What People Are Saying About Missile Defense for America

Report Missile Defense

What People Are Saying About Missile Defense for America

April 7, 1999 26 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

In March 1999, both houses of Congress and the Clinton Administration agreed that it should be the policy of the United States to defend itself against a limited ballistic missile attack. Given the discord that historically marked national missile defense (NMD) discussions, such agreement was largely unexpected. This bipartisan spirit, however, has redefined the missile defense debate. The question is no longer whether America needs a national missile defense, but how and when America will end its vulnerability to ballistic missile attack.

This historic change in policy is the product of a number of developments over the past year:

  • On April 6, 1998, Pakistan tested its long-range Ghauri ballistic missile.

  • In May, Pakistan and India successfully tested nuclear weapons.

  • On June 15, The Heritage Foundation released a detailed memorandum of law on the legal status of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.1 The evidence marshaled in this analysis, prepared by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Hunton & Williams, confirms that the ABM Treaty is no longer binding on the United States because no state or combination of states can fulfill the obligations of the now-defunct Soviet Union. This conclusion was endorsed by eight Senators in a letter written to President Bill Clinton in September 1998.2

  • On July 15, the bipartisan Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States released an unclassified version of its report to Congress. The congressionally mandated commission, led by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, found that the danger of ballistic missile attack was far more advanced than had been officially reported previously.

  • Within two months of the commission report's release, North Korea and Iran tested long-range ballistic missiles.

  • On January 20, 1999, the Secretary of Defense affirmed that ballistic missiles pose a threat to the United States.

These incidents, in addition to recent reports of Chinese espionage, have destroyed the Cold War notion that willful vulnerability to ballistic missile attack is in the security interests of the United States.

The rhetoric, both on Capitol Hill and in the media, in recent months reflects this change in awareness of the need for missile defense. Clearly, elected officials finally acknowledge that the ballistic missile threat is real and that the time has come to start serious deliberations over deployment options.

The following quotations, taken mostly from addresses by President Bill Clinton, members of his Administration, Members of Congress, and foreign policy experts during the past year, vividly demonstrate the historic convergence of opinion that will allow the United States to build an effective defense against ballistic missiles.

Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary of State:

"The threats we face today and tomorrow could come from a number of different sources.... I often remind people that a ballistic missile attack using a weapon of mass destruction from a rogue state is every bit as much [a] threat to our borders now as a Warsaw Pact tank was two decades ago."3

Lamar Alexander, former Republican Governor of Tennessee:

"We need a missile defense system.... The upgraded theater-version of the Navy's Aegis system...should become a building block for a national missile defense.... [W]e cannot expect to have the luxury of several years' warning before a rogue state is in a position to blackmail us with a weapon of mass destruction."4

John Ashcroft, Republican Senator from Missouri:

"Communist China is presently engaged in a military build-up that is as spectacular as it is unsettling.... Just as troubling as Beijing's buying binge is its decision to sell missile and nuclear technology to Pakistan, Syria, and Iran. Over time, this equipment will allow each to produce bomb-grade uranium."5

Robert Bell, Director of Arms Control and Defense Policy, National Security Council:

"Both the Rumsfeld commission and now our intelligence community are on the same script.... [W]e must start from the fundamental common ground that there is value in having protection against...states that hold you in some hostility, not being able to strike with impunity against your homeland."6

William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States:

"It is a fact that many countries with whom we have serious differences now are making vigorous efforts either to build or to buy missiles with increasing ranges, that go distances far beyond anything that would be necessary to protect their own territory"7

"[W]e just have to be prepared for it [ballistic missile attack].... [P]eople who are interested in gaining control or influence or advantage over others have brought to bear the force of arms.... And what normally happens from the beginning of history is the arms work until a defense is erected.... I think what has concerned me is that...I just don't want the lag time between offense and defense to be any longer than is absolutely necessary."8

Thad Cochran, Republican Senator from Mississippi:

"The United States has no defense against long-range ballistic missiles, and administration policy had been limited to development of a missile defense system and deployment only if a threat developed. Now the threat has become obvious to the administration."9

William Cohen, Secretary of Defense:

"It seems to me that the Japanese people and the American people have an obligation to try to provide protection for their troops as they're deployed and for the population in the region against what is clearly an increasing threat from missile proliferation."10

"[W]e are affirming that there is a threat, and the threat is growing, and that we expect it will soon pose a danger not only to our troops overseas but also to Americans here at home."11

"The ABM Treaty...imposes strict limitations on national missile defense."12

"The ABM Treaty...provides...for right of withdrawal with six months notice if a party concludes it's in its supreme national interests.... I think at this time we have seen the proliferation of missile technology which does in fact pose a threat to the United States."13

Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (Rumsfeld Commission):

"Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies."14

"These newer, developing threats in North Korea, Iran and Iraq...will not match those of U.S. systems for accuracy or reliability. However, they would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability. During several of those years, the U.S. might not be aware that such a decision had been made."15

"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."16

"The warning times the U.S. can expect of new, threatening ballistic missile deployments are being reduced. Under some plausible scenarios...the U.S. might well have little or no warning before operational deployment."17

Elizabeth Dole, former President of the American Red Cross:

[R]ogue nations and terrorists still threaten our people, our freedom and our way of life. I believe there is an urgent need to refurbish our military and resolve to develop and deploy a strategic missile defense system at the earliest, possible date."18

Gerald R. Ford, former President of the United States:

"Now, at the present time, I think we ought to rescind or withdraw from the ABM Treaty. It's ineffective. It's inoperative. And it is a handicap."19

Chuck Hagel, Republican Senator from Nebraska:

"Most Americans would be shocked to find out that the United States is incapable of defending itself, and its citizens, from even a single nuclear missile."20

"The spread of weapons of mass destruction will be one of the primary threats to our country in the next century. Recent reports have shown that this is a very real threat.... We need to act now to protect ourselves [from ballistic missiles], and we should have acted already."21

John Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense:

"Today, over 20 nations possess Scud-type ballistic missile systems.... North Korea has fielded a system with a range of more than 1,000 kilometers and recently demonstrated a capability for much longer-range missiles.... Iran is in the process of developing a similar capability, aided in large part by North Korean and other outside assistance."22

"Without the continued efforts of UNSCOM [United Nations Special Commission]...Iraq would also have a missile of at least such range [1,000 km].... The bottom line here is very clear and very stark. Our forces deployed overseas today, their bases, and the territory of U.S. allies and friends, are threatened by ballistic missiles."23

"[T]he [ABM] Treaty can remain viable only if it reflects contemporary realities, such as the need to counter the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles.... If...we were not able to reach agreement in the necessary timeframe, then our recourse would be to withdraw from the Treaty because of supreme national interests."24

Daniel K. Inouye, Democratic Senator from Hawaii:

"[T]here is a threat. Anyone who studies North Korea, anyone who looks at the Soviet Union, anyone who has taken time to study the situation in Iraq and Iran, would have to conclude that there is a threat.... [W]e are, in essence, telling our Nation: Wake up. There is a threat [posed by ballistic missiles], and it is about time we look at it seriously."25

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Representative to the United Nations:

"We are today more vulnerable, in my opinion, than we have been at any time since the War of 1812. I mean that quite seriously, because we are today vulnerable to missiles."26

"We need...to renounce the ABM Treaty. The ABM Treaty makes it more difficult, more expensive, and it makes it uncertain that we'll even get there [to an effective national missile defense]. [It] is a treaty that was negotiated for another era, and another country. It was negotiated with a country that no longer exists, namely, the Soviet Union, to solve a problem that no longer exists, namely, a time when there were only two countries that had...the capacity to attack one another in this way. And it needs to simply be discarded."27

