October 5, 1998

October 5, 1998 | Backgrounder on Missile Defense

Making the Case for Missile Defense

The most dangerous security threat facing the United States today comes from missiles armed with nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads capable of reaching U.S. soil from locations around the world. The danger stems not only from the fact that these weapons are the most destructive man has ever created, but also from the decision by American leaders to adopt a posture of purposeful vulnerability to these weapons. Long-range ballistic missiles are the only weapons against which the U.S. government has decided, as a matter of policy, not to field a defense.

Given the stakes involved, policymakers need to be able to talk to their constituents about this issue in a clear and compelling manner. The technical aspects of the missile defense debate can be quite complex, and policymakers will risk confusing their audiences if they try to address these issues in too technical a manner. By contrast, explaining the current policy of vulnerability and the need to end that vulnerability is simple and straightforward. Policymakers can do this by showing why leaving the American people vulnerable to missile attack is wrong and describing what is needed to deploy an effective national missile defense. Equally important, they must be ready to answer commonly asked questions about missile defense without recourse to confusing jargon or bewildering acronyms.


Policymakers should focus the attention of their constituents on the need to end the existing policy that purposely keeps them vulnerable to missile attack. But convincing Americans of the need for such a shift in policy requires more than stating the obvious fact that today's posture of vulnerability should be unacceptable. It requires articulating an alternative vision: one based on defending the American people against missile attack. Such an explanation requires that policymakers emphasize five related points:

  • The missile threat to the United States is growing with each passing day. Supporters of the current policy of vulnerability, including the Clinton Administration, would have the American people believe that the missile threat to the United States is either non-existent or remote. Policymakers need to convince their constituents that this assessment is wrong. They can do so by pointing to the report of a special bipartisan commission chaired by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This expert commission issued a unanimous report on July 15, 1998, stating that the threat was serious and that "the U.S. might well have little or no warning before operational deployment" of new missiles. One of the reasons for this assessment is that a Third World menace like Iran could deploy the shorter-range missiles it already has on boats and launch them from off the U.S. coast. As the commission report notes, "This could enable a country to pose a direct territorial threat to the U.S. sooner than it could by waiting to develop [a long-range missile] for launch from its territory." Policymakers should emphasize that the release of the report was followed in July by Iran's test of an intermediate-range missile, and in August by North Korea's test of a three-stage missile.

  • A firm decision to deploy a missile defense system is imperative. The United States has been developing missile defense systems for years. America remains vulnerable to missile strikes today because the country's leaders have lacked the political will to make a firm decision to deploy these systems. An example of this lack of will is the September 9, 1998, vote in the Senate to end a filibuster against a bill sponsored by Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi (S. 1873) that would mandate such a decision. The 59 votes in favor of ending the filibuster were just one vote shy of the 60 needed to end debate.

  • A specific deployment plan for missile defense exists. In 1995, The Heritage Foundation convened "Team B," a group of experts led by Ambassador Henry Cooper, former Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, to develop an alternative to the Clinton Administration's approach to missile defense. Team B proposed the deployment of a global missile defense system to provide limited protection against missile strikes for U.S. troops deployed overseas, U.S. friends and allies, and U.S. territory. The first element of this proposal involves the upgrading of existing Navy ships (AEGIS cruisers) to provide them with the ability to counter ballistic missiles. The system would be augmented with the Brilliant Eyes sensor satellite constellation, which is now under development. The Team B plan envisions the later deployment of a combination of space-based interceptors and space-based lasers. The Team B plan offers the American people a coherent approach for deploying missile defenses in a way that is both affordable and achievable.

  • An effective missile defense program is impossible without proper funding. The deployment plan crafted by Heritage's Team B in 1995 will require adequate funding. For example, the upgrading of the Navy's ships would take advantage of the approximately $50 billion already invested in these platforms. But developing and deploying this system, assuming deployment started in the year 2002, would on average require about $300 million a year more than the Clinton Administration has budgeted for its version of this program. Using the Team B plan, however, the United States could field a limited defense against missile attack without spending any additional money if the government eliminated an unnecessary program like the Legal Services Corporation. The budget policies of the Clinton Administration would have the American people pay the cost of nuisance suits filed by ideologically driven lawyers against individual Americans and corporations rather than devote those funds to defending the country against missile attack.

