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Missile Defense: No Long-Term Solution

by Jenny Shin

This article was originally published on isn.ethz.ch

.The national security landscape has vastly changed since the end of the Cold War. Today, the United States is faced with both hostile state and non-state actors that could employ immeasurably different tactics to threaten the American homeland. But missile defense is not the answer to providing the protection the American people need from asymmetric threats and unyielding hostile nations in the long term. Contrary to what the name implies, a missile defense system actually harms US national security and counters what the system is built to do. While heated debate continues in Washington over whether the system is cost-effective or the technology is proven, we must also take into consideration the crucial element of America’s long-term national security and the potential blowback a missile defense system may generate for the United States and the overall international system.

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Missile defense has always been a contentious issue ever since the United States and the Soviet Union competitively and hostilely built up their conventional and nonconventional weapons arsenals to counter and deter each other’s forces. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed between President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev on 26 May 1972, was a crucial step in calming these tensions. The rationale behind the treaty was that building defensive capabilities against the enemy’s offensive weapons would induce the enemy to take measures to overwhelm any opponent’s defense system and vice versa, hence encouraging an arms race. Instead, through the ABM Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union opted to deter one another by mutual assured destruction (MAD) or the idea that both sides were vulnerable to an attack and a retaliatory strike ensuring mutual destruction.

Ronald Reagan, however, envisioned a strategic defense system composed of ground and space-based forces that would provide sufficient defensive capabilities to eliminate the United States’ vulnerability to Soviet missiles. He believed the United States could respond to any hostile Soviet action from a stronger position behind a wall of defenses. Reagan presented this policy, which came to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), in his address to the nation on 23 March 1983. Although defensive systems had existed prior to Reagan’s SDI proposal, SDI carved out a comprehensive and expansive goal that went far beyond using ground-launched interceptors and pushed the technical and atmospheric boundaries of what was even remotely possible at the time.

Reagan’s SDI never materialized, primarily due to technological difficulties. George H.W. Bush attempted to build space-based interceptors through the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) and Brilliant Pebbles, while Bill Clinton mostly pursued a ground-based version of national missile defense that did not have a space-based weapons element. It was not until George W. Bush came into office that Reagan’s “Star Wars” vision seemed to take on a new life. The Bush administration announced its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in December 2001, asserting that “we no longer live in the Cold War world for which the ABM Treaty was designed.” In his formal withdrawal statement on 13 June 2002, Bush stated, “The new strategic challenges of the 21st century require us to think differently…I am committed to deploying a missile defense system…to protect the American people and our deployed forces against the growing missile threats we face.”

During Bush’s two terms in office, missile defense spending increased significantly. To put this into perspective, nearly US$150 billion has been spent on missile defense since 1983. According to the Government Accountability Office, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has spent about US$56 billion of that total since 2002. This estimate, however, does not reflect total missile defense spending since 2002 given that missile defense programs exist outside of the MDA as well (i.e. Army and Air Force). Thus, given missile defense appropriations since Fiscal Year 2002, total missile defense spending would be nearly US$80 billion. Today, the missile defense system consists of a complex system of systems on land, air, sea and in space, but it still has yet to fully resemble Reagan’s vision for an impenetrable bubble that can defend against an onslaught of missiles. This will require an unprecedented level of spending with no end in sight.

Staunch supporters of missile defense agree with the Bush administration’s move to pull out of the ABM Treaty, believing that an outdated treaty no longer applies to the 21st century where the Soviet Union no longer exists. However, if that is the case, then the same reasoning applies to SDI, which was first broached nearly 30 years ago. SDI was proposed at a time when the Reagan administration saw an “awesome Soviet missile threat” that would need to be countered with defensive measures. The security structure and threats of the 21st century are vastly different from that of the 20th century and, as Bush stated in his ABM Treaty withdrawal statement, it will require 21st century thinking to tackle today’s threats. A missile defense system that is based off a nearly 30 year-old proposal is not employing 21st century thinking.

Some may argue, however, that because we face 21st century threats, a missile defense system is necessary more than ever due to the threat of terrorism and the fear of nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands. However, propping up an expensive system that lacks operational viability will not counter the threat of terrorism and insurgency. In a survey released in August 2008 conducted by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine of national security experts of all political ideologies, a majority of national security experts saw nuclear materials and weapons to be the single greatest threat to US security. However, when asked about the most important objective the United States should achieve in the next five years, the majority believed that winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world was the most important, while only 1 percent identified national missile defense as such.

Furthermore, missile defense systems fail to shore up US national security in the long run.  Instead, they contribute to adverse deterrence or create a deterrent effect that can potentially produce a blowback to US security rather than defending the United States. The reasoning behind this is that while the United States and other world powers continue to advance and multiply their weapons arsenals, emerging states will follow this lead while also acting on the weapons build-up of hostile neighbors (i.e. Pakistan and India, India and China, Iran and Israel, Japan and North Korea, etc.). Deploying missile defenses in various regions of the world would appear to be a safe solution by some in response to missile proliferation and threats, but then the United States must also be prepared for hostile states that seek to overwhelm and weaken our defenses by building more offensive capabilities. This will only trap the United States in a vicious cycle where it will have to keep propping up more defenses (and spend more money) in the face of adversaries that could potentially become stronger offensively over time. While outdated and flawed for its views on the deterrence theory of MAD, the fundamental basis of a defense-triggered arms race of the ABM Treaty continues to apply in today’s missile defense realm and explains why a missile defense system only encourages states to respond to our defenses in a more aggressive manner. This inadvertently reduces our deterrence.

Deterrence itself continues to be an important element of our national security, but the United States’ deterrent capabilities have been stretched thin. The United States no longer faces just one clear adversary as it did during the Cold War. Many actors have emerged and they play a vital role in today’s security atmosphere, regardless of whether or not they are acknowledged world powers. Today’s security atmosphere is characterized by a United States that strives for strategic superiority, world powers that seek strategic parity with the United States, emerging states and less recognized nations that are motivated by diplomatic leverage and technological independence in conventional and nuclear forces, and finally, non-state actors that are unpredictable and not easily deterred by US hard power. Responding to limited US deterrence capabilities by continually strengthening and fortifying US missile defenses will be counterintuitive to a deterrent strategy that is designed to defend the United States and will not address the security problems of the 21st century. It will only continue to add to the security imbalance that will encourage others to follow suit through the build-up of their arsenals.

Whether the system is cost-effective or the technology is proven is debatable and should be discussed as it involves America’s immediate security. Barack Obama has made the case repeatedly that the system must be “developed in a way that is pragmatic and cost-effective; and most important, does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public.” Given the United States has spent at least US$150 billion on missile defense since 1983 and the MDA experienced test schedule delays and performance shortfalls in all Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) elements in Fiscal Year 2008, the Obama administration’s stance on missile defense is valid.

Specifically looking at the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), which is the missile defense system established to counter a North Korean threat to the U.S. homeland and one that is being considered for deployment in Eastern Europe to protect against an Iranian threat, the GMD has completed 8 of 14 successful intercepts since 1997. By converting these numbers into a standard grading scale, the GMD scores an F+. The GMD is believed to be a crucial element to national security in the immediate future as it is designed to protect against specific threats, but having an F+ system does not guarantee protection nor leave American citizens feeling secure. Thus, before the Obama administration rushes to deploy a system any time soon, it is important above all else to ensure that such a complex system will work in the face of real threats.

Important as these issues are to security in the short run, these are shortsighted issues that blind us from understanding and preparing for the long-term consequences that a missile defense system may potentially bring. What will be necessary in the near future is a comprehensive national security strategy that is competent with 21st century threats. This will require a full examination of modern-day deterrence and the role it has for the United States, a review of security challenges in the short-, medium-, and long-run, and the best methods to counter the threats over time. Lastly, assessing the missile defense system in the context of this review and the threats we face will be extremely important. A complete review of the missile defense system should include its effects beyond America’s borders because ultimately, any US actions on missile defense will be met with some response by any nation, hostile or friendly.

Diplomacy should also be a crucial element in a strategy review. Obama promised during his campaign that he would renew American diplomacy to strengthen alliances, engage friends and foes, and seek new partnerships; if anything, diplomacy is perhaps the best weapon the United States can deploy to create strategic balance in the 21st century. With national security being one of the most crucial elements of America’s defense structure, the time to review the consequences of our actions is now.