January 1, 2006  

Off the radar

Missile defense was the administration’s highest priority.’ What happened?

“The deployment of effective missile defenses is an essential element of the United States’ broader efforts to transform our defense and deterrence policies and capabilities to meet the new threats we face. Defending the American people against these new threats is the Administration’s highest priority.”

— National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense Fact Sheet, May 20, 2003

One of the national security touchstones of the Bush administration’s first term was a focus on protecting

Americans against ballistic missile attack. In a world where weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technologies proliferate, and extremist and terrorist groups seek to acquire the ability to visit the ultimate “vengeance” upon the United States, this focus was well-placed.

Yet something odd has happened. Despite the earlier emphasis on “making ballistic missile defense a reality” (to borrow the slogan of the Missile Defense Agency, or MDA), and the deployment of an initial rudimentary missile defense capability, missile defense seems less of a national security priority today. In the administration’s first term, missile defense was highlighted as an essential element of the “New Triad” of strategic capabilities called for in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). With the United States still vulnerable to many kinds of ballistic missile threats, an active and aggressive effort to strengthen the nation’s missile defense capability would be reasonable, yet this effort appears to be in jeopardy.

Interestingly, few administration officials outside the MDA have spoken in any detail about the need to move forward with a more robust missile defense posture. Indeed, there have been indications of a heated debate within the Defense Department over whether the missile defense effort needs to be accelerated, scaled back, or refocused. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s annual list of top legislative priorities for fiscal 2007 doesn’t even mention missile defense. Meanwhile, North Korea and Iran have moved forward aggressively with their respective nuclear programs. And ballistic missile technology continues to proliferate to potentially hostile nations.

So, it is not unreasonable to ask: What has happened to missile defense? Why does there seem to be less emphasis and urgency on defending America against what is clearly a growing security threat? There are many likely answers to this question, some of which are discussed below. Yet it is significant to note that almost 23 years after President Reagan reinvigorated the debate over missile defenses with his Strategic Defense Initiative speech, senior level interest in and attention to missile defense issues appears to be waning. Missile defense risks being seen as just another program in competition for scarce resources. For an administration that rightfully made missile defense one of its most important national security priorities, this is unfortunate.

The importance of missile defense to American security was recognized during the Gulf War in 1991, when an Iraqi Scud missile launched against Saudi Arabia killed the largest single number of Americans in that conflict. Bipartisan support emerged for theater missile defenses to protect deployed forces from shorter-range missile. However, support for national missile defense to protect the U.S. homeland against longer-range missile threats remained controversial, with opponents citing the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibited effective missile defenses for the U.S. homeland.


The debate over missile defense during the Clinton administration reflected significant divisions between Republicans and Democrats on a matter of utmost national security importance. President Clinton opposed Republican efforts to increase funding and support for missile defense. Efforts to legislate policy in this area by the Republican-controlled Congress were challenged by the administration. The 1996 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized a significant effort for national missile defense, was vetoed by Clinton. A compromise bill stripped out many of the pro-missile defense provisions of the original bill.

Despite serious signs that America’s enemies were moving forward with development of ballistic missiles that could strike at longer and longer ranges, the Clinton administration refused to accept the need for urgent action. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 95-19 declared that “No country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states or Canada.” A General Accounting Office report on NIE 95-19 concluded that this finding was “overstated” and that the estimate itself suffered from “analytic shortcomings.” Republicans accused the administration of “politicizing” intelligence, and Congress created an independent commission to review the ballistic missile threat to the United States. It was chaired by former and future Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The “Rumsfeld Commission” concluded that the missile threat to the United States “is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community.” As if to demonstrate the wisdom and validity of the commission’s conclusions, within a week of the public release of the commission’s report, North Korea test fired a long-range Taepo-Dong I missile over Japan in an unsuccessful attempt place a satellite in orbit. The intelligence community had not anticipated the North Korean launch of a missile with a third stage, giving it an intercontinental capability. This event galvanized missile defense supporters and led to the passage of HR 4, the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, which declared it to be U.S. policy to deploy a national missile defense “as soon as is technologically possible.” The vote on HR 4 in the House was a resounding 345-71, as 132 Democrats joined with 213 Republicans to vote for the bill, despite the administration’s vocal opposition. The bill passed by unanimous consent in the Senate. With such a veto-proof margin, Clinton signed the bill into law.


The Bush administration came into office recognizing that ballistic missile threats to the United States were proliferating faster than the ability to counter them. Bush saw the ABM Treaty as a Cold War relic. He was determined not to allow America’s vulnerability to missile threats to continue in perpetuity. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, reaffirmed his belief that America’s enemies would seek to exploit America’s weakest vulnerabilities.

In late 2001, the Defense Department promulgated its Nuclear Posture Review, which called for the fielding of a “New Triad” of strategic capabilities, including nuclear and non-nuclear strike forces, a robust weapons maintenance and production infrastructure, and missile defenses.

In December 2002, Bush announced the U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and to begin the process of developing and deploying a missile defense system that would protect the American homeland from limited ballistic missile threats. The announcement drew strong criticism from the arms-control community, which considered the ABM Treaty the crown jewel of arms-control agreements, and caused consternation among some European allies concerned with Russia’s reaction. However, skillful U.S. diplomacy leading up to the withdrawal announcement helped pave the way for a Russian reaction that was surprisingly muted. Although declaring the U.S. decision to be a mistake, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the action “presents no threat to the security of the Russian Federation.” And that was that. The ABM Treaty ended with a whimper, not a bang.

Freed from the constraints of the treaty, the United States was able to pursue promising technologies and opportunities in the missile defense arena that had been foreclosed for 30 years. The Bush administration moved rapidly to consolidate this gain.

The president approved a plan calling for the evolutionary deployment of missile defense capabilities designed to provide protection for all 50 states against a limited missile attack. The backbone of this system was to be a series of Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The GMD system was designed to offer rudimentary protection against a ballistic missile launch from North Korea. National Security Presidential Directive 23 (NSPD-23) called for deployment of an initial set of missile defense capabilities starting in 2004.

To facilitate this objective, Rumsfeld directed the acceleration of the missile defense program and a relaxation of the normal acquisition rules that had become so cumbersome it would take years to advance a system from concept through deployment. This approach, criticized by some as a rush to deployment, was adopted to fulfill the president’s promise to defend the American people from ballistic missile threats during his administration. Indeed, by the end of 2004, the first GMD interceptors had been deployed to newly built silos in Alaska. A small number of additional ground-based interceptors (GBIs) have been deployed at Vandenberg.

NSPD-23 also directed the defense secretary to encourage international cooperation in missile defense. In response, the Bush administration engaged a variety of countries, including European NATO allies, Israel, India, Russia, Ukraine and a host of other countries with varying degrees of success.

The initial GMD system deployment in Alaska and California is rudimentary and has not been declared fully operational. Though the system scored four straight successful intercepts before December 2002, three consecutive flight tests of the system since then failed — two of them when the interceptors themselves did not launch. Although these problems should be relatively simple to fix, doing so takes time and money. Fortunately, a non-intercept flight test in December was successful in demonstrating the launch of the interceptor and performance of the kill vehicle. Congress has expressed its concern with making the ballistic missile defense system more robust until problems with the existing GMD system are corrected, and has added funds to the missile defense budget this year for this purpose.

Although the ground-based system has suffered significant setbacks, the overall ballistic missile defense system is being augmented with sea-based missile defense capabilities that have proven remarkably successful. The Aegis missile defense system — consisting of the SPY-1 radar and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor — has demonstrated a promising capability. Six of the last seven Aegis/SM-3 intercept tests have been successful. With 70 percent of the earth’s surface covered by water, and most of the world’s potential conflict areas within striking range of offshore platforms, the value of this mobile sea-based defense is apparent. A sea-based missile defense could defend not only the United States, but U.S. friends and allies.

Other missile defense capabilities under development include upgrades to the shorter-range Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system; modernized ground- and sea-based radars and sensors, including the Sea-Based X-band Radar; longer-range, ground-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors; the Airborne Laser (ABL), capable of destroying enemy missiles in their boost phase when they are easiest to detect and before they dispense their deadly payloads; the international Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) program, and other efforts. Future capabilities under development include the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), which may have both boost-phase and midcourse defense capabilities. These programs together are designed to defeat all missiles, of all ranges, in all stages of flight, launched from anywhere, against any target — in accordance with U.S. policy and Pentagon guidance.

Of increasing interest are the benefits of developing space-based defenses. Space-based interceptors (SBIs), for example, could provide global coverage and boost-phase defense capabilities that could seriously diminish the advantage to the attacker of launching ballistic missiles. While little effort has been expended since the 1980s on space-based systems, the MDA is contemplating a significant investment in this technology.


With significant improvements in missile defense technology, missile threats continuing to increase, and the United States remaining undefended against anything other than a limited scale rogue nation attack, why does so little attention now seem to be devoted to missile defense? Why is the need for more robust missile defense capabilities seemingly under assault, apparently even within the Pentagon? There are 10 possible reasons that might help explain this development: Multiple diversions. The global war on terrorism and the military stabilization operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have diverted attention away from missile defense. Despite talk of asymmetric threats and our vulnerability to them, the United States still finds itself involved in traditional types of military campaigns, even against nontraditional opponents. Although traditional state-on-state conflicts are precisely the kinds of conflict that some policymakers and war fighters presume will be less likely in the future, the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate the need to be prepared to fight conventional wars in unlikely places. The understandable preoccupation with winning today’s wars on the ground appears to take precedence over the need to protect Americans against future conflicts that appear theoretical — such as those that may involve the launch of ballistic missiles against American targets.

The budget climate. The large budget deficit — in part exacerbated by activities in Iraq and Afghanistan — has resulted in a climate of budget austerity. This means fewer resources for the Pentagon, including for missile defense. When weighed against the need to fund other pressing priorities, missile defense will likely be shortchanged in the annual budget wars. Last year, nearly $10 billion was spent on missile defense. This year, that figure is expected to decline to under $8 billion, and further cuts in the out years are in the offing. Most vulnerable to budget cuts are futuristic programs, such as space-based interceptors, that offer the most promise for defeating various types of missile threats in multiple stages of flight, but which are too nascent to be fielded in this decade. Traditionally, Congress has funded shorter-term initiatives at the expense of longer-term programs, and this is liable to hold true again this year.

Fewer “game changers.” There were several major missile-defense-related developments with significant ramifications during the Bush administration’s first term. For example, the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the president’s decision to deploy missile defenses to protect all Americans produced a seismic shock to the international fraternity of arms control devotees who believed the treaty was the “cornerstone” of stability between the United States and Russia. The deployment of an initial ground-based missile defense system in Alaska in 2004 overturned three decades of stale Cold War doctrine and arms-control orthodoxy. There are a few technology options being pursued — such as the development of small multiple kill vehicles (MKV) on single interceptors — that could dramatically improve the efficacy of missile defenses, but there is nothing deployable during the remainder of the Bush administration’s second term that can produce such a monumental impact on the strategic environment.

Unconvinced skeptics. Missile defense is still seen by some — even within the Defense Department — as a costly insurance policy against an unlikely threat. Against the need to fund more pressing and urgent second-term priorities, missile defense is seen as a capability we can afford to defer with little risk. The failure to find the expected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has raised doubts over the credibility of intelligence estimates — doubts which have carried over to intelligence projections of how soon other countries might acquire threatening ballistic missile capabilities. Unfortunately, the longer we remain vulnerable to missile attack, the more America’s enemies will strive to exploit that vulnerability by threatening us with precisely the kinds of capabilities we are least prepared to defend against.

Missile defense fatigue. Having deployed an initial ground-based missile defense system in Alaska and California to defend against a limited rogue nation missile threat, some might argue that the president has fulfilled his pledge to the American people, the missile defense box has been checked, and it is time to focus on other more pressing priorities. However, the current missile defense system is in no way sufficient to deal with the range of present and potential ballistic missile threats facing the United States.

Lack of focus and prioritization. The existing missile defense program is seen by some as lacking focus and a clear prioritization. Multiple efforts are being pursued simultaneously. For example, at least three separate efforts are advertised to provide defense against missiles in the boost phase — ABL, KEI, and SBI. With the prospect of each absorbing billions of dollars of resources, there appears to be a lack of discipline in the overall effort. Moreover, MDA is basically a research and development, not an acquisition or a combat support, agency. Consequently, MDA needs to work closely with the services to balance its organizational responsibilities with the need to field capabilities quickly, in accordance with the combatant commanders’ operational requirements.

Bureaucratic reluctance. The services are reluctant to fund missile defense initiatives at the expense of programs they view as more relevant to contemporary challenges. Certainly, there is an ongoing need for ground combat vehicles, ships and aircraft to fight the global war on terrorism. When weighed against the need for additional traditional war-fighting capabilities, missile defense programs receive low priority. For example, some believe that Aegis ships should be “taking the fight to the enemy,” not anchored off the U.S. coastline pulling picket duty to protect the homeland from a missile attack that may not occur. This is exacerbated by the view that missile defense is a national, not a service, mission, and therefore should not be funded out of individual service budgets.

