Missile Defense: 
Questions & Answers

Q. Where's the threat? The Cold War is over and the "rogue" states don't have missiles that can reach the U.S.

A.   Prudence dictates that the United States should deploy a national missile defense before, not after, rogue states acquire long-range missiles capable of destroying U.S. cities—and we are already very late in getting started.  North Korea's August 31, 1998, Taepo Dong launch over Japan and almost to Hawaii clearly warned of the growing U.S. vulnerability to long-range missiles from states other than Russia and China—which have long threatened U.S. cities. Pyongyang's three-stage rocket, which caught the Intelligence Community completely by surprise, provides North Korea with an ability to strike parts of Alaska and Hawaii right now. It is virtually certain that North Korean missiles will be able to attack any American city within a few years.  And North Korea is not the only rogue threat to America.

U.S. intelligence officials have testified that over 20 Third World countries have ballistic missile programs. After an exhaustive review of all classified evidence, the authoritative1998 Rumsfeld Commission, in its unanimous bipartisan conclusions, stated that several rogue states could, within five years of deciding to build a long-range ballistic missile, threaten to attack American cities.   They also found that the United States "might have little or no warning before operational deployment." The panel asserted that the "threat to the U.S. posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community." In short, this report, which was briefed in a rare closed session of Congress, a much-needed wake-up call for all serious policy makers to get serious about the growing threat of missile proliferation.  (Five years from 1998 is 2003—sooner than we are likely to build any defense against the threat.)

Even former-President Bill Clinton, who consistently refused to move ahead with a defense for the American people, declared in a 1994 Executive Order that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the means to deliver them is an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.” After North Korea demonstrated the reality of this threat in 1998, Congress passed by veto-proof margins legislation making it national policy to build an effective defense as soon as technologically possible, and President Clinton signed this national policy into law—but continued to refuse to commit to build any defense at all.  President Bush has emphasized the same threat—and pledged to build effective defenses “at the earliest possible date.”

Failure to build effective missile defenses will enable unpredictable third world despots to threaten and attack American cities and those of our allies and friends, opening political leaders to blackmail and frustrating their ability to build coalitions.  Just imagine the trouble President Bush would have had forming the coalition than performed so well in the1990 Gulf War had Saddam Hussein the ability to threaten U.S. cities—or European cities, for that matter.  The Senate approved of U.S. involvement by a margin of only 3 votes, as it was!

Thus, at stake is U.S. ability to project power and protect our strategic interests around the world. We need effective defenses to counter these growing threats, which could turn deterrence theory against us—i.e., without needed defenses, we will become the deterree rather than remain the deterrer.

Moreover, the rogue threat is not the only missile danger facing the United States. Russia and China, with their uncertain political futures, already have long-range missiles that could devastate American cities and kill literally tens of millions of Americans. In 1995, a senior Chinese military leader threatened to launch a missile at Los Angeles if the U.S. intervened in its efforts to intimidate Taiwan.  Also in 1995, Russia mistook Norway’s launch of a scientific rocket as a U.S. missile attack on Russia, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin initiated the sequence to launch Russian missile at the U.S. in retaliation, before standing down.  For its part, the Rumsfeld Commission determined that the risk of an accidental or unauthorized missile strike from Russia "could increase sharply and with little warning if the political situation in Russia were to deteriorate."

America must end its vulnerability to even a single ballistic missile launched accidentally or deliberately—this should be an urgent national priority for the Bush Administration.

Q. Hasn't the United States already deployed a missile defense system?

A.   No.

The United States currently has no system to defend U.S. territory against long-range missiles. Under the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program begun by President Ronald Reagan in March 1983, many promising missile defense technologies were developed and readied for deployment. In January 1991, President George Bush announced a deployment plan called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS)—and, in the wake of the Gulf War, Congress mandated deployment of the first site “by the earliest date allowed by the availability of appropriate technology.”  In 1992, Congress approved the Bush Administration’s plan to build such a defense as a low-to-moderate risk plan.

Then, President Clinton canceled both the SDI program and plan to defend America, and cut the budget for defending America by about 80-percent.  Also cancelled were key technology development and demonstration programs important to assuring the viability in the face of deliberate countermeasures.  In particular, all space defenses were scuttled.  Continued were only programs to build Theater Missile Defenses for our overseas troops, friends and allies, but even they were reduced by about 25-percent.

