Talking Points: Terrorist Attack on America Confirms the GrowingNeed for Missile Defense

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Talking Points: Terrorist Attack on America Confirms the GrowingNeed for Missile Defense

September 20, 2001 10 min read
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Members of Congress unequivocally gave their support to the President to expose those who supported the terrorists and hold them accountable. Yet barely one week later, some opponents of missile defense began to use the tragedy to support their case that the United States does not need a missile defense system. For example, Representative John F. Tierney (D-MA) stated that "This type of much higher on the list of threats than anything the president would address with his national missile defense program." 1 Such observations are grossly misleading.

The horrific events of the past week have proven beyond any doubt that terrorists will use any means, at any cost, to devastate America. With the proliferation of ballistic missiles to rogue states like North Korea, the likelihood that terrorists and despots will use these weapons of mass destruction to attack U.S. territory has grown substantially.

In reality, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington bolster the case for fielding missile defenses sooner, rather than later, to protect Americans. The reasons:

  • Defending against both terrorism and missile attack is the government's moral obligation. Both forms of attack obviously represent serious threats to national security. The U.S. military cannot ignore other threats to security now that it is faced with a serious terrorist threat at home.

    Moreover, defending Americans is not an either/or proposition. Protecting the people, territory, and institutions of the United States is the government's first and most critical responsibility. As the Rumsfeld Commission delineated in its 1998 report to Congress, the threat of missile attack is clear and growing2 (just as the threat of terrorist attack looms ever larger 3 ). The commission warned that states such as North Korea "would be able to inflict major damage on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability." Shortly after that report was released, North Korea surprised the intelligence and defense communities by launching a rocket over Japan. Many now predict that its second-generation rocket is nearing completion; with a range of more than 6,000 miles, it could reach the western United States. 4 It is indeed frightening to think of such a capability falling into the hands of terrorists.

    Critics who would use last week's terrorist attacks to force Congress to decide to fund either counterterrorism or missile defense should simply be ignored. Their logic is disingenuous; in the medical world, it would lead doctors to the absurd conclusion that having vaccinated someone against polio, there is no need to worry about mumps or measles. The United States needs a balanced national security policy that addresses the full array of threats to American lives, including the expanding threat posed by ballistic missiles.

  • Homeland defense is insufficient without missile defense. Members of Congress, faced with the fact that the terrorists used civilian airplanes as suicide bombs, have rallied behind the cause of increasing homeland defense. This is appropriate, but a comprehensive policy for defending the homeland must provide for defenses against all forms of attack, whether from the air or sea, cruise missiles, ground troops, terrorists, or ballistic missiles.

    The United States spent more than $10 billion to counter terrorism in the past year, but this did not prevent the attack on September 11. Congress and the American people now see the need to spend more to improve intelligence-gathering capabilities, airport security, and defensive systems to repel any attack on U.S. soil. Moreover, they recognize that the new breed of terrorists are seeking massive "collateral damage" in terms of loss of life and devastation.

    If increased security on the airlines deters terrorists from using airplanes, the likelihood grows that tomorrow's terrorists will want to use missiles to wreak destruction. Consider Muammar Qadhafi's chilling words to his followers after the U.S. military had responded to his terrorists' bombing of a Berlin discotheque in 1986: "If we had possessed a deterrent--missiles that could reach New York--we would have hit it at the same moment." 5

  • While systems are in place to thwart terrorism, the nation still has no defense against missile attack. Airport security measures and other systems were in place before the September 11 attack, and the intelligence community has had the authority to preempt terrorist actions. Regrettably, these were not sufficient to prevent the attacks. More must be done, and Congress is right to authorize immediate funding to increase counterterrorism.

    Today, however, there are no defenses against missile attack--and America's enemies know this. Arms control agreements and military cutbacks in missile defense programs not only delay progress, but also undermine national security. As the Rumsfeld Commission report makes clear, waiting even five years to fund missile defense programs is unwise and unethical, and flies in the face of the U.S. Constitution's mandate to provide for the common defense and Congress's mandate to deploy a national missile defense in the 1999 National Missile Defense Act (P.L. 106-38).

  • Missile attacks will be far more destructive than the September 11 assaults. The world has been justifiably horrified at the loss of so many innocent lives during the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. This assault has proven that terrorists are escalating their tactics. From killing and injuring a limited number of people in order to frighten a large number, they seem determined to kill and injure large numbers of people to spread fear and demoralize nations.

    The National Commission on Terrorism reported in 1998 that "Now, a growing percentage of terrorist attacks are designed to kill as many people as possible." 6 A ballistic missile carrying nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons fits this pattern because it would result in deaths and injuries many times greater than in the devastation of September 11. A 1979 Office of Technology Assessment study estimated that, if two one-megaton nuclear warheads were to strike Philadelphia, the explosion alone would kill 400,000 people. 7 Larger threats mandate more coherent and dedicated defenses, not less.

  • Terrorist groups, not just states, have the means to buy ballistic missiles. Some may be tempted to assume that only states, not terrorist groups, have the means to field and launch ballistic missiles. For certain categories of large, long-range missiles, this may be true. Given the significant trade in smaller, shorter-range missiles, however, well-funded and organized terrorist groups, and especially those benefiting from state sponsorship, have the capacity both to obtain and launch such missiles.

    Even these shorter-range missiles could reach U.S. territory. The 1998 Rumsfeld Commission report, for example, cited the threat to U.S. territory posed by short-range ballistic missiles that are launched from ships sitting in international waters off the U.S. coasts. 8 Recent evidence shows that billionaire Osama bin Laden has funded attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen.

    A larger issue also must be considered. As the National Commission on Terrorism pointed out, "Five of the seven nations the United States identifies as state sponsors of terrorism have programs to develop weapons of mass destruction." 9 The means to deliver these nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are ballistic missiles. States that would knowingly provide those agents to a terrorist group during times of chaos could well lose "control of the terrorists' activities."

  • Missile defenses are needed to shield the United States from retaliation should it take action against terrorist-harboring states. Nation-states still maintain the largest inventories of ballistic missiles and pose the most serious threat of missile attack against U.S. territory, U.S. forces overseas, and U.S. allies. Following the September 11 attack, the United States made it clear that it will also hold accountable any state that harbors and supports the terrorists responsible for this act. If such states have ballistic missiles in their arsenals, they conceivably could retaliate against a unilateral or multilateral action by launching a missile attack on U.S. territory, especially if the "United States were distracted by a major conflict in another area of the world." 10 Military prudence dictates that the United States have a missile defense capability in place to defend America.

  • The Cold War policy of "mutual assured destruction" embodied in arms control treaties is not sufficient to deter terrorist missile attacks. Cold War agreements such as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty limit the ability of the United States to develop and deploy effective missile defenses. Proponents of arms control often argue that the United States will not face a missile attack in the first place because missiles "carry a return address" as well as the threat of overwhelming U.S. retaliation in kind. The ABM Treaty makes a virtue of U.S. vulnerability based on the belief that nations that value human life will not use their nuclear weapons if there is retaliation in kind. But this principle embodied in arms control treaties will not deter terrorists from acting: Today's suicide terrorists demonstrated on September 11 that they do not value human life.

    In light of the current circumstances, the principle of U.S. vulnerability is discredited and is becoming exceedingly unpopular. President Bush is right to tell the world that it is time to move beyond outdated paradigms to forge a new security environment--one not threatened by terrorists or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

  • Nuclear retaliation is not appropriate for every kind of attack against America. Some opponents of missile defense believe that the United States has an effective nuclear deterrent that, if necessary, could be used to respond to attacks on the homeland. But no responsible U.S. official is suggesting that the United States consider the use of nuclear weapons in response to the horrific September 11 attacks. In most cases of attack on the United States, the nuclear option would not be appropriate, but a defense response will almost always be appropriate. The United States needs to be able to resort to defensive options.

  • The United States simply cannot afford not to address both the missile threat and terrorism. Some critics argue that since there are only finite resources for defense, the nation must choose which threats to address. This is grossly na├»ve. The government simply cannot continue to wait until after a missile attack occurs to fund missile defense programs. The new consensus in Washington and across the country following the September 11 attacks provides policymakers and the American public an opportunity to stop merely reacting to terrorist attacks and start constructing a military force that addresses all threats to the United States. If the people of America really want adequate defenses, they will pay for them. Congress should make sure that all national security and defense programs are fully funded.


The argument that the September 11 terrorist attack disproves the immediacy of the missile threat to America is not just wrong; it is misleading. There is no choice for Washington when it comes to defending Americans. Both terrorism and missile attack are growing threats to national security, and all such threats deserve dedicated, systematic, and comprehensive responses.

Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


1. John Lancaster and Greg Schneider, "Foreign Policy Consequences Huge: Missile Shield, Mideast, Security Likely to Be Influenced," The Washington Post, September 13, 2001, p. A22.

2. U.S. Department of Defense, Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, July 15, 1998.

3. Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism, Report of the National Commission on Terrorism Pursuant to Public Law 277, 105th Congress, 2000.

4. Jack Spencer, The Ballistic Missile Threat Handbook (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2000).

5. Speech to students at the Higher Institute for Applied Social Studies at the Great al-Faith University, Libya, April 18, 1990, Tripoli Television Service (translated in FBIS Daily Report: Near East & South Asia, FBIS-NES-90-078, April 23, 1990, p. 8.

6. Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism, p. 2.

7. Office of Technology Assessment, The Effects of Nuclear War (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979).

8. U.S. Department of Defense, Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States , pp. 20-21.

9. Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism, p. 8.

10. Ibid.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy