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Chronology of National Missile Defense Programs

Published June 1, 2002


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The debate surrounding U.S. development and deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system is not new. From the humble beginnings of the V-2 rocket in 1944 to the land, air, and sea-based NMD systems of tomorrow, this chronology will give you a sense of the history of the debate.


September 8, 1944

The V-2 rocket is first used by Nazi Germany in an attack on London.

July 4, 1945

The Army submits its first recommendations to develop defenses to protect against ballistic missiles. One of the plans calls for the use of timed anti-aircraft artillery to shield London from incoming V-2 missiles. Another of the plans involves the use of an "energy beam" for defending against V-2 missiles.

March 4, 1946

Project Thumper and Project Wizard are initiated by the Army Air Force to develop interceptor missiles capable of destroying incoming projectiles traveling at altitudes reaching 500,000 feet and traveling at 4,000 mph.

May 29, 1946

The Stilwell Board Report, a commission convened to determine post-World War II weaponry needs, recommends the development of "guided interceptor missiles."


September, 1953

The Soviet Union conducts a feasibility study to investigate the development of an ABM system, which finds that missile defenses were possible. The Soviets launches their ABM development program at the end of 1953.


After completing 50,000 simulated ballistic missile intercepts on an analog computer, Bell Laboratory concludes that it is possible to intercept missiles at their high speeds. The report likens the interception of ballistic missiles to hitting a bullet with another bullet."

October 4, 1957

The Soviet Union launches Sputnik into space, initiating the era of long-range ballistic missiles.

January 16, 1958

The Army receives approval to develop the Nike-Zeus anti-ballistic missile, a long range interceptor carrying a 400 kiloton nuclear warhead that, when detonated, would destroy incoming missiles above the earth's atmosphere.


The U.S. military funds Project Defender, a broad-based research and development program exploring the use of a 400 foot diameter web as a hit-to-kill system for boost-phase intercepts. This concept becomes known as Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept (BAMBI). The system is not deployed.



President Kennedy cancels the Nike-Zeus program, and replaces it with Nike-X, an ABM system, which incorporates advancements such as a phased-array, electronically guided radar, a short-range nuclear tipped interceptor called Sprint, and an upgraded Nike-Zeus missile renamed Spartan. Soviet V-1000 antimissile conducts the first successful missile intercept

July 19, 1962

A Nike-Zeus missile comes within 2 kilometers of a dummy Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), close enough to for an actual nuclear warhead on the interceptor to destroy the target.

December 22, 1962

A second Nike-Zeus missile comes within 200 meters of hitting a target reentry vehicle.

November 10, 1966

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara informs the American public the Soviets are deploying their Galosh anti-ballistic missile system.

June 23, 1967

At the Glassboro Summit, President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara attempt to persuade Soviet Premiere Kosygin the Soviet Union ought to abandon its missile defense efforts, as the U.S. would merely have to add more nuclear warheads to hits arsenal to overwhelm the Soviet ABM system. In response, Kosygin states, "Defense is moral; offense is immoral!"

September 18, 1967

The Johnson administration announces the decision to deploy the Sentinel ballistic missile defense program, a "thin" anti-ballistic umbrella designed to protect major U.S. cities. Sentinel is a two-tiered system, employing nuclear tipped Spartan and Sprint interceptors. Whereas the Sprint was designed to intercept warheads within the atmosphere, the Spartan was designed for exoatmospheric interception. The Sentinel system was developed to protect against the --"Nth country threat"--unsophisticated ICBMs, such as those being built by the People's Republic of China.

July 1, 1968

President Johnson announces plans for the US to enter into a dialogue with the USSR on limits to both strategic nuclear arsenals and ballistic missile defenses. (The talks are canceled when Moscow invades Czechoslavakia in September.)

February 6, 1969

The Nixon administration freezes efforts to deploy Sentinel pending a reevaluation of existing U.S. strategic programs.

March 14, 1969

President Nixon announces plans to deploy an ABM system to protect U.S. ICBM sites called Safeguard. The system is expandable to become a population defense against the "Nth country threat."


May 26, 1972

President Nixon and Soviet Secretary General Brezhnev sign the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and the SALT I agreement. The ABM Treaty prohibits the deployment of a national missile defense system, but permits each state the deployment of two ABM sites, each with 100 interceptors.

July 3, 1974

The ABM Treaty is amended to allow only one defensive missile site for each party.

October 1, 1975

The Safeguard ABM site in Grand Forks, ND becomes operational.

October 2, 1975

In response to the new Soviet multiple reentry vehicle (MIRV) system