President Bush has repeatedly pledged to build effective defenses for Americans at home and our overseas troops, friends and allies “at the earliest possible date.  But under the best of circumstances, America will still be vulnerable to even a single ballistic missile for years to come—perhaps until after some despot threatens us with missile attack.  And yet, in spite of this urgent requirement, many in Congress and among our allies—not to mention the Russians and Chinese—oppose America building homeland defenses to protect its citizens.  They prefer to rely on diplomacy and arms control, and in particular the ABM Treaty, which blocks building any effective defense for the American homeland.  (Ironically, some of these same folks seem interested in leveraging U.S. programs to build defenses for others while keeping America defenseless.  For example, the American taxpayer paid 2/3 of the cost for Israel to build its Arrow homeland defense, which became operational last October.  And the Pentagon has plans to help Japan build a sea-based homeland defense, while continuing not to fund even testing of sea-based defenses to protect American cities.)

For years, poll after poll has shown that Americans believe they are already defended—and they become angry upon learning we have no defense because of our slavish adherence to this Cold War Treaty that made a virtue of America’s vulnerability to missile attack, a Treaty violated from its signing by our partner, the Soviet Union, which no longer exists.  This latent political force could be exploited to help President Bush meet his announced objective.

Q. There is bipartisan support for deploying theater missile defenses. Wouldn't it be wise to proceed with these regional defenses now and defer debate on defending the American homeland to a later date?

A.   Emphatically, no.

Congressional proponents of missile defense have tried a version of this approach since 1991, with little success. Indeed, opponents of defending America have successfully supported steps to "dumb-down" those theater defense systems that have the inherent potential to defend America, even as they continue to support building these same defenses for our overseas allies and friends. This attitude results from an infatuation with the ABM Treaty, which requires that America remain vulnerable.   We cannot duck the debate on getting rid of that Treaty, if we want an effective defense of the American homeland.

As an example of how theater defenses are dumbed-down, consider the Navy Theater Wide system, which could easily be built so that our Aegis cruisers, already deployed around the world, can defend Americans at home as well as our overseas troops, friends and allies.  However, to assure it can not defend Americans at home, the Clinton Administration slowed the defensive interceptor, used ineffective interceptor sensors, precluded the “cooperative engagement” internetted sensor architecture used by the Navy to defend against cruise missiles, and most ludicrous of all, required the cruiser captain not to fire at an attacking missile until after its rockets burn out and it is flying so fast that the defensive interceptor cannot catch up.  If uncorrected, these constraints will permit the Captain of an Aegis cruiser in the Sea of Japan to protect Tokyo against a North Korean missile, but not Hawaii, Alaska, or the Western U.S. if a North Korean missile is launched at them.

Clearly, the distinction between "theater" and "national" missile defense is arbitrary: What is a “theater defense” for us is a “homeland defense” for Israel, or Japan or our European allies.  Last October, Israel declared its Arrow system operational—so with that “theater defense system” Israel has joined Russia as having the world’s only homeland defenses against ballistic missiles.  It is absurd that Americans, who paid 2/3 of the bill for Arrow “theater defense” should be denied a homeland defense for America.

The United States should seek to deploy a layered, global missile defense system to shoot down ballistic missiles of all ranges—i.e., the Bush Administration should revive the GPALS system initiated by the first Bush Administration. It makes no sense to deprive citizens living in the United States of protection that is provided to U.S. troops deployed overseas.  Recently, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that the United States would longer talk in terms of these arbitrary distinctions, but would instead simply pursue "missile defense," period.  Clearly, this is a step toward returning to the GPALS idea.

Q. Aren’t opponents right to argue that a premature deployment decision could waste money because better technology will be available in the future?

A.  No.

The rhetoric about delaying deployment to allow technology to mature is an excuse for inaction. Future technology will always be more sophisticated than current technology. By this logic, the time for deployment will never be ripe. A police chief who decided to withhold bulletproof vests from his patrol officers because more technologically advanced vests were being researched would not last five minutes in office. Yet missile defense opponents have embraced this faulty logic to justify postponing deployment of defenses to protect the American people. Unfortunately, rogue states are working overtime to develop long-range missiles capable of striking the United States. Congress should insist on a deployment plan that makes the best use of available technology. As with all military programs, upgrades should be considered as more sophisticated technology becomes available.

Moreover, one should remember the numerous proof-of-principle experiments for the defense concepts now being developed.  They began over 15 years ago with the Homing Overlay Experiment (HOE), which used pre-SDI technology to intercept a Minuteman missile over Kwajelein with a Volkswagen-sized kill vehicle weighing a ton.  Then a year later, a smaller interceptor was launched from a F-15 to intercept a satellite in Low Earth Orbit.  In the mid-1980s, SDI’s Delta series of experiments proved out many sensor and interceptor concepts—and in 1989, the HOE was repeated with a garbage-can-size kill vehicle weighing about 500 pounds.  Recent tests employ an EKV kill vehicle weighing about 125 pounds.  And early 1990s technology, developed and demonstrated for space-based interceptors—before it, along with all space defense technology, became politically incorrect during the Clinton Administration, permits kill vehicles weighing only 50 pounds—and an even lighter Advanced Technology Kill Vehicle (ATKV) is now possible.

Reviving such technology extends beyond reviving spaced-based interceptor development—which should be done.  In particular, the lighter weight ATKV can give the currently planned Navy Theater Wide system wide area coverage, permitting it to protect the American homeland as well as our overseas troops, friends, and allies.

The bottom line is that technology is mature, building effective defenses is an achievable engineering challenge—restrained by politics and particularly ABM Treaty considerations.

Q. Won't the deployment of a missile defense system bust the budget?

A.   No.

The best estimates indicate that missile defense for U.S. territory is affordable. The projected costs of even the most ambitious deployment plans for missile defense are measured in the tens of billions of dollars—over a decade or more. Given current budget projections, it is unlikely that any of the current plans will consume more than 1-3 percent of defense expenditures. The potential costs in lives and property of failing to deploy a homeland defense against even a limited attack, however, are staggering. Even in the absence of an actual attack, moreover, the United States risks paying a heavy political cost for remaining defenseless. Without a homeland defense, the United States is open to nuclear blackmail, when far more consequential economic equities are at risk .

Furthermore, it is clear that if political constraints were removed, costs could be dramatically reduced.  For example, sea- and space-based defenses would be less expensive and far more effective than the ground-based defense concepts pursued by the Clinton Administration.  Furthermore, they could be deployed on the same time frame—and in some cases faster, a fact not well appreciated even within the Bush Administration, which also seems to be giving priority to more expensive, less effective ground-based defenses.

Q. Won't a decision to build a national missile defense system undermine arms control, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty?

A.   To be sure, the ABM Treaty must go before effective defenses can even be developed and tested, let alone built.  But the decision to build an effective defensive system is more likely to spur more meaningful arms control than ever provided by the ABM Treaty, which failed to meet any of its premises or to live up to its promises.  The Soviets violated its terms from the day it was negotiated, and its signing was followed by the largest buildup in offensive nuclear forces in history, contrary to promises that it would lead to limits on such nuclear forces.  In fact, the greatest progress in arms control was achieved during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the United States appeared most determined to build missile defenses under the SDIO program.

The 1972 ABM Treaty is an anachronism from the Cold War, which should no longer be continued because it clearly is not in the U.S. interest.  Actually, it is no longer legally binding on the United States, anyway. This conclusion, detailed in a comprehensive legal study prepared for The Heritage Foundation by the law firm of Hunton & Williams, has been endorsed by numerous legal and foreign policy experts, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, an architect of the original treaty. His conclusion, detailed in a comprehensive legal study prepared for the Heritage Foundation by the law firm of Hunton & Williams, has been endorsed by numerous legal and foreign policy experts, including former Secretary of State Henry  Kissinger, an architect of the original treaty.

Q. Won't letting the ABM Treaty lapse ruin relations with the Russians and make the threat worse?

A.   No.

The reality is that allowing the ABM Treaty to lapse will not ruin relations with Moscow—regardless of their loud protests.  It should be remembered that in 1992, when it was clear that America intended to move ahead in building a global missile defense—backed by a Democrat-controlled congress, Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed that SDI take advantage of Russian technology and that the U.S. and Russia work together to build a global defense for the world community.  He made this proposal in the same United Nations speech in which he proposed what became START II Treaty, making clear that we could work together to build defenses while reducing offensive weapons—previous counter-claims to the contrary notwithstanding.  Responsible Russian leaders have no reason to feel threatened by American defenses designed to save lives—indeed they will find ways to cooperate if President Bush stands firm.