Negative publicity. Much of the second-term publicity about missile defense has focused on the recent string of GMD test failures. This had led some to conclude that missile defense is an idea whose time has not yet come. In 2001 and 2002, the GMD “hit-to-kill” interceptor scored four out of five successful intercepts. However, its second-term record has been, to put it mildly, less than impressive, leading the MDA to charter an Independent Review Team (IRT) to assess the reasons behind the recent string of ground-based interceptor failures. According to published reports, the IRT concluded that although additional reliability testing was necessary, there was reason for confidence that the system would be improved and be successful. Moreover, other program efforts have been impressive, if less trumpeted. For example, the Aegis missile defense program has conducted successful intercepts against target missiles in increasingly realistic operational scenarios. The ABL’s achievement of “first light” and “first flight” in 2004 were significant milestones, as was its achievement of long-duration lasing power during ground testing last month. And the upgraded PAC-3 has scored multiple successful intercepts. Unfortunately, to paraphrase a popular saying, “Good news is no news.” For example, the last GMD interceptor launch failure in February 2005 was highlighted on page one of The New York Times, but the successful interceptor launch in December was left unreported in the newspaper that prides itself on printing “all the news that’s fit to print.”

Slow international progress. During Bush’s first term, much was made of the desire to involve other countries in the missile defense effort. NSPD-23 called for relaxing the technology transfer impediments to increased cooperation in the missile defense arena. While the export licensing process has improved, progress has been slow. Though some international cooperative efforts are significant (e.g., Japan), for the most part the level of international involvement in the missile defense program remains modest. Although some European countries have expressed an interest in hosting U.S. missile defense systems on their territory — a development that would bolster both American and European security against Middle Eastern missile threats — little progress has occurred to date in making these deployments a reality.

Disagreements over the “proper type” of missile defense. While the current missile defense program is directed toward defeating limited attacks from a rogue state like North Korea, a debate is underway on whether this type of threat deserves priority focus, especially in light of budgetary constraints. Some believe a more robust defense, including space-based systems, should be a greater priority in order to deal with potentially more significant ballistic missile threats from countries with more substantial offensive ballistic missile forces. Others believe the most likely missile threats to the United States come from ballistic or cruise missiles launched offshore, near the U.S. coasts. Rumsfeld repeatedly warned of the danger of offshore threats during the administration’s first term. Yet there have been few official statements of this kind in the past two years and the current missile defense effort does little to protect Americans against these kinds of threats. The next Quadrennial Defense Review, due to be submitted to Congress in February, may give some indication as to what course the future of missile defense may take.


With only three years remaining in the Bush administration, the time has come to reinvigorate U.S. missile defense efforts. This means, for example, correcting the problems that plague the GMD system by implementing recommendations of the IRT; providing additional funding for successful missile defense efforts like the Aegis/SM-3 program; investing in technological “game changers” like MKV and space-based missile defenses; and pursuing options to defend the homeland against offshore missile threats. It also means convincing skeptics, in and out of government, of the seriousness of the ballistic missile threat, the inadequacy of the current limited GMD deployment and the urgency of the task.

To be successful, senior-level attention is required. Difficult decisions will need to be made as competing priorities are weighed against a declining pool of resources. Missile defense should not be seen as a diversion from winning the war on terrorism; these objectives are not mutually exclusive. Being able to defeat missile attacks launched by hostile states or extremist groups is an essential element of winning the war on terrorism. It also is essential to fulfilling the promise of developing the more balanced suite of New Triad capabilities called for by the NPR and the president’s commitment to defend the American people as his administration’s “highest priority.”

Striking an appropriate balance between the need to prioritize in a climate of fiscal discipline and the imperative of defending Americans against the full range of plausible military threats means accepting a certain level of risk. Delaying or deferring the procurement of systems with the goal of economizing historically has proven to be a short-term solution with negative long-term consequences. Across-the-board cuts, such as those imposed on the missile defense program last year, generally foster the view that all programs are equally important. When everything is important, nothing is important. Terminating some programs to redirect scarce resources to others is a more difficult decision to make, but may be necessary to field some additional capability in the near-term. Either choice will result in accepting an additional level of risk as military capabilities are deferred and operational flexibility is reduced.

It may be impossible to avoid such a choice. Nevertheless, the risks of taking one course of action over another need to be fully understood and articulated by decision makers. In the end, Americans deserve to be protected. Wise leadership is necessary to make it so.