  • The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is no longer binding on the United States. The ABM Treaty barred the deployment of a nationwide missile defense system. The treaty was signed in 1972 by the United States and the former Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. The law firm of Hunton & Williams, in a June 15 legal memorandum prepared for The Heritage Foundation, states that because no single state (including Russia) or any group of states born out of the former Soviet Union proved capable of fulfilling the obligations of the Soviet Union under the treaty, the treaty is no longer in force. Thus, the United States is entitled to regard the ABM Treaty as void, and to develop and deploy missile defense systems without regard to the Treaty's restrictions. On this basis, policymakers should be able make a solid case that there are no legal impediments to the deployment of missile defenses, only political impediments.


Q. Where's the threat? The Cold War is over and the "rogue" states don't have missiles capable of reaching the United States.

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. North Korea's satellite launch in late August provided yet another stark reminder of the growing vulnerability of the United States to long-range missiles. Pyongyang's three-stage rocket sailed over Japan and splashed into the Pacific Ocean, leaving debris nearly 4,000 miles from the launch site. In assessing this test, some experts have concluded that North Korea has the ability to strike parts of Alaska and Hawaii right now. It is a virtual certainty that North Korea will have missiles capable of reaching the continental United States within a few years.

North Korea is not the only threat the United States should worry about. According to U.S. intelligence, more than 20 Third World countries have ballistic missile programs. Even President Bill Clinton has admitted that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the means to deliver them poses an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to the United States. America should not have to play "catch-up" when it comes to defending its citizens against rogue states. The failure to deploy a national missile defense will leave unpredictable Third World despots with the initiative, both politically and militarily.

Moreover, the rogue threat is not the only missile danger facing the United States. Russia and China, two countries with very uncertain political futures, already have long-range missiles capable of devastating America. Unfortunately, the United States lacks the means to intercept an accidental or unauthorized missile launch. These dangers are not hypothetical. In 1995, for example, the Russian government initially mistook the launch of a scientific rocket by Norway as a missile attack on Russia by the United States. Russian President Boris Yeltsin reportedly initiated the sequence for a Russian missile launch to counter this misperceived threat. 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." The political situation in Moscow has already deteriorated since the commission released its report.

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

A. No. The United States currently has no system for defending U.S. territory against long-range missiles. Under the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program announced by President Ronald Reagan in March 1983, many promising missile defense technologies were developed and readied for deployment. In 1991, President George Bush announced, and Congress approved, a deployment plan called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS). President Clinton canceled both the SDI program and the GPALS plan in 1993, thus keeping the United States defenseless against the growing missile threat.

Q. There appears to be bipartisan support for the deployment of theater missile defense. Wouldn't it be wise to proceed with these regional defenses now and address questions related to national missile defense at a later date?

A. Congressional proponents of missile defense already tried a version of this approach in 1991, with little success. Opponents of missile defense proposed steps for "dumbing down" theater defense systems even as they continued to argue against a defense of U.S. territory. The distinction between "theater" and "national" missile defense is arbitrary: The United States should seek to deploy a global missile defense system that is capable of countering missiles of all ranges. It makes no sense to deprive citizens living in the United States of protection that is provided to U.S. troops deployed overseas.

Q. Isn't the Clinton Administration right to argue that a premature deployment decision could waste money because better technology will be available in the future?

A. No. The Clinton Administration's rhetoric about allowing technology to mature is an excuse for inaction. Future technology will always be more sophisticated than current technology. By the President's 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 the Clinton Administration has embraced this faulty logic to justify postponing deployment of a national missile shield. Unfortunately, rogue states are working overtime to develop long-range missiles capable of striking the United States. Congress therefore needs to 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.

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 readily affordable. The projected costs of even the most ambitious deployment plans for missile defense are measured in the tens of billions of dollars. These costs would be stretched out over a period of a decade or more. Given current budget projections, it is unlikely that any of these plans will consume more than 3 percent of defense expenditures during this time frame. The potential costs in lives and property of failing to deploy a national missile 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. Lacking a national missile defense, the United States leaves itself open to potential nuclear blackmail.

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

A. On the contrary, the decision to move forward with a defensive system is more likely to spur meaningful arms control. The greatest progress in arms control was achieved during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the United States appeared most determined to deploy a missile defense system. The decision to deploy a national missile defense will require the United States to move beyond the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This anachronism from the Cold War should no longer be considered an impediment to deploying a national missile defense because it is no longer legally binding on the United States. This conclusion, detailed in a comprehensive legal study prepared for The Heritage Foundation by the law firm of Hunton & Williams earlier this year, 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. U.S.-Russian relations are influenced by many political and economic factors quite apart from the status of the ABM Treaty. In any event, the United States already faces the danger of accidental or unauthorized missile launches from an increasingly unstable Russia. Allowing the ABM Treaty to lapse will not ruin relations with Moscow. Revealingly, 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. While Russia's future political course remains uncertain, 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. Responsible Russian leaders have no reason to feel threatened by a defensive system designed to save lives. After all, Russia has deployed an extensive anti-ballistic missile site around Moscow to protect its own citizens.

Q. Should national missile defense be considered a moral issue?

A. Yes. 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 readily 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 can serve the same purpose. If a state attacked the United States with missiles, the President would have no alternative but to retaliate, which likely would result in the deaths of many innocent civilians, or to capitulate. The deployment of a national 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 have a policy based on saving lives rather than avenging 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. It is difficult to fathom the mindset of a leader like North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, who spends 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. Foreign despots do not always behave predictably, as Saddam Hussein has demonstrated repeatedly in the Middle East. A policy of deterrence supposes that the heads of foreign governments will react to U.S. threats of retaliation in rational and predictable ways. But history has demonstrated that many of these leaders are neither rational nor predictable.

Q. Wouldn't a national missile defense be vulnerable to cheap countermeasures, such as decoy warheads?

A. No. A properly designed missile defense should be able to anticipate and neutralize potential countermeasures. For example, a defensive system that can intercept enemy missiles shortly after liftoff (a "boost-phase intercept capability") will allow the destruction of enemy missiles before they can release individual warheads and decoys. By exploiting its impressive technological advantages, the United States should be able to deploy a defensive system that can anticipate and offset a wide range of potential countermeasures.

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

A. No. None of the 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. Extremely primitive by today's standards, these weapons have long since been dismantled. In contrast, the anti-ballistic missile systems being developed today are so sophisticated that they do not require any warheads at all. A national missile defense would not require the United States to build any additional nuclear weapons.

Q. Why spend money on a national missile 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. Opponents of national missile defense often exploit the suitcase bomb threat as a red herring. Tellingly, their concerns about terrorism seem to arise only in the context of opposing a national missile defense. 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 the deployment of a national missile defense spur rogue states to build more missiles than they otherwise would?

A. The opposite is more likely true, for the absence of a national missile defense provides potential adversaries with the incentive to accelerate their offensive missile programs. According to a November 1997 Pentagon report, 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 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 deployment of a national missile defense, especially when so many rogue nations are working feverishly to develop long-range missiles.

Q. Will deployment of a national missile defense lead the United States to retreat from its overseas commitments?

A. No. The opposite is true, since the United States' continued 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 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 programs 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.

Q. What is the Rumsfeld Commission report, and why has it attracted so much attention?

A. The Rumsfeld Commission report attracted attention for highlighting missile proliferation dangers overlooked by official intelligence estimates. On July 15, the congressionally mandated Rumsfeld Commission report rejected a 1995 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that the United States would face no direct ballistic threat before 2010. After an exhaustive review of classified evidence, the nine-member bipartisan commission found that the United States "might have little or no warning before operational deployment" of threatening ballistic missiles. 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 provided Congress with a much-needed wake-up call to get serious about the growing threat of missile proliferation.

-- Baker Spring is a Senior Policy Analyst and James H. Anderson, Ph.D. is former Defense and National Security Analyst in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy