he missed some major events and persons relevant to scientific and technical essence of the issue.

The genuine problem, in contrast to the American side, is that the persons chosen by the Soviet government to represent "the opinion of the Soviet scientists" in public and, more so, abroad, had little in common with experts who had real technical knowledge on the state of the ABM art and whose opinions could matter for the Soviet leaders. Soviet ABM discussions were conducted exclusively behind the closed doors and remained hidden from the public view until recently.

New declassified data indicate that in the late 1960s a few Soviet physicists, the top experts in strategic nuclear weaponry, radically reevaluated the very concept of strategic antiballistic defense. They realized that the race in this kind of defense could only intensify the strategic arms race, increase the strategic instability, and therefore increase the danger of nuclear World War.

One of the most important was Andrei Sakharov (1921-89), the "father of Soviet H-bomb" and the winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. It is a real challenge to explain his sudden transformation in 1968 from top-secret nuclear weapon designer into a public figure. In the documents declassified in the mid 1990s I found an evidence of the real cause of this transformation -- it was the ABM issue.

In July 1967 Sakharov sent a detailed official letter -- via secret mail -- to the government with arguments for "a bilateral rejection by the USA and USSR of the ABM system against all-out attack of a powerful foe, while keeping the work which is necessary for defense against small-scale missile aggression (of provocative nature)." Sakharov was a technical expert and his opposition to ABM was conditional rather than absolute. He believed that in the world of 1967 -- the world of two political systems distrusting each other -- strategic antiballistic defense was really dangerous, that an arms race in this new technology would make an all-out nuclear war much more probable.

Sakharov advised the Soviet leadership to accept the moratorium on ABM proposed by the United States several months earlier and asked for permission to publish a non-technical article in a Soviet newspaper to explain the ABM problem and the arguments to the public.

The Soviet leaders refused the permission, and what was more important, ignored the problem. Dissatisfied with this reaction to his warning, Sakharov developed his ideas further in an essay Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom (1968), which circulated in samizdat and was eventually published by The New York Times in July 1968. The essay, in particular, characterized the prospect of a strategic ABM race as one of the most serious perils for humankind.

Sakharov never mentioned his secret 1967 letter to the government, honestly observing the commitment he made to never divulge secret information. But more likely than not it was the ABM issue that actually played the key role in his sudden transformation from a top-secret nuclear designer into a public figure and human rights advocate.

Although there was no open debate on ABM in the Soviet Union, some kind of debate behind the closed doors took effect. After all, the Soviet leaders had to change their attitude if they agreed to start negotiation that resulted in the 1972 ABM Treaty. The first indication of the change in the Soviet position emerged on July 1, 1968, a month after Sakharov's essay had reached the Soviet Politburo.

Sakharov was certainly not the only expert who advised Soviet leaders on the matters of ABM and opposed to unlimited ABM drive. There are indications that the scientific directors of the both Soviet nuclear weapons laboratories and prominent physicists Yuly Khariton and Evgeny Zababakhin shared Sakharov's views.

Another important actor was Aleksandr Mints (1895-1974), both physicist and radio-engineer, a prominent expert in radar technology. Radar was the crucial element of the ABM problem. Main technical limitations of ABM system were results of the limited ability of most advanced radar to detect and select multiple targets and to guide antimissiles. The head institution for designing and building the ABM radars was Radiotechnical Institute (Radiotekhnicheskiy Institut, or RTI) founded by Mints in 1946. There are good reasons to think that the resignation of A.Mints in 1970 was a result of his opposition to the governmen's policyc on ABM.

Although the difference in principles of government and policy decision-making was essential for the ABM controversy, its important part, both in the US and the USSR, was a conflict of two different perspectives -- those of engineering and of theoretical physics,. It was not just a problem of high technology, and it was not a mere coincidence that the key persons to re-examine the issue of ABM were theoretical physicists, Hans Bethe in the US and Andrei Sakharov in the USSR.

Until recently, almost no information appeared in print on the Soviet research and debates regarding the ABM. The topic became open for public discussion in the mid 1990s, when some memoirs of participants started appearing, and some earlier documents were declassified. There were quite different perspectives of scientists, engineers, and politicians on the controversial issue of ABM, and they interacted within the framework of the Soviet system in reaching a decision that demanded both high-level technical expertise and political authority.

The outcome of the Soviet decision making was paradoxical. Against the background of the 1972 ABM Treaty the Soviet did build two generation of ABM system around Moscow, and now the only ABM system is on duty. The ABM radar has a form of truncated pyramid. It is the last pyramid of the Soviet civilization.

A real understanding of the Cold-War history of the ABM not only clarifies the interaction between science, technology and international security. The issue involves the problem of intellectual and social responsibility of scientists that will never fade in our hi-tech civilization.

I hope also that my research and writing project will contribute to contemporary discussions on limited ABM and help overcome the vestiges of Cold War mentality in Russia.

Select Bibliography
on the history of Soviet antiballistic missile defense
Bethe, Hans A. The road from Los Alamos. New York, NY: American Institute of Physics, 1991. 286 p.

English, Robert D. Russia and the idea of the West : Gorbachev, intellectuals, and the end of the Cold War. New York : Columbia University Press, 2000. 401 p.

Evangelista, Matthew. Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War. Cornell U. Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1999. 406 p.

Golubev O.V., Kamenskij Yu.A., Minasyan M.G., Pupkov B.D. Rossijskaya sistema protivoraketnoj oborony (proshloe i nastoyashchee — vzglyad iznutri). Tekhnokonsalt, Moskva, 1994.

Gorelik, Gennady.[Andrei Sakharov: Science and Freedom] Andrei Sakharov: Nauka i Svoboda. Moscow-Izhevsk, RCD, 2000. 500 p.

Gorelik, Gennady. The Metamorphosis of Andrei Sakharov // Scientific American, 1999, March, p.98-101.

Gorelik, Gennady. Andrei Sakharov: ot teoreticheskoj fiziki k prakticheskomu gumanizmu // 30 let "Razmyshlenij… " Andreya Sakharova. Moskva, "Prava cheloveka", 1998, p.108-135.

Istoriya RTI. Dela i lyudi. Vyp.1-3. M., 1999-2001

Kisun`ko G. V. Sekretnaia zona : ispoved' general'nogo konstruktora. Moskva : "Sovremennik", 1996. 511 p.

Shmygin A.I. SOI glazami russkogo polkovnika. (Vse o PRO). Izdattsentr TsSP "Veteran otchizny" , "Megatron", Moskva, 2000. 400 p.

York, Herbert F. Arms and the physicist. Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics, 1995. 294 p.

York, Herbert F. Race to oblivion; a participant's view of the arms race. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970. 256 p.