American Voice 2004: I thought we abandoned the idea to deploy a anti-ballistic missile system

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q. In the first presidential debate, President Bush declared that we are about to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system. I thought that idea had proved unworkable and had long since been abandoned. What gives?


The idea of intercepting ballistic missiles has been around as long as long-range missiles have been around. Over the decades, enthusiasm for the concept has waxed and waned. In 1976, for example, the anti-missile program was killed by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld under President Ford. Today Rumsfeld oversees and supports a much larger effort.

Here’s the story.

The U.S. Army began researching an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense in 1945.[1] In 1958, in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the U.S. initiated its first major national missile defense effort, called Nike-Zeus. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson renamed the system, Sentinel and shifted the focus from defending the U.S. against hundreds of Russian missiles to protecting against a limited missile strike from a nation with few nuclear weapons, like China. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara argued that the U.S. could not effectively stop an attack by the Soviet arsenal, and attempts to deploy a comprehensive ABM system would only fuel the offensive missile race.[2]

The Nixon administration renamed the system, Safeguard, and refocused it from protecting U.S. cities to protecting vital military facilities. The 1969 Senate tie vote on the initial deployment of Safeguard was broken by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

In 1972, as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed the ABM Treaty. The Treaty limited each country to two ABM sites with a total of 200 interceptors. In 1974 the treaty was amended to reduce that limit to one site. The Soviets elected to defend Moscow (the upgraded system is still in place today) The U.S. chose to defend the Minuteman missile site in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The day after the Grand Forks site became operational, the House voted to shut it down, and the Senate concurred. The Pentagon concluded that Soviet technology would easily overwhelm the system, and the system’s radar would become non-functional after the first interceptor exploded. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld terminated the system in February 1976. In1978 it was closed down completely, except for its radar system.

In 1983, President Reagan revived the program as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).[3] Dubbed “Star Wars,” SDI was envisioned as a multi-layer space-based system to defend 3,500 U.S. targets against Soviet missiles.

By 1987, many of the concepts of a space based ABM had been abandoned as unworkable. Yet expenditures continued at an annual rate of about $4 billion, and initial deployment was anticipated by 1993.

In the early-1990s the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. The Soviet Union collapsed. A nationwide defense system against an all-out Soviet missile attack no longer made sense. The first Bush administration dropped SDI in favor of a new initiative called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS). GPALS was intended to protect against a smaller number of ICBMs as well as shorter-range missiles.

The still-limited effectiveness of even ground-based, let alone space- or sea-based, anti-missile technology was demonstrated by largely unsuccessful attempts to destroy Iraqi Scud missiles during the Persian Gulf War. Early reports of successful interceptions of Scuds by Patriot missiles were used to justify the Missile Defense Act of 1991, but were later called into question by military investigations.[4] The act called for a ground-only system of interceptors to protect U.S. territory.[5] Congress wanted the system ready by 1996, but extended the timeframe to 2002 on the Pentagon’s recommendation.

The Clinton administration indicated it was prepared to withdraw from the ABM Treaty if the Russians did not agree to changes that allowed the deployment of a ground-based national missile defense system. In September 2000, however, the Administration announced it would not proceed with deployment because of questions about the system’s effectiveness.[6]

In the 2000 election campaign George W. Bush promised to have an ABM system deployed by November 2004. In January 2002, his administration declared its intention to pursue a much more expansive missile defense system capable of shooting down enemy missiles from land, sea, air or space, and defending not only the U.S. but other countries as well.[7]

In December 2002, President Bush announced that the United States was unilaterally withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, removing any restrictions on missile defense efforts. The Administration reorganized the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and renamed it the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The budget for missile defense increased from $4.8 billion in 2001 (the last budget of the Clinton administration) to $7.8 billion in 2002 and $9.1 billion in 2004. For 2005 the administration has requested $10 billion. This is nearly 14 percent of the Pentagon’s research and development budget.[8]

To accelerate the deployment of the system, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has exempted the MDA from traditional military acquisition reviews and assessments. Normally the Pentagon assesses weapons projects on progress toward meeting specific requirements that have been approved by a committee of senior military officers. For the missile defense effort, MDA has been allowed to set its own goals, test schedules and program reviews.[9]

The administration has taken a novel development approach Pentagon officials have dubbed “evolutionary acquisition”. They will begin to install a limited system that will improve over time without clear specifications for what it will eventually look like.

Phillip Coyle, the Pentagon’s Chief Weapons Evaluator during the Clinton administration, compares the idea of deploying the missile defense system while it is still being tested to building a picket fence, one picket at a time, over several years. Until the whole thing is complete, the fence isn’t much use.[10]

Procedural shortcuts have been justified on the grounds of technological challenges and urgent national security needs.[11] But a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of MDA found that the program has failed to fully document costs or explain its assumptions about performance goals. As a result, “decision makers in DOD and Congress do not have a full understanding of the overall cost of developing and fielding a Ballistic Missile Defense System and what the system’s true capabilities will be.”[12]

The first part of the system to be deployed is the ground-based midcourse defense system at Fort Greeley, Alaska.[13] Sea and space-based anti-missile systems are planned for some time in the future.

Here’s how the ground-based missile shield is supposed to work.[14] There are three phases to a long-range missile flight. The first is the boost phase, when a booster rocket lifts the missile and its warhead into the air. Although it lasts five minutes at most, satellites can easily identify the rocket’s exhaust fumes. After the boost phase, the missile releases its warhead and any decoys it carries. In the midcourse phase, the “target cluster” (consisting of the warhead and decoys) travels through space at speeds close to 15,000 miles per hour for up to 20 minutes. The third, or “terminal” phase last about 40 seconds, when the warhead reenters the atmosphere and closes in on its target.

The midcourse defense system uses an interceptor rocket carrying a “kill vehicle” – a package of sensors, computers and thrusters – along with a system of satellite and radar technology. Satellite data notifies the system of an enemy missile launch. An early-warning radar tracks the target’s trajectory and predicts where an intercept might occur. A second radar, the X-band radar, begins searching that area. Once it identifies the cluster, it distinguishes the warhead from the decoys.

At the appropriate time, one or more interceptor rockets are launched. The kill vehicle determines its position using a star map in its onboard computer, and receives updates on the target’s position from the X-band radar and a space-based sensor system. When it is close enough to the target cluster, it determines which object is the warhead based on information previously provided by the X-band radar, then maneuvers using its thrusters to collide with it.

Despite an investment of $130 billion in this initiative over the past 30 years, the results have been discouraging. Three of eight intercept tests undertaken to date have failed, including the most recent test in December 2002. This has occurred despite the fact that tests were conducted in situations designed to improve success rates. The target launch time and location were known, along with its flight trajectory, what it looks like, and what the decoys around it look like. Astonishingly, the target even emitted a radar beacon.[15] MDA has no current plans to conduct tests under unscripted conditions.[16]

As of October 8, 2004, five interceptor rockets have been installed in underground silos at Fort Greeley. Testing exercises began in early October.[17] A Navy destroyer has begun patrolling the Sea of Japan with radar capable of identifying North Korean missile launches.[18] The Defense Department plans to declare the system operational before the end of 2004.[19]

Declaring the system operational implies that it works. But even if the current round of scripted testing exercises are successful, the system will not be functional because it is missing key components. The X-band radar needed to identify the target cluster and distinguish a warhead from decoys will not be ready until 2006, at the earliest. Nor will there be any space-based sensors. The radar that is intended to receive the initial satellite information regarding a missile launch is in place, but is not scheduled to be incorporated into the system until 2007.[20]
Assuming these steps are successfully achieved, will the system work? Thomas P. Christie, the Pentagon’s Chief Weapons Evaluator, based on data from actual tests, estimates the likelihood of success after full deployment at about 20 percent. The MDA argues that earlier test failures should not be counted because the causes of the failures have been fixed. Based on computer simulations and the testing of individual components, it predicts the ground-based system will be 80 percent effective.[21]

Many experts believe that even a fully deployed system would be stymied by anti-detection measures undertaken by those who launched the missiles. In 2000, for example, a panel of scientists and engineers concluded that unsophisticated countermeasures easily implemented by countries like North Korea – such as painting decoys to give the same infrared signal as a warhead – would render the midcourse defense system ineffective.[22]

Despite the lack of success, the ABM system is not only alive and kicking today, it has seemingly vanquished its Congressional opposition. The National Missile Defense Act of 1999, “To declare it to be the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense,” passed with the support of 96 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats.[23] The debate is now centered on how big a system to build and how fast to build it, not whether to build it.

There have been some challenges to the current deployment, however. One Senate amendment to the 2005 Defense Authorization Act would have required that the system succeed in operational testing before it was deployed.[24] Another would have withheld funds for additional interceptors until there was a successful operational test, and required an independent evaluation of the program.[25] A third would have redirected funds for additional interceptors to nonproliferation programs, pending evidence that the initial interceptors work.[26] All three amendments failed in nearly straight party-line votes.

The Bush administration expects to spend another $50 billion on missile defense over the next 5 years.[27]


[1] A ballistic missile is one that is guided in its ascent and free falling in descent. The word ballistic refers to the motion of objects under their own momentum and the force of gravity.

[2] Daniel Smith, A Brief History of Missiles and Ballistic Missile Defense, Center for Defense Information, 2000.

[3] Union of Concerned Scientists, U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Timeline 1945-2001, March 6, 2003.

[4] The Army initially said the Patriot had an 80 percent success rate in intercepting and destroying Iraqi Scuds in Saudi Arabia, and a 50 percent success rate in Israel. An investigation by the House subsequently concluded there was little evidence to prove Patriot missiles hit more than a few Scuds. A GAO report found that there was strong evidence of an intercept in only 9 percent of all Patriot engagements, and little evidence in the other 16 percent of engagements the Army said resulted in an intercept. U.S. General Accounting Office, Operation Desert Storm: Data Does Not Exist to Conclusively Say How Well Patriot Performed, September 2002. PBS Frontline, The Gulf War, January 6, 1996.

[5] Passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993.

[6] Union of Concerned Scientists, U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Timeline 1945-2001, March 6, 2003.

[8] Bradley Graham, “Interceptor System Set, But Doubts Remain,” Washington Post, September 29, 2004.

[9] Washington Post, September 29, 2004.

[11] Washington Post, September 29, 2004.

[12] U.S. Government Accountability Office, Missile Defense: Actions are Needed to Enhance Testing and Accountability, GAO-04-409, April 2004.

[13] The full system includes the interceptors at Fort Greeley, tracking radar on the Aleutian Island of Shemya in Alaska, an early-warning radar at Beale Air Force Base in California, and command centers at Fort Greeley and Colorado Springs, Colorado. Additional interceptors will be added at Fort Greeley and Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. Associated Press, October 8, 2004.

[14] For a basic overview of how missile defense works see PBS Frontline, Missile Wars, October 15, 2002. For a more detailed description see Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, George Lewis and Philip Coyle III, Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a National Missile Defense System, Union of Concerned Scientists, May 2004.

[15] Phillip E. Coyle III, “The Problems and Prospects of the New Alaska Missile Interceptor Site: Ten Fallacies About Missile Defense“, Center for Defense Information, September 20, 2004.

[16] Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, George Lewis and Philip Coyle III, Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a National Missile Defense System, Union of Concerned Scientists, May 2004.

[17] Components of the interceptor missiles have been tested separately, but not together in the configuration in which they are being deployed. Boeing and Lockheed designed booster rockets failed at such a high rate that the contract was given in 2002 to a much smaller company. Three successful tests of the booster rocket have been carried out since February 2003, but the booster has not been tested carrying a kill vehicle. And although the booster design is based on a rocket that has failed only 3 times in 31 launches of small satellites, the situations are not comparable. Satellite launch countdowns usually last two days, with plenty of time to troubleshoot. Missile defense boosters must sit in long-term storage in a silo before being launched with a countdown of minutes. Washington Post, September 29, 2004.

[18] Associated Press, October 8, 2004.

[19] Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, September 24, 2004.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Washington Post, September 29, 2004.

[22] Ibid.

[23] The final vote was 317 to 105 in the House and 97 to 3 in the Senate. H.R. 4. S. 257.

[24] The vote on the Boxer Amendment was 42 to 55 against, with 99 percent of Senate Republicans voting against and 85 percent of Democrats voting in favor.

[25] The vote on the Reed Amendment was 45 to 53 against, with 100 percent of Senate Republicans voting against and 94 percent of Democrats voting in favor.

[26] The vote on the Levin Amendment was 44 to 56, with 100 percent of Senate Republicans voting against and 89 percent of Democrats voting in favor.

[27] Washington Post, September 29, 2004.




David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.