Defending Against the Indefensible: Creating a National Missile Defense in the United States

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Defending Against the Indefensible: Creating a National Missile Defensein the United States

The Conflict

The George W. Bush administration has pushed ahead with plans for a U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) program to be deployed in about 2005 at tremendous cost and with questionable feasibility. Critics say that deployment of the NMD could threaten the world security environment by fueling an arms race and make enemies out of current allies.


  • With "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iraq developing nuclear arsenals, those in favor of developing the NMD argue for the system as insurance against nuclear terrorism. Opponents favor diplomacy and engagement and point to the infeasibility of the program.
  • The United States and the Soviet Union limited themselves in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty to two anti-ballistic missile sites, later cut to one each. Breaking the treaty could mean instigating other states to build up nuclear arsenals. Russia has not agreed to withdraw from the treaty, even at the urging of the Bush administration.


• NMD would cause a 60 percent increase in the missile defense budget in its first year alone. With such a huge outlay of funds for missile defense, other kinds of military expenditure will be neglected.

The warning could come out of the blue—a missile launch has been detected, and the likely target is the West Coast city of Los Angeles. Or, a possible nuclear missile strike could be used as a bargaining chip, committing the United States to respect a blackmail offer that threatens the annihilation of one of its larger cities. The George W. Bush administration argues that either of these scenarios is a possibility in the near future and is, therefore, constructing a missile defense shield designed to destroy incoming missiles during three separate phases: immediately after launch, during the "boost" phase in which the missile climbs in the atmosphere, and during its descent immediately before impact.

Bush's proposed missile defense initially intends a 60 percent (or $3 billion U.S.) increase in missile defense efforts in the first year, bringing total missile defense outlays to $8 billion U.S. annually. The specifics of the National Missile Defense (NMD) plan remains vague, but most of the additional appropriations appear to be dedicated to short-range or theater missile defenses dedicated to protecting battlefield personnel. A significant sum, however, is being allocated to long-range missile defense systems, which are those systems designed to protect entire cities and targets from intercontinental strikes. In all, the plan suggests that the Defense Department would deploy at least 1,000 defensive interceptors capable of destroying long-range missile warheads, and many Bush administration officials have expressed very publicly their hopes of limited deployment within three to four years.

The Bush administration's pursuit of NMD has encountered much criticism, both at home and abroad, in the key areas of its feasibility, cost, and impact upon the world security environment—all familiar criticisms in the history of missile defense. No such system has ever been created, and critics are highly skeptical that any defense system could ever advance more quickly than missile technology itself. The cost of developing a missile defense system could preclude developments in other areas of defense, and expanding development of an antiballistic missile (ABM) system, and the consequent withdrawal from an ABM treaty signed with the Soviet Union in 1972, could lead to the proliferation of nuclear missiles in other states. The Bush administration, however, has argued that the danger of rogue missile attacks is great enough, and the fear of nuclear attack strong enough, to warrant the pursuit of an antiballistic system in the United States.

Historical Background

The History of Missile Defense

The modern missile arose with the invention of the V-1 and V-2 rockets by Germany during World War II. Both rockets were used as weapons against England following the Nazi capture of most of Western Europe. The V-1 was relatively noisy and slow and was, therefore, also easy to counter, but there was virtually no defense against the quiet, fast, and relatively accurate V-2 rockets. Fortunately for the British and the rest of the allies, use of the V-2 reached its peak immediately prior to the conclusion of the war and had little impact on the overall outcome of the conflict.

The initial nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union in the early 1950s concentrated on increases in the number and quality of aircraft-delivered bombs. Both governments virtually ignored missile and antimissile capacity because the technology for long-range missiles was not well developed. This soon changed, however, with the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviets on October 4, 1957, and the launching pad failure of the U.S.-constructed Vanguard rocket a few weeks later. By January 1958, the United States had successfully launched its Explorer I satellite into orbit, and both countries began a push to develop offensive and defensive long-range missile capabilities.

In the United States, antimissile defenses began with the Nike-Zeus program in 1958. This program called for interceptor missiles to carry and explode nuclear warheads at very high altitudes (60 miles, 96.56 kilometers, or more above the earth's surface). These explosions were designed to destroy incoming missiles. Rocket technology was capable of producing these interceptor missiles, but the radar technology dedicated to tracking the missiles was ill-equipped to deal with large numbers of missiles and counter-measures like decoys and was also physically vulnerable to attack. Another concept that reached beyond existing technological capabilities was the Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept (BAMBI) program. This concept called for satellite-based missiles containing huge wire mesh arrays—giant nets much like those used by the butterfly enthusiast—designed to kill offensive missiles in the first five minutes of flight. The cost of the technological leaps necessary to make this feasible was prohibitive in the context of an escalating nuclear arms race, however.

The Nike-Zeus program was replaced by Nike-X in 1961. This program made several important advances, including improved missile technology, a new short-range interceptor with a nuclear tip named Sprint, and electronically guided radar capable of handling a large number of incoming missiles. The advances made by Nike-X were carried on by its successor program, Sentinel, in 1967. In introducing this program, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara by then recognized the dangers of ballistic missile defense. He and President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration (1963-69) believed that the United States would probably never be able to defeat an all-out attack by the Soviet Union, so only a limited shield, dedicated to protecting major cities, was to be pursued by Sentinel. Foreshadowing the current debate over NMD, McNamara also argued that attempts to deploy a comprehensive antiballistic missile system would only fuel an offensive arms race designed to thwart advancing technologies. In 1969, under the Richard M. Nixon administration (1969-74), the Sentinel system was deployed after a tie-breaking vote was cast in the Senate by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Limited shields in place to defend major cities against the limited threats of small arsenals (such as China's at the time) became the guiding concept for United States-based antiballistic missile defenses for the next 15 years. Intellectually and perhaps empirically, both the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a period of what scholars have termed nuclear deterrence. Both countries were capable of withstanding a crippling initial nuclear attack and of responding to the first attack with a similarly crippling counter-strike. The survivability of the first attack was thought to logically ensure that no rational leader would ever attempt his or her own country's destruction by escalating a dispute to the point of nuclear war. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), as it came to be called, was therefore thought to ensure an incredibly tense peace between the world's super-powers. This led both countries to pursue technologies that made their nuclear arsenal defensible against any imaginable type of first strike. It also led both countries to eschew technologies that rendered second-strike capabilities ineffectual.

The conceptual framework of MAD led negotiators in 1972 to focus their Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) to limiting the pursuit of antiballistic missile technology. The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, signed by representatives from both the United States and the Soviet Union, limited each country to two antiballistic missile interceptor sites, and these two were subsequently reduced to one site each by a 1974 protocol. The Soviet Union chose to defend Moscow while the United States focused its defenses on the Minuteman missile site in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Within one year, however, Congress voted to close the Grand Forks site after it became apparent that a Soviet move to equip their missiles with multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) would easily overwhelm the interceptor site. This, and the fact that most experts agreed that the radar systems would be blinded with the first electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion over the site, led to the demise of the system less than four months after it became operational.

Further research into NMD was not seriously pursued until President Ronald Reagan's (1981-89) famous "Star Wars" speech on March 23, 1983. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) began as a way of making "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete" according to Reagan. His critics charged that the "Star Wars" plan, which envisioned satellite-based lasers and missiles striking incoming warheads, was actually an excuse for large increases in defense spending. In 1985, the Pentagon proposed a system that would be capable of defending 3,500 targets against Soviet attack at a cost of $4 billion U.S., but many antimissile concepts were soon abandoned as technologically not feasible. This, however, did not stop the subsequent George H. Bush administration, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, from calling for a grand Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system designed to thwart tactical, theater, and a limited number of offensive ballistic missiles.