In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said, “When we hear that the [American homeland defense] programs would go on with or without us, well, we cannot force anyone to do the things we would like them to.”   The former Soviet KGB colonel added, “We offer our cooperation.  We offer to work jointly.  If there is no need that such joint work is needed, well, suit yourself.”  Facing an American president who says he is determined to build effective defenses, Mr. Putin acknowledged Russia lacks any veto power.   If Mr. Putin is half as bright as American press reports suggest he is, he surely knows that cooperation rather than confrontation is the better path for Russia.

U.S.-Russian relations are influenced by many political and economic factors quite apart from the status of the ABM Treaty.  From a philosophical perspective, Russia has opposed U.S. policy initiatives on many fronts that have nothing to do with the ABM issue. For example, Russia has thwarted U.S. initiatives in the Middle East and opposed NATO enlargement. And they continue to sell missile technology to China, Iran and others, exacerbating the proliferation problem against which defenses are needed to hedge.  In any case, Russia's future political course remains uncertain and the United States has a duty to protect its citizens against missile threats, whatever their source. The United States should not allow its national security to be held hostage by Russian ultra-nationalists who reflexively oppose U.S. policies.

Long ago, Russia deployed a homeland missile defense.  Acquiescing to Russian opposition to U.S. defenses would keep the American people vulnerable to attack while the Russia people have at least some protection.  This attitude cannot be sustained in a U.S. public debate, especially since the United States faces the danger of accidental or unauthorized missile launches from an unstable Russia.

Q. Should defending the American people be considered a moral issue?

A.   Absolutely.

Missile defense is a moral issue because the government's first duty is to provide for the common defense. A policy that purposely leaves a nation's citizens vulnerable to attack, when the means for defending them is available, is an immoral policy. Moreover, the United States' exclusive reliance on retaliatory threats to dissuade aggression is morally questionable in light of the availability of defensive technologies that could serve the same purpose.
If a state attacked the United States with missiles, the President could choose to do nothing or to retaliate, which likely would result in the deaths of many innocent civilians. The deployment of a homeland missile defense presents a morally sound alternative between these two extremes. As President Reagan emphasized in his initial SDI speech in 1983, it is better to save lives than to avenge them.

Q. The United States still has thousands of nuclear weapons. Why isn't the threat of nuclear retaliation enough to deter rogue states from launching missiles at the United States?

A.   Deployment of a national missile defense is imperative because some foreign leaders may not be deterred by the threat of reprisal.  Understanding what deters rogue leaders is not easy.  Furthermore, a policy of deterrence supposes that the heads of foreign governments will react to U.S. threats of retaliation in rational and predictable ways—an optimistic presumption, to say the least.
Saddam Hussein said during the Gulf War that if he had missiles to reach Washington, he would have used them.  He, in fact, did attack Tel Aviv and Haifa with SCUDS—attempting to provoke Israeli retaliation to draw them into the conflict, which might have split the Arab coalition aligned with the U.S. against Iraq.  He thus turned deterrence theory on its head—he was trying to provoke retaliation.  To be sure, Israeli nuclear weapons might have deterred Saddam’s attack with chemical and biological weapons, but it clearly did not deter his terrorist attacks with conventional weapons.
Also, few, if any, scholars claim to fathom the mindset of a leader like North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, who is spending millions of dollars acquiring ballistic missiles while many of his countrymen are starving. A U.S. threat to inflict widespread destruction on North Korea may not dissuade that country's leader from launching missiles against the United States or its allies.

Q. Won't missile defenses be vulnerable to cheap countermeasures, such as decoy warheads or mylar balloons?

A.   No. Properly designed missile defenses will anticipate and neutralize potential countermeasures. The Clinton Administration’s plan was susceptible to this criticism—it gave a free ride to countermeasures that could be released early in a missiles flight to confuse the midcourse sensors.  But the Bush plan includes defenses that can intercept enemy missiles shortly after liftoff (a "boost-phase intercept capability") to destroy enemy missiles before they can release individual warheads and decoys. By exploiting its impressive technological advantages, the United States can deploy defenses to anticipate and offset a wide range of potential countermeasures.  Layered defenses that employ boost-phase, mid-course, and terminal interceptors—as planned by the Bush Administration—will be quite resilient to countermeasures, including from a competent advanced adversary.

Q. Does building a national missile defense mean the United States will put nuclear weapons in space?

A.   No.

None of the U.S. deployment plans under consideration today call for putting nuclear weapons in space. In the 1970s, the United States deployed some anti-ballistic missile interceptors with nuclear warheads. These weapons were primitive by today's standards and have long since been dismantled. In contrast, today’s anti-ballistic missile systems are so sophisticated that they do not require any warheads at all. A U.S. homeland defense will not require building any additional nuclear weapons.  Russia’s current homeland defense does use nuclear weapons tipped interceptors.

Q. Why spend money on a homeland defense when terrorists might try to sneak nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons into the United States in a suitcase?

A.   The possibility of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is no reason to leave the United States defenseless against ballistic missile attack. We must of course work to defeat that strategy as well—and all sides should agree that both kinds of homeland defense are required.  The Clinton Administration was spending 2-3 times as much on defending against the suitcase bomb as on missile defense—and the Bush Administration may increase the investment in both.

Opponents of U.S. homeland missile defense often push the suitcase bomb threat as a red herring. Tellingly, their concerns about terrorism seem to arise only in the context of opposing a missile defenses. Taking the missile threat seriously does not imply that the terrorist threat or any other threat to U.S. national security is somehow unimportant. A homeowner aiming to deter burglars would not take pains to lock the doors and yet deliberately leave the windows wide open. The point is that the United States needs to defend against a full range of lethal threats, whether they arise from suitcase-toting terrorists or long-range missiles tipped with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

Q. Might building homeland defenses spur rogue states to build more missiles than they otherwise would?

A.   The opposite is more likely true, because the lack of an effective defense gives potential adversaries an incentive to accelerate their offensive missile programs. At least 20 states already are developing ballistic missiles. It is unlikely that countries like North Korea and Iran would be spending such huge sums on long-range missiles if the United States already had fielded a defensive system capable of shooting them out of the sky. In the 1980s, the mere prospect of the U.S. deploying strategic defenses helped convince the Soviet Union to stop their massive buildup of offensive nuclear arms and to agree to significant arms reductions.

Many leaders of Third World countries harbor such an intense hatred for the United States that they will do whatever possible to threaten and harm U.S. interests. Iran, for example, took U.S. Embassy personnel hostage in 1979; the Libyan government bombed a discotheque in Berlin visited by U.S. soldiers in 1986; Iraq committed itself to a war against the U.S. in 1990. In this environment, it makes no sense to defer building U.S. homeland defenses, especially when so many rogue nations are working feverishly to develop long-range missiles.

Q. Will building a U.S. homeland missile defense lead the United States to retreat from its overseas commitments?

A.   No.

The opposite is true.  Continued U.S. vulnerability to long-range missile attack will undermine its ability to honor security commitments abroad. President Bush's response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 probably would have been different if Saddam Hussein had possessed long-range missiles capable of striking the United States. Far from encouraging any retrenchment or any Fortress America mentality, deployment of a national missile defense would enhance the credibility of the United States to honor its security obligations to allies and friends overseas.

Q. Given that there is no such thing as a perfect missile defense, why build one in the first place?

A.   The “perfect defense argument” is a red herring used by those who remain unalterably opposed to any missile defense.  If perfection were the standard by which all military programs were judged, then the United States would not be able to deploy any system whatsoever. A perfect defense is not necessary to deter. A potential adversary contemplating a missile attack on the U.S. would still face grave uncertainties even if confronted by a less than perfect defense. The attacker could not be sure how many missiles would get through or what targets they would destroy; unknowns such as these strengthen deterrence. And if an irrational actor decided to attack the United States, an imperfect defense clearly would be preferable to no defense whatsoever.

At the same time, very effective defenses are strongly desired—because a major objective is to offset the potential blackmail potential of missile threats to the U.S. cities.  And they are feasible as demonstrated a decade ago.  Studies made during the first Bush Administration indicated that layered defenses—based in space, in the air, and on the Earth’s surface—can achieve very high confidence in destroying all of the missiles in modest sized threat attacks—up to a 200 attacking weapons—launched from anywhere to anywhere else further away that a few hundred miles.  That was the objective of GPALS—and hopefully, the new Bush Administration will return to that same objective.

The above was adapted by High Frontier from the Heritage Foundation’s original Missile Defense Q and A, written in 1998 by Baker Spring and James Anderson, as updated by Americans for a Strong Defense—and listed on their webpage, www.americansfordefense.com.