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How Gorbachev Slowed the Arms Race
Tale More Complex Than Reagan's Will

By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

Adapted from "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy," published this week by Doubleday.

In his second inaugural speech, delivered in January 1985, President Ronald Reagan offered a high-flying description of his Strategic Defense Initiative, calling it a global shield to "render nuclear weapons obsolete" by destroying the warheads before they could reach their targets.

Later, the assertion was often made that Reagan's vision had bankrupted the Soviet Union -- "the final straw for the Evil Empire," as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once put it.

Documents from inside the Kremlin during the late 1980s -- as well as diaries, memoirs, records of Politburo discussions and interviews with key participants -- tell a more complex story about one of the Cold War's most important turning points. The evidence shows that Reagan's dream of a global shield was not the driving force that reversed the arms race. Rather, the agent of change was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He decided not to compete with Reagan on missile defense, and at the same time he was waging a fierce internal struggle against his own military-industrial complex to turn back the Cold War arms buildup.

Gorbachev had concluded that the sprawling Soviet defense establishment -- the army, navy, air force, strategic rocket forces, air defense forces, and all the institutes, design bureaus and factories that supported them -- was a monumental burden on the country. "Defense spending was bleeding the other branches of the economy dry," he recalled. The extent of the bleeding was concealed by such deep secrecy that even Gorbachev said he had trouble obtaining accurate information.

President Obama's decision last week to scale back plans for a European long-range missile defense system rekindled arguments about missile defense systems and their feasibility that date to the Reagan-Gorbachev era and even earlier. Reagan envisioned a space-based global umbrella, and the European shield was ground-based and regional, but the two ideas shared a common difficulty: precision. Was it possible to destroy one fleet of missiles with another, to "hit a bullet with a bullet"?

Fresh details about Gorbachev's campaign against Reagan's version of missile defense have emerged from internal memos and private notes kept by Vitaly Katayev, who served for more than 17 years in the Defense Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, working under the Politburo member responsible for the Soviet defense industry.

Katayev's notes disclose that in the early summer of 1985, just months after Gorbachev took power as Communist Party general secretary, the directors, designers and constructors of satellites, space boosters and lasers produced a colossal new plan to build a Soviet missile defense system. The idea was to match Reagan's ambitions, to build their own "Star Wars," as Reagan's dream had been dubbed. If Gorbachev went along, this would prolong the arms race and extend it into outer space.

Katayev calculated that the plans involved 137 projects in design and testing, 34 projects in scientific research, 115 in fundamental science. Cost estimates ran into the tens of billions of rubles, enough to keep the design bureaus working full tilt. The programs, with obscure code names such as Fundament-4, Onega E, Spiral and Skif, went on for pages and pages in Katayev's notebooks. Building a Soviet version of Reagan's shield would mean lucrative new subsidies for these projects.

In the summer and early autumn of 1985, Yevgeny Velikhov, an avuncular and open-minded physicist, urged Gorbachev not to do it. Velikhov had concluded, based on earlier research, that Reagan's idea could not work. He proposed that Gorbachev abandon the conventional Cold War approach of matching what Reagan was doing, and argued instead for an "asymmetrical" response, one that would answer Reagan but not be the same.

One asymmetrical option: Send thousands of warheads and missiles to overwhelm the U.S. shield. To destroy such a threat, a defense system would have to target and hit speeding points almost perfectly and simultaneously. Inevitably, some Soviet missiles would get through.

Gorbachev alluded to this particular asymmetrical response at the Geneva summit in November 1985. He told Reagan that if the United States pursued the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Soviet response "would not be a mirror," but "a simpler, more effective system."

"We will build up to smash your shield," Gorbachev said.

Katayev's files contain documents on hypothetical modifications to the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile so it could carry 38 warheads, rather than 10. The Soviet Union was good at building missiles, and it would be easier and cheaper to double or triple the warheads than to create a new defense system.

Still, this was not the solution Gorbachev had in mind. He wanted to eliminate weapons, not propagate them. Questioned about the idea during a 2006 interview, Gorbachev was still uneasy about discussing it. "We did have a project," he said. "But it [was] closed down. . . . It's a horrible project, it's a horrible response."

He added, "What is one missile, SS-18? It's a hundred Chernobyls. In one missile."

* * *

There was another asymmetrical response that Gorbachev favored more. Words were his stock in trade, and infinitely cheaper than a vast new arms buildup. The evidence shows that he set out to talk Reagan out of this giant defense program that the United States did not yet possess -- and that the Soviet Union would have great trouble matching -- and exchange it all for something that both leaders wanted: deep reductions in existing nuclear arms.

There was also an important domestic component to Gorbachev's negotiating strategy. If he could persuade Reagan not to build Star Wars, he would find it easier to resist the generals and the missile designers at home. This is the route Gorbachev took at the summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, and after.

Without a doubt, Reagan's dream puzzled the Soviets. As Katayev recalled it, Soviet experts often wondered what they were missing. "What is it being done for?" the specialists asked themselves, according to Katayev. "In the name of what are the Americans, famous for their pragmatism, opening their wallet for the most grandiose project in the history of the United States when the technical and economic risks of a crash exceed all thinkable limits?"

Reagan's zeal for his dream led the Soviet specialists "from the very beginning to think about the possibility of political bluff and hoax," Katayev said. They pondered whether it was a "Hollywood village of veneer and cardboard."

* * *

Meanwhile, Gorbachev let some of the plans of the military designers collapse of their own weight.

One was the space laser known as the Skif-DM, the most tangible result of the designers' drive to build a Soviet Star Wars.

At 9:30 p.m. on May 15, 1987, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the giant Soviet space booster Energia roared into the sky, carrying a mysterious black container labeled Polyus with the Skif-DM inside. In fact, there was no laser; the Skif-DM was a model, a placeholder for a future weapon. The Soviet designers had not mastered the technology.

The Energia booster performed flawlessly. Four hundred sixty seconds after launch, the Polyus separated from the Energia. Then something went wrong. The Polyus was supposed to turn 180 degrees and fire engines to push itself into higher orbit. Instead, it kept turning all the way to 360 degrees. It shot itself back down toward Earth and flew straight into the Pacific Ocean.

All work on Skif came to a halt. Gorbachev did not try to revive it.

One of Gorbachev's greatest accomplishments was in the things he did not do. He had been urged to build a Soviet Star Wars by the military-industrial complex. He did not. He could have tried to build a massive retaliatory force. He did not.

In the end, the Soviet system bankrupted itself -- without either superpower making nuclear weapons obsolete.

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