As with most concepts, technology and theory followed events, and the Iraqi missile strikes that inflicted the first-ever U.S. combat casualties caused by missiles led Congress to enact the Missile Defense Act (MDA) of 1991. The MDA was a response to the early (and much exaggerated) reports of the successes achieved by Patriot missiles in knocking down Iraqi Scud missiles. It called for deployment of a ground-based system of interceptors by 1996. The Pentagon later pushed this deployment date back to 2002 because the initial date was, again, not technologically feasible.

The election of the first Democratic president in more than 12 years, President Bill Clinton (1993-2000), gave rise to a new skepticism regarding defense spending. However, estimates soon surfaced that the Iraqis were, prior to the Gulf War in 1991, within six months of having a nuclear weapon and would, therefore, be capable of blackmailing the United States or of attacking any of its neighbors. This, and the eventual Republican ascension to leadership in both houses of Congress, led to a new push for a National Missile Defense (NMD) system deployable by 2003. Technological setbacks, including "misses" in two out of three tests of the early system, pushed the deployment date back to 2005—a year in which most experts estimated that the North Koreans would be capable of hitting the U.S. mainland with a ballistic missile of their own. In 1999, the North Koreans agreed to a moratorium on further development of these long-range missiles in exchange for increased aid, but the North Koreans could still likely field such a long-range missile by 2006.

In September 2000, based on the report of the National Missile Defense Independent Review Team that argued that the United States would not be capable of fielding an NMD by 2005, President Clinton announced his decision not to authorize the Pentagon to proceed with the system. The NMD system, according to Clinton, was technologically infeasible and deployment would significantly threaten the world security environment—Russia, China, and even close allies in Europe had all expressed doubts about pursuit of the system. Clinton's refusal to authorize came only four months after then-Texas Governor George W. Bush called for an ambitious program of NMD.

Recent History and the Future

The Current Imbroglio: The Rogue State Threat

The raison d'étre of President Bush's calls for NMD has been the possible existence of "rogue states" whose interests do not conform to the rational expectations of Mutually Assured Destruction, and who would possibly risk their own survival in confrontations with the United States—the likely list of such states includes at least Iran and Iraq in the Middle East, as well as North Korea in Asia. Critics have assailed the rationale behind the NMD plan, however, by arguing that engagement rather than isolation is the best method of protection against these so-called rogue states. Money used in diplomatic efforts, through mutual aid and confidence-building measures, is better at pacifying and, hopefully, satisfying the leaders of these states. Adherents of the "democratic peace," which argues that democracies are more peaceful than other types of governments, further argue that diplomatic efforts could lessen tensions and provide the political environment necessary for a peaceful transition to democracy; isolation of these states has only seemed to intensify the political hold of their leaders—witness Iraq and Cuba.

If diplomatic efforts fail, as they often do, critics further charge that the real threats from these states would not be missile based. Instead, state-backed terrorist groups or the rogue states themselves are much more likely to smuggle the nuclear or biological warheads into the United States than to try to acquire the technology necessary to reach their targets through the air. NMD would be incapable of stopping this threat, and pursuit of the costly program would greatly reduce or prevent the development of advancements in anti-terrorist capabilities.

Cost and Feasibility

Nevertheless, the main obstacle to NMD is, as it always has been, the cost and feasibility of national antiballistic missile defense. The National Missile Defense Independent Review Team in 2000 argued that ever-increasing offensive technological advances would forever outstrip any technological gains in defense capabilities. In other words, the antiballistic missile race could never be won, and in dollars, it would be a costly race to pursue (currently at $8 billion U.S. annually).

Cost to International Security

Critics contend that the costs of the program would also be felt in a more hostile world environment. The Bush administration has courted Russia, its cosignatory of the 1972 ABM Treaty, to allow a mutual withdrawal from the antiballistic missile treaty regime. The destruction of this treaty regime, which is often credited with limiting international tensions among nuclear powers, could, however, lead to large increases in the nuclear arsenal of China. Of course, because of the interconnectedness of the current political environment, increases in China's arsenal would also probably lead to increases in the arsenals of India and Pakistan—bitter rivals for more than 50 years.

Russia has consistently used the ABM Treaty, which it calls "the cornerstone of strategic stability" (but which in all likelihood was violated several times during the 1980s by both sides), to try to control the United States and deter its pursuit of a system capable of destroying an errant or intentional nuclear first strike. Only significant concessions, such as like much-needed development assistance, assurances on NATO expansions, etc., would convince Russia to alter its stance against a system that could potentially render its nuclear arsenal obsolete.

The NATO allies of the United States fear that the pursuit of NMD by the United States would lead the United States even further down a path of international isolationism. Following World War II (1939-45), the United States has played an active role in Europe and the rest of the world, fearing that the rise of small instabilities can lead to greater conflicts eventually affecting the United States homeland. If the United States were removed from the threat of attack at home, Europeans fear that it may retreat to its historically (pre-World War II) isolationist ways. In the first seven months of President George W. Bush's administration, the United States has either threatened to abrogate or has withdrawn from five major international treaties and protocols (including the ABM Treaty), so the European fear of a renewed was not unfounded.

The Future of NMD

In spite of mounting criticisms at home and abroad, the Bush administration seems likely to continue and even succeed in deploying a rudimentary NMD within the next several years. At home, an increasingly larger portion of the budget dedicated to defense masks the significant outlays for this one project. The shifting control of the Senate has not seemed to stop the pursuit of more tests of rudimentary antimissile systems, and the first successful shoot-down of a missile by another a missile has led Bush administration officials to contemplate breaking ground for deployment in Alaska before the end of 2001—well ahead of the most optimistic technological reports.

Abroad, the United States faces a Europe that is rhetorically hostile to the concept of missile defense but which is also pursuing joint weapons design programs. Significant among these are the development of a short-range missile defense system with Germany and Italy and the discussion of a sophisticated radar system with Britain. Among non-European allies, the United States is working on both a medium-range theater defense and a high-energy laser with Israel and has signed an agreement with Japan for research on advanced missile components. The Bush administration is even set to begin talks on technology-sharing with Russia. The Russians are reported to have constructed a considerable laser infrastructure that may be applicable to the envisioned NMD, and they would likely trade this technology for information regarding U.S. advances in "hit-to-kill" missile technology. The technology gains for both sides plus the added incentive of increased revenues for Russia could make an agreement possible.

These agreements and possible agreements could leave China increasingly isolated, even though it signed an accord with Russia in July 2001 condemning the pursuit of NMD. The Chinese arsenal of 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could be increased fivefold with relative ease, and increasing tensions with the United States would make this choice likely. Still, such a move on China's part would not seem to hinder the pursuit of an NMD that could make China's arsenal impotent against the United States; instead, given the history of U.S. foreign policy, it could create a greater incentive for deployment.

The deployment of an NMD does not mean that the system would actually work. Much like MAD, an NMD would hopefully go significantly untested against the threat it is designed to thwart—a missile attack by a "rogue" state. It would also be impossible to know how a NMD would respond to an attack of 100 or more missiles aimed at the United States, and it would obviously be ineffectual against non-missile chemical, biological, or nuclear attacks. A failure in any of these cases would be devastating, but without the NMD system, there would be no protection from these attacks at all.

The post-Cold War security environment is paradoxically more peaceful and more difficult for defense planners. The pursuit of NMD is a conscious effort by the Bush administration to grapple with the complexities of uncertain threats in an uncertain future. If the threat of missile-based nuclear weapons could be eliminated, the security of the United States would be dramatically improved. Unfortunately, previous attempts to acquire this security have not worked, and it is unclear whether current outlays will produce programs that will work in the future. Add to this the inherent costs, at home and abroad, of a move to an NMD system, and the Bush administration is taking a risky, expensive gamble. Whether that gamble is successful remains to be seen, but a rudimentary system of NMD seems likely to be deployed.


"Ballistic Missile Defense Organization Link." Available online at (cited September 12, 2001).

