BG1166es:15 Years and Counting: Why Americans Still are Vulnerableto Missile Attack

Report Defense

BG1166es:15 Years and Counting: Why Americans Still are Vulnerableto Missile Attack

March 23, 1998 4 min read Download Report
Thomas Moore
McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and raised the possibility of a new deterrence policy for the United States. Instead of deterring a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union through the threat of nuclear retaliation, President Reagan proposed using advanced technology to destroy enemy missiles in flight, to "save lives rather than avenge them." Since 1983, the missile defense program has been an important feature of the national security debate. Despite enormous progress in ballistic missile defense (BMD) technology over the past 15 years, Americans still are vulnerable to the world's most destructive weapons--ballistic missiles armed with nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads. Moreover, these weapons are proliferating among countries hostile to the United States.

The investment of 15 years and nearly $50 billion has produced the means to build effective missile defenses at an affordable cost. In fact, if the political will and leadership were present, Americans could have an operational defense today. And yet, as a matter of deliberate policy, ballistic missiles remain the one class of weapon against which the United States deliberately has decided not to defend itself. This is an unprecedented and morally indefensible choice for a great military and economic power.

A Delinquent Mindset

The failure to deploy defenses against weapons that directly threaten the United States must be attributed to both Democrat and Republican Presidents and to Democrat- and Republican-controlled Congresses. This delinquent mindset is shared also by defense and foreign policy and defense elites in academia, think tanks, and the news media. Their failure can be traced to the following factors:

  • The failure to take the threat seriously. The elites ignore or minimize the programs of many countries to build ballistic missiles and hyperlethal weapons.

  • A willingness to gamble that the United States never will be attacked. The elites believe that war is outmoded in the post-nuclear, post-industrial era.

  • Politicizing of U.S. intelligence to support official denial of the threat of proliferation of ballistic missiles and hyperlethal weapons.

  • The failure to commit to a deployment schedule. There always is an excuse to delay a deployment plan and schedule.

  • The failure to select an "architecture." There always is the excuse of waiting for a better technology that is on the drawing board.

  • The failure to establish a unified or specified command dedicated to the mission of strategic defense. The only current missile defense mission is research and development. Without an operational mission, no forceful advocacy exists in the Department of Defense for deploying a national missile defense.

  • The failure to learn relevant lessons, especially from the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Iraq's Scud attacks, which killed more Americans in one attack than any other weapon.

  • Arms control extremism. The arms control establishment has an irrational belief in the efficacy of negotiations and agreements and makes arms control treaties an end in themselves, not a means to security.

  • The official corruption of language and meaning, which, in turn, corrupts thought. A prime example is President Bill Clinton's calling the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty the "cornerstone of strategic stability."

The ABM Treaty

The ABM Treaty constitutes the primary obstacle to deploying a national missile defense as well as effective theater missile defenses. It codifies the proposition that "defense is bad." It made highly restricted research and development the only legal activity. It crippled SDI from the outset by imposing unnecessary costs and testing obstacles to meet overly stringent guidelines to comply with the ABM Treaty.

What Must Be Done

If the United States is to be defended against the growing missile threat against it, Congress must take the following steps to reverse the 15-year-old policy of deliberate vulnerability:

  • Mandate the deployment of a national missile defense by a certain date;

  • Establish a clear architecture for a national missile defense and advanced theater missile defense and a plan for upgrading it as new technology becomes available;

  • Provide resources over the long term for deploying, operating, and upgrading both national missile defense and advanced theater missile defense systems;

  • Establish a unified Strategic Defense Command to operate a national missile defense;

  • Institute reforms in the intelligence community to insure timely and accurate threat assessments; and

  • Mandate an arms control impact statement that details the cost of U.S. compliance with the ABM Treaty.

Acting under its constitutional prerogative to approve treaties, the Senate should:

  • Hold hearings to look at the debate on ABM Treaty ratification in 1972 and examine whether the conditions on which the Senate consented to ratification ever were met.

  • Insist that Clinton's proposed ABM Treaty amendments, which would broaden the defunct treaty and impose new legal obligations and limits on the United States, be sent to the Senate for ratification as a new agreement and not buried in a larger arms control measure.

Thomas Moore is former Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Thomas Moore

McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy