The American Legion Magazine
August  2005
By Alan W. Dowd

When Ronald Reagan first outlined plans to deploy a shield against missile attack, critics in America dismissed it as astronomically expensive and technologically infeasible. But officials in Moscow opposed Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative for precisely the opposite reason: They knew it could work, and they knew that a Soviet equivalent was something their bankrupt empire could not produce. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made this clear during the 1986 summit in Reykjavik, where he put everything on the negotiating table in exchange for just one concession—SDI.

Almost two decades later, widespread proliferation abroad, bipartisan agreement at home and technological advances in the field have transformed missile defense in two important ways: It is no longer merely a theoretical possibility, but rather a technological reality. And it’s no longer simply a matter of national defense, but increasingly an important ingredient of international security.

The Beginning

Contrary to his detractors and supporters, Reagan didn’t invent missile defense. In fact, the U.S. Army was proposing missile defenses during World War II, as the Center for Defense Information observes. A decade later, the Pentagon was testing America’s first anti-ballistic missile system—the Nike Zeus. That system laid the groundwork for the Sentinel ABM, which the Johnson administration began deploying in 1967.

With the advent of the ABM Treaty in 1972, which limited missile defenses to just two ground-based sites, America’s ABM program would be deprived of vital resources. In 1974, the treaty was amended to allow just one ABM site. With the closure of that site in North Dakota, America’s ABM program slipped into dormancy.

Reagan brought the program out of its coma with a mix of rhetoric and action. By 1983, the Pentagon was researching and developing ABM systems; and by 1984, the Pentagon was conducting test flights.[1]

Development continued into the 1990s. Even though he had expressed reservations about the program, President Bill Clinton earmarked about $3 billion annually for missile defense, as Slate magazine discovered after trolling Pentagon records. After a Congressional commission raised a number of warnings about ballistic missiles, Clinton signed legislation that poured additional spending into the program and paved the way for deployment of a national missile defense “as soon as technologically feasible.” His critics say he could have done more, which is true. But he also could have done less. In the end, he followed the Hippocratic Oath when it came to missile defense: he did no harm.

By endorsing missile defense, Clinton reflected the emergence of a new national consensus on the issue. Thanks in part to that consensus, President George W. Bush was able to accelerate the program. After convincing Moscow that the system wouldn’t upset the U.S.-Russia deterrent balance, he scrapped the anachronistic ABM Treaty and made formal requests for assistance to key allies. 

Envisioning a layered system of missile defenses, Bush vowed “to begin operating these initial capabilities in 2004 and 2005.” Making good on the president’s promise, the Pentagon started deploying the first interceptors at Ft. Greely, Alaska, in July 2004. Two additional interceptors would be deployed at Vandenberg AFB, California, with 12 more missile-killers set for deployment this year (ten in Alaska; two in California). The Pentagon will stand up another 10 interceptors as the decade moves forward, bringing the total to 30.

Reminiscent of the old “Looking Glass” planes that stayed aloft 24-hours-a-day during the Cold War, warships armed with Aegis missile-tracking radars are now pacing in the Sea of Japan, standing guard against a North Korean launch and feeding data to the interceptors. By the end of 2006, there will be 18 Aegis-equipped warships at sea, some with the capability not only to track inbound threats, but to intercept them with their own long-range SM-3 missiles.

Still, the key word here is “initial.” Missile defense remains a work in progress. A sophisticated radar platform that can discern between decoys and warheads still needs be towed to the Pacific Ocean and activated in late 2005. More missile-tracking satellites need to be put into orbit. More layers need to be added to the system, like the Airborne Laser, a missile-killing laser mounted on a 747 that can loiter outside enemy territory and destroy a missile long before it threatens American soil; and space-based defenses, like “Brilliant Pebbles,” which would use a constellation of satellites to fire interceptors at long-range missiles. Plus, more tests need to be conducted.   

Indeed, aside from cost—$80 billion since 1985, with another $53 billion earmarked between now and 2009—much of the criticism of the system has to do with testing. After all, the system went online after just eight attempted intercepts, five of which were successful. In fact, an important test in December failed when an interceptor rocket based at the Marshall Islands malfunctioned. Several other tests have been scrubbed.

According to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), “There’s been no realistic testing.” Former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command Eugene Habiger adds, “A system is being deployed that doesn’t have any credible capability.”[2]

In response, Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has argued that “You have to build it to really test it.” His predecessor, Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, called missile defense “an evolutionary system that will respond to our technical progress and reflect real world developments.”

Weapons systems are often deployed before they are perfected or fully tested. Consider the JSTARS planes or bunker-penetrating bombs rushed to the Gulf before Operation Desert Storm, or the much-maligned stealth technology that proved its worth in Serbia, Afghanistan and twice in Iraq. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Washington Post, “They’d still be testing at Kitty hawk, for God’s sake, if you wanted perfection.”[3]

Richard Garwin, who chaired the State Department’s Arms Control and Proliferation Advisory Board, worries that the new system is not capable of overcoming the kind of missiles and countermeasures that our enemies will likely employ—short-range, ship-launched missiles or decoy-laden long-range missiles. These are better targeted by boost-phase interceptors, which hit the missile soon after launch, before countermeasures are employed.

The MDA counters that it is laying the foundation for an “integrated, layered” system that will include several forms of missile defense and “reduce the military utility of ballistic missiles.”

The Threat

Whatever form it takes, the time for missile defense has come. While it would be wasteful to deploy a Potemkin missile defense, it would by irresponsible to delay deployment until the system can guarantee 100-percent success—a standard so high that “failure” is inevitable. Today, there are 25 countries—and counting—that have or are developing missilery that can threaten U.S. territory or bases. With their twin terror programs that seek to match rockets with nukes, North Korea and Iran top that list.

Pyongyang, which defiantly declared itself a nuclear power in 2003, can already strike Japan and South Korea with its existing arsenal. Its land-based version of an old Soviet submarine-launched missile will bring Guam and Okinawa into striking distance. A surprise launch of the three-stage Taepo Dong 1 in 1998 proved that with enough modifications, Pyongyang could hit the westernmost United States. And as the Congressional Research Service reports, its next generation of missilery—the Taepo Dong X—will be able to strike anywhere in America.[4]

Seemingly reading from the same script, Iran was caught enriching uranium and testing nuclear-device precursors in 2003. With a range of 800 miles, Tehran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missile can strike U.S. allies (and bases) in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Gulf. Iran has promised to stop developing a long-range variant of the Shahab-3, one that can hit U.S. interests in Europe.[5] Of course, it also promised to stop enriching uranium, a promise it didn’t keep.

In a word, the oceans can no longer protect us from these threats. In fact, the oceans may even spawn the threats. In late 2004, Rumsfeld confirmed that a Middle Eastern nation test-fired a ballistic missile from a cargo ship. “They had taken a short-range, probably Scud missile, put it on a transporter-erector launcher, lowered it in, taken the vessel out into the water, peeled back the top, erected it, fired it, lowered it, covered it up," he explained.

Deterrence, which critics of missile defense claim is the best answer to the missile threat, is meaningless with such an enemy—what if the next cargo ship to fire a missile is owned by stateless terrorist rather than a government?—and so is the range of the missile. As Rumsfeld concluded, the “distinction we make between intercontinental, medium-range and shorter-range ballistic missiles doesn't make a lot of sense if you're going to move the missile closer to the target.”[6]

The Alliance

Given these threats, it’s no surprise that Washington has been able to gather a broad coalition of allies to what is now a truly international missile defense (IMD) program.

Britain agreed in 2003 to software and hardware upgrades of ground-based radar stations at Fylingdales. Last August, Denmark approved similar upgrades at radar and satellite-tracking stations in Thule, Greenland. Once used to scan the skies for Soviet bombers, the bases in Britain and Greenland will now monitor the European horizon for accidental or rogue missile launches. As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell explained at ceremonies announcing Denmark’s decision, “This is a way of providing protection to all of the civilized world—not just the United States, not just Greenland and not just Denmark.”

The Polish and Czech governments are negotiating with Washington on the deployment of new radar stations on their soil, enabling the IMD system to peer deep into Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The Poles have even expressed a willingness to open their territory to missile interceptors. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, the Pentagon has been surveying the mountains of southern Poland as a possible base for underground interceptor silos like those in Alaska and California. If selected, the Polish site would become the first U.S. interceptor located on foreign soil.

Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway are also cooperating with Washington on elements of missile defense. Even Russia has participated in theater missile defense exercises, under NATO auspices.

Although it is not as enthusiastic as some of its European counterparts, Canada has authorized the use of NORAD to support the IMD system.

Japan and Australia serve as the coalition’s key pillars in the Pacific. In mid-2004, Australia signed a 25-year pact on missile defense cooperation, committing Canberra and Washington to joint development and deployment of new missile-tracking facilities and missile-killing warships.

With North Korea just next door, Tokyo is deadly serious about IMD, as evidenced by the Japanese military’s request last August for a 35-percent increase in missile-defense spending. Although Tokyo and Washington had been quietly cooperating on missile defense since 1999, it wasn’t until 2003 that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gave the go-ahead to begin constructing a layered missile-defense system.

According to the MDA, the Japanese system includes a network of new ground-based radars; SM-3 interceptors, which attack incoming missiles at their highest point; missile-tracking Aegis warships, which patrol near rogue countries; and Patriot PAC-3s, which serve as a last line of defense. Testing, which began in and around Hawaii in 2004, is scheduled through 2006.

After being pelted by 39 Scud missiles in 1991, Israel has an appreciation for missile defense that others lack. In fact, Israel has already deployed its link in the IMD chain, the Arrow anti-missile system. With most of the tests conducted in the States and half the funding coming from the U.S., the Arrow arguably wouldn’t exist without American support.

Finally, India and Washington are exploring how missile defense might stabilize the Asian subcontinent. The Indian government would like to purchase the Arrow from Israel. Before approving that transfer, Washington is weighing a number of balance-of-power issues with Pakistan and China.

The growing international support for missile defense is remarkable. Once doomed to isolate Washington, alienate Russia and aggravate America’s friends, missile defense has actually bolstered America’s position in the world, gained Moscow’s acquiescence, enfolded four continents, and united some of the world’s most pivotal and powerful states.

The Shield

These heady days of missile defense call to mind something Churchill said in 1955. Then, as now, weapons of mass destruction were a grave concern. But Churchill did not despair. Instead, he outlined a strategy premised on “defense through deterrents.” He called on Britain to field “the most up-to-date nuclear weapons,” to modernize its conventional forces and to preserve “the unity and brotherhood between the United Kingdom and the United States.”

However, as Churchill understood from experience, “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout.” To foil the plans of such madmen, according to Churchill, we must be open to other “methods of protecting ourselves;” and allied nations must stick together to maintain a “defensive shield.”

Churchill wasn’t talking specifically about missile defense, of course, but there can be no doubt that he would have been an ardent supporter of it. After all, he entrusted Britain’s very existence to then-untested radar stations and fighter planes; and he saw firsthand the terror and devastation caused by German rockets.

Because of his foresight, history has judged him well. It will do no less with those who began constructing a defensive shield for the 21st century.

*Cover feature


[1]Daniel Smith/Center for Defense Information, “Chronology of US national missile defense programs,” www.cdi.org.

[2] Brad Graham, “Interceptor system set, but doubts remain,” Washington Post, Sept. 29, 2004.

[3] Brad Graham, “Interceptor system set, but doubts remain,” Washington Post, Sept. 29, 2004.

[4] Andrew Feikert, “Missile Survey: Ballistic and cruise missiles of foreign countries,” CRS Report for Congress, March 4, 2004.

[5] Feikert.

[6] Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, “Missile defense,” Washington Times, August 27, 2004.