Durch, William. The ABM Treaty and Western Security.Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1988.

Krass, Allan. The United States and Arms Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

"National Missile Defense," Washington Available online at September 4, 2001).

Sauer, Tom. Nuclear Arms Control. New York: St. Martins,1998.

Stutzle, Walther, Bhupendra Jasani, and Regina Cohen. The ABM Treaty: To Defend or Not to Defend? New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

"Weapons of Mass Destruction," Federation of American Scientists. Available online at (cited September 4, 2001).

Douglas M. Gibler


1939-45 Germany develops the first guided missiles, the V-1 and V-2 rockets, during World War II.

1956-63 The United States establishes the Nike-Zeus program, with interceptor missiles to carry to high altitudes and explode nuclear warheads designed to destroy incoming missiles.

1957 The Soviet Union develops an intercontinental ballistic missile, with the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite. The United States soon follows with its own and the "arms race" in nuclear weapon delivery systems is on.

1961-67 Nike-X program replaces Nike-Zeus, and advances missile technology.

1967 Sentinel program, introduced by DefenseSecretary Robert McNamara, pursues a limited shield. An attempt stop the anti-ballistic system program from further advance is made.

1969 A close vote in the Senate results in the deployment of the Sentinel system.

1972 At the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) negotiators discuss limiting antiballistic missile technology. The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty is signed.

1974 SALT II results in further limitations on anti-ballistic missile systems.

March 23, 1983 Ronald Reagan delivers his "StarWars" speech, launching his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

1985 The Pentagon proposes a $4 billion system, capable of defending 3,500 targets against Soviet attack, but many elements prove to be technologically not feasible.

1991 George Bush Sr. launches Global ProtectionAgainst Limited Strikes (GPALS) system, which includes a limited number of offensive ballistic missiles.

1991 Iraqi "Scuds" launched against Israel and the coalition forces in Saudi Arabia cause the first U.S. combat casualties due to missiles. Congress enacts the Missile Defense Act (MDA), calling for a deployment of a ground-based system of interceptors by 1996.

1996 The secretary of defense transitions NMD program from a technology development effort to an acquisition effort with a mission to develop a deployable system within three years by 2000.

September 2000 National Missile Defense IndependentReview Team reports that the United States is not capable of fielding an NMD within the next five years. President Bill Clinton defers authorizing the Pentagon to proceed with the system.

June 16, 2001 U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet to discuss the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, but fail to reach agreement.

July 14, 2001 After many unsuccessful defense technology tests, a new missile defense weapon launched from the Marshall Islands achieved success when it collided with the targeted decoy missile and destroyed it.

What Isa Missile Defense System ?

Missile Defense is any system—on land, at sea, or in space—designed to detect, intercept, and destroy missiles before they hit their targets. There are several kinds of proposed missile defense systems that function, or may someday function, in different ways.

One of the basic current models of U.S. missile defense works with satellites that orbit the earth in space, serving as sensors, combined with tracking radars and an early warning system at work on the earth. If a missile is launched toward the United States, the early warning detectors and the sensors in space detect it and track its movement. Then interceptor rockets are launched, which hit the missile's warhead (the part that causes the explosion) at tremendous speed—approximately 16,000 miles an hour—destroying it in space.

Another kind of missile defense system is set up on rigs on land or in the sea near the enemy. Because they are close to the enemy missile launch sites, these defense missiles can intercept enemy missiles in the "boost phase," while they are on their way up. A third kind of missile defense system is called the Theatre High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD). This is a ground-based system, in which computer-guided missiles seek out and destroy incoming missiles in space.

In 2001 President George W. Bush proposed a fixed, land-based, non-nuclear missile defense system with a space-based detection system. He would like to develop a "shield" protecting all 50 states and possibly even U.S. allies.

To a large extent, the missile defense system is still in the idea stage only. Technology is not yet in place to deploy such a system. Testing of aspects of the missile defense systems began in the Clinton administration in 1998 and was stepped up by the Bush administration in 2001. On July 14, 2001, after a series of failures, a test of the NMD system was pronounced successful by the administration. A target missile set up with one large balloon as a mock warhead was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Then an interceptor missile or "kill vehicle" was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,800 miles away in the Pacific. The kill vehicle hit the warhead, and both the target and kill vehicle exploded high above the earth.

Critics of the test say that the ability of the kill vehicle to discriminate between the warhead and a dummy or decoy—a crucial factor that had failed in past tests—was not in fact tested, since the target was equipped with a global positioning satellite beacon that guided the kill vehicle toward it. Other critics of the missile defense tests warn that there are so many different factors that need to work together within one system, the ability to test the systems in a situation even remotely simulating reality is not yet feasible.

Each defense missile test has been said to cost approximately $100 million. If the Bush administration attempted to test the various kinds of defense systems: ground-based interceptors, sea-based systems, airborne laser, and space-based lasers, many observers estimate the development program will cost about $100 billion.

The 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty: Bush 's Argument for Abrogation

President George W. Bush's proposal for a National Missile Defense has as its mission the protection of all 50 states of the union. To try and raise a "shield" over the whole nation is not legal under the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty signed by U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev when the two nations were enemies in the Cold War. The treaty, which forbids either nation to build antimissile systems covering more than two (later changed to one) areas within their borders, is designed to balance the powers. Since both nations are vulnerable and both nations have the capacity to retaliate should the other attack with missile forces, neither side is likely to engage in missile warfare. In 2001, President Bush argued for breaking the treaty, saying that with the Cold War over, the treaty no longer makes sense.

An excerpt from Bush's Speech on Missile Defense Development at National Defense University, May 1, 2001 (available on the World Wide Web at

[During the Cold War] the security of both the United States and the Soviet Union was based on a grim premise that neither side would fire nuclear weapons at each other, because doing so would mean the end of both nations.

We even went so far as to codify this relationship in a 1972 ABM Treaty, based on the doctrine that our very survival would best be ensured by leaving both sides completely open and vulnerable to nuclear attack….

In that world, few other nations had nuclear weapons, and most of those who did were responsible allies, such as Britain and France. We worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries, but it was mostly a distant threat, not yet a reality.

Today, the sun comes up on a vastly different world. The Wall is gone, and so is the Soviet Union. Today's Russia is not yesterday's Soviet Union….

The Iron Curtain no longer exists. Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic are free nations and they are now our allies in NATO, together with a reunited Germany. Yet, this is still a dangerous world; a less certain, a less predictable one.

More nations have nuclear weapons and still more have nuclear aspirations. Many have chemical and biological weapons. Some already have developed a ballistic missile technology that would allow them to deliver weapons of mass destruction at long distances and incredible speeds, and a number of these countries are spreading these technologies around the world.

Most troubling of all, the list of these countries includes some of the world's least-responsible states. Unlike the Cold War, today's most urgent threat stems not from thousands of ballistic missiles in the Soviet hands, but from a small number of missiles in the hands of these states—states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life.

They seek weapons of mass destruction to intimidate their neighbors, and to keep the United States and other responsible nations from helping allies and friends in strategic parts of the world. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the world joined forces to turn him back. But the international community would have faced a very different situation had Hussein been able to blackmail with nuclear weapons.

Like Saddam Hussein, some of today's tyrants are gripped by an implacable hatred of the United States of America.

They hate our friends. They hate our values. They hate democracy and freedom, and individual liberty. Many care little for the lives of their own people. In such a world, Cold War deterrence is no longer enough to maintain peace, to protect our own citizens and our own allies and friends.

We must seek security based on more than the grim premise that we can destroy those who seek to destroy us. This is an important opportunity for the world to rethink the unthinkable and to find new ways to keep the peace. Today's world requires a new policy, a broad strategy of active nonproliferation, counter-proliferation and defenses.

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Defending Against the Indefensible: Creating a National Missile Defense in the United States

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