Ever since the advent of long-range weapons, militaries have been concerned with defending themselves against objects falling from the sky. Developing technologies in the 1950s brought a new threat in the form of ballistic missiles. Governments and their armed forces sought defensive measures, culminating recently in the United States in a National Missile Defense (NMD) program. There are three main concerns with NMD: destabilization, functionality, and who should be in charge of decisions about its development and deployment. The discussion currently centers on general versus immediate deterrence and international conflict.
I. Historical Background
II. Recent Developments
The first attempt at missile defense in the United States came in the late 1950s with the Nike-Zeus interceptor. Because the United States lacked advanced guidance technology, the only reasonable path to interception lay in arming the defensive missile with a nuclear warhead. This system was unsuccessful and was replaced in 1961 by the Ballistic Missile Boost Interceptor (BAMBI). Housed in satellite platforms, BAMBI would intercept enemy missiles shortly after launch (the “boost” phase) by deploying a large net designed to disable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Again, because of technical difficulties, it was never deployed.
In 1963, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara unveiled the Sentinel program. This program differed from its predecessors by layering defensive missiles. Made up of both short- and long-range interception missiles and guided by radar and computers, the system would protect the entire United States from a large-scale nuclear attack. Political concerns about the destabilizing influence of this system, along with the technical difficulties involved in tracking and intercepting incoming ICBMs, ensured that the Sentinel fared no better than its predecessors.
In 1967 the Sentinel was scaled back and renamed Safeguard. With this reduction in scale, the entire United States could not be protected, and Safeguard was installed only around nuclear missile sites. This enabled launch sites to survive a first strike and then retaliate. For the first time in U.S. missile defense theory, survival of retaliatory capability outweighed the defense of American citizens.
While the United States worked at developing NMD systems, the USSR did the same. It became obvious to the two superpowers that this could escalate into a defensive arms race. In an effort to curb military spending, the two countries agreed in 1972 to limit their defensive systems, creating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Under this agreement, each country could deploy one defensive system. The United States chose to defend the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota and the USSR chose Moscow.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan revived the NMD debate by announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known derisively as “Star Wars.” Although previous missile defense systems had used ground-based control systems, Star Wars called for an elaborate series of nuclear-pumped x-ray laser satellites to destroy enemy missiles. This program would provide complete protection to the United States in the event of an all-out attack by a nuclear-armed adversary. Unfortunately, the technical problems were too great, and with the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the program was canceled.
Under the administration of George W. Bush, SDI morphed into NMD. This project was less ambitious than SDI, and its goal was the defense of the United States against nuclear blackmail or terrorism from a “rogue” state. The system consisted of ground-based interceptor missiles in Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. By 2005, there had been a series of arguably successful test launches from sea- and shore-based launchers against a simulated missile attack. (The results of these tests are themselves debated.)
As with its predecessors, there were three current concerns with the NMD program: destabilization, functionality, and who should be in charge of decisions about its development and deployment.
Under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), both sides avoided launching missiles because the enemy would respond in kind. Neither side could win; therefore neither would go to war. Developing an effective NMD would eliminate the retaliatory threat, destabilizing the balance of power by making a nuclear war winnable and thus increasing the chance that one might occur. Even the fear that one side might field such a system could cause a preemptive strike.
The concept a successful NMD assumes a system that works. To date, missile defense systems have posed numerous technical problems and have never achieved true operational status. Critics of NMD argue that this current system has fared no better than others, whereas supporters claim that the successful tests of the recent past show that the technology is viable.
Finally, there is the question of who is in charge. Given post-9/11 security issues, the main concern is defending against launches from countries that have possible links to terrorists. As the developer of NMD, the United States would want the final say in its deployment and use. Unfortunately, to maximize interception probabilities, NMD requires sites in other countries, mostly members of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). Poland and the Czech Republic, because of their position along possible missile flight paths, figured prominently in U.S. strategies under President Bush. The administration’s plan called for up to 54 missiles to be based in Poland and the controlling X-band radar to be sited in the Czech Republic.
These and other NATO countries, however, believe that participating in NMD makes them into potential targets of both terrorists and countries unfriendly to NATO. They feel they should have the authority to launch missiles in their own defense should the need arise. In fact, as a result of the plans to deploy NMD in Eastern Europe, tensions between the United States and Russia grew. Both in order to relieve these tensions and confront the economic and technical difficulties of NMD, the Obama administration announced that it would not be going forward with deployments in Eastern Europe and had begun investigating alternatives to NMD generally.
NMD remains an unproved system. Despite over 50 years of work, the probability of successful ballistic missile defense remains low. Add to this the concerns over destabilization, costs, and the utility of the system in light of the changing landscape of warfare in the 21st century (where “small wars” and tactical weapons are the norm), and the future of NMD is far from certain. A growing number of skeptics and realists are beginning to regard NMD as just another entry in a long list of failed or cancelled projects.
Steven T. Nagy
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