"I think it's foolhardy for the United States not to move ahead with the development of a really significant missile defense system. And when I say a significant missile defense system, I mean that."28

Henry A. Kissinger, former Secretary of State:

"It is reckless to stake the survival of a society on its vulnerability or on genocidal retaliation--even against an accidental launch. National and theater missile defense must become a higher national priority."29

"It is morally indefensible for any administration to make the American population hostage to...any potential enemy."30

"I wouldn't let it [the ABM Treaty] stand in the way [of missile defense]."31

"[I]t is strategically...necessary to build a missile defense...because of the facts of nuclear proliferation."32

"I cannot accept the proposition that we `reassure' people by remaining vulnerable."33

"I cannot imagine what an American President would say to the American public if there was an attack and he had done nothing to prevent it."34

Anthony Lake, former National Security Adviser:

"[W]e must prepare for the unlikely event that our military might, arms control agreements and nuclear deterrent fail to prevent some rogue nation from launching a missile attack against the United States or our armed forces."35

Carl Levin, Democratic Senator from Michigan:

"I share the goal of providing the American people with effective protection against the emerging long-range missile threat from rogue states."36

"I support developing an operationally effective, cost-effective limited national missile defense, and making an effort to negotiate with Russia...any appropriate modifications to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty...necessary to permit deployment of a limited national missile defense system."37

Joseph I. Lieberman, Democratic Senator from Connecticut:

"I rise today to support development and deployment of a limited national missile defense. As members of Congress, few if any of our duties surpass our obligation to provide for the common defense of our nation." 38

"In the very near future...erratic leaders of rogue regimes will control ballistic missiles, possibly armed with weapons of mass destruction, that can reach our national territory. One or more rogue states may have the technology to do so today."39

"[W]e need NMD. We face a real and growing threat that cannot be countered by our conventional forces and which will not be deterred by the threat of retaliation. Deterrence requires rationality. By definition, accidental, unauthorized, or rogue acts are not the acts of a rational person and cannot be reliably deterred."40

Lieutenant General Lester L. Lyles, Director, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization:

"[W]e've acknowledged and affirmed that the threat is real, and it's become more certain and growing in the near future."41

John McCain, Republican Senator from Arizona:

"As you know, repeated reports over the last two years of the transfer of missile and nuclear-related technologies from Russian companies and research institutes to Iran have been a source of growing concern among many members of Congress.... [T]he attainment by the government in Teheran of advanced ballistic missile technologies poses a tremendous threat to stability in a region which is the most potentially explosive in the world."42

Dan Quayle, former Vice President of the United States:

"[I]t is time for a focused effort to develop and deploy effective missile defenses. A short-term response is already available.... [W]e can modify the ship-borne Aegis anti-missile defenses of the Navy to intercept ballistic missiles."43

"The next step is to develop a national missile defense system.... Should our ability to defend ourselves be short-circuited by a treaty signed in a completely different era--with a second party that is now literally nonexistent?... We should do now what we should have done long ago: declare the ABM Treaty obsolete and exercise our right to withdraw."44

Bill Richardson, Secretary of Energy:

"If you asked me what threatens the average American the most in the world, it's no longer the threat of the big Russian bear with nuclear weapons aimed at us. What it is now is those Russian weapons and expertise and materials being stolen and used by states like Iraq, like Iran, like North Korea, like Libya, that are ultimate enemies."45

Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense:

"There just isn't a doubt in my mind. If we relieve ourselves of the restrictions of that [ABM] treaty so that we do not have to do contortions to do what is the quickest, cheapest, most effective way of doing this [providing missile defenses], and organize to do it in an effective way, that the United States will be able to do it...."46

"[We]ought to be able to deal with the shorter-range threats as well as the longer-range threats, that is to say a shorter-range ballistic missile from a ship. And we need to also recognize the importance of our friends and allies and forces overseas and staging areas, or else we're an uncertain ally."47

"Russia is helping a number of countries in the world, including India and Iran. And Russia is helping China. China is also helping Iran, and it's helping Pakistan, and it's helping North Korea. The problem of proliferation is pervasive. It is something that is so extensive today that a country that wants to have ballistic missile capabilities and weapons of mass destruction and is serious about it can in fact...achieve those goals."48

General Henry H. Shelton, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff:

"[T]his is not an abstract or a theoretical threat to our forces. The threat is real today and the threat will only increase in the years ahead. That is why theater and national missile defense development has been a priority for the Joint Chiefs and the unified commanders."49

George J. Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence:

"Particularly worrisome to the Intelligence Community is the security of Russian WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] materials, increased cooperation among rogue states, and more effective efforts by proliferants to conceal illicit activities."50

"In short, theater-range missiles with increasing range pose an immediate and growing threat to US interests, military forces, and allies--and the threat is increasing. This threat is here and now."51

"The Taepo Dong-2...would be able to deliver significantly larger payloads to mainland Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands and smaller payloads to other parts of the United States.... With a third stage like the one demonstrated last August on the Taepo Dong-1, this missile would be able to deliver large payloads to the rest of the US."52

Lady Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister:

"[T]he ABM...treaty did not achieve...its original purposes, it did not produce a slowdown in the building of the Soviet long-range missiles, nor did it prevent the Soviets investing large sums in developing ballistic missile defense."53

"Preservation of this Cold War relic [the ABM treaty] is bizarre.... I believe that the case of the deployment of a global ballistic missile defense system is now overwhelming.... It [a global missile defense system] must be capable of providing protection for America. Its armed forces and its allies also need protection against a limited or unauthorized attack."54

"There is no logic in a policy decision that ensures that North America and Europe remain vulnerable to missiles targeted at them by the tyrannical and ruthless leaders of volatile and unstable regimes."55

Strom Thurmond, Republican Senator from South Carolina:

"With North Korea having recently demonstrated the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile and Iran pushing aggressively in this direction, we simply cannot afford to short-change our missile defense programs."56

"I personally believe that the ABM Treaty has outlived its usefulness and has no legal standing following the dissolution of the Soviet Union."57

"[T]he United States should make it clear that it will eventually deploy a robust, multi-layered NMD system that includes land-based, sea-based, and space-based elements."58

Malcolm Wallop, former Republican Senator from Wyoming:

"As long as the world has leaders like Saddam Hussein, the United States must provide a shield against weapons of mass destruction. We must have a Ballistic Missile defense system. Without it we are vulnerable to attack. Without it we cannot protect America, American soldiers, or American allies."59

Robert D. Walpole, National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear Programs:

"Theater-range missiles already in hostile hands pose an immediate and increasing threat to US interests, military forces, and allies. More countries are acquiring ballistic missiles with ranges up to 1,000 km, and more importantly, with ranges between 1,000 km and 3,000 km."60

Jack Spencer is a Research Assistant in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


1. "The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: A Memorandum of Law," Prepared for The Heritage Foundation by David B. Rivkin, Jr., Lee A. Casey, and Darin R. Bartram, June 15, 1998.

2. On January 22, 1999, Douglas Feith and George Miron of Feith & Zell released a legal memorandum that, while following a different line of reasoning, came to the same conclusion as the Hunton & Williams analysis.

3. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, "Statement to the North Atlantic Council," U.S. Department of State briefing, Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 1998.

4. The Honorable Lamar Alexander, "Foreign Policy Priorities for a New Century," American Enterprise Institute, February 11, 1999.

5. Senator John Ashcroft, "The Theme Is Freedom: Reconsidering U.S.-Sino Relations," Congressional Record, April 23, 1997, p. S3564.

6. Robert Bell, "A Viable Defense?" interview on "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," January 28, 1999.

7. U.S. Newswire, transcript of joint press conference of President Clinton and Prime Minister D'Alema of Italy, Washington, D.C., March 5, 1999.

8. President Bill Clinton in "Interview with the President by the New York Times," Federal Document Clearing House, Inc., January 23, 1999.

9. Senator Thad Cochran, statement on S. 257, The National Missile Defense Act of 1999, Congressional Record, January 20, 1999, p. S761.

10. William S. Cohen, U.S. Department of Defense briefing, U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, Japan, January 14, 1999.

11. William S. Cohen, U.S. Department of Defense briefing, Washington, D.C., January 20, 1999.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. "Executive Summary," Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, Pursuant to Public Law No. 201, 104th Cong., July 15, 1998, p. 5.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Elizabeth Dole, "Exploratory Committee Announcement Speech," March 10, 1999.

19. President Gerald R. Ford, remarks at Saturday Breakfast, American Enterprise Institute, Vail, Colorado, August 8, 1998.

20. Senator Chuck Hagel, press release, "Hagel Joins in Introducing Legislation to Create a National Missile Defense," January 21, 1999.

21. Ibid.

22. The Honorable John Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense, prepared statement on "Ballistic Missile Defense," Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, October 2, 1998.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Senator Daniel Inouye, remarks on National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (S. 257), U.S. Senate, March 16, 1999.

26. Jeane Kirkpatrick, remarks at Saturday Luncheon, American Enterprise Institute, Vail, Colorado, August 8, 1998.

27. Ibid.

28. Jeane Kirkpatrick, testimony before Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, March 5, 1999.

29. Henry Kissinger, "India and Pakistan: After the Explosion," The Washington Post, June 9, 1998, p. A15.

30. Henry Kissinger, remarks at Heritage Foundation Missile Defense Conference, Washington, D.C., March 23, 1999.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Editorial, "Some Future Kosovo," The Wall Street Journal, March 29, 1999.

35. Anthony Lake, remarks to Council on Foreign Relations, Chicago, Illinois, May 24, 1996.

36. Senator Carl Levin, remarks on National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (S. 257), U.S. Senate, March 15, 1999.

37. Ibid.

38. Senator Joseph Lieberman, "Lieberman Calls for National Missile Defense," March 16, 1999; available at http://www.senate.gov/~lieberman/r031599a.html.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles, U.S. Department of Defense news briefing, January 20, 1999.

42. Letter to Secretary Madeleine Albright from Senator John McCain, October 23, 1997.

43. Dan Quayle, "The Duty to Lead: America's National Security Imperative," Heritage Lecture No. 630, January 21, 1999.

44. Ibid.

45. Television news report, "Krasnoyarsk-26, Secret City; Russian Facility that Produced Plutonium During the Cold War Must Keep Running to Heat the Adjacent City and Keep the Workers Alive," 60 Minutes II, January 13, 1999.

46. Donald Rumsfeld, "A Viable Defense?" interview on "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," January 28, 1999.

47. Ibid.

48. Donald Rumsfeld, interview with John McLaughlin, "One on One," February, 14, 1999.

49. General Henry H. Shelton, U.S. Department of Defense news briefing, January 20, 1999.

50. George J. Tenet, "Statement of the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet As Prepared for Delivery Before the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Current and Projected National Security Threats," February 2, 1999.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. The Right Honorable The Baroness Margaret Thatcher, remarks at National Institute for Public Policy Forum on Ballistic Missile Defense, Washington, D.C., December 3, 1998.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Senator Strom Thurmond, testimony on ballistic missile defense, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess., October 2, 1998.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid.

59. Malcolm Wallop, "The Principles and Prudence of Conservatism," remarks at Conservative Leadership Conference sponsored by the Leadership Institute, Washington, D.C., November 22, 1997.

60. Robert D. Walpole, "North Korea's Taepo Dong Launch and Some Implications on the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States," Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 8, 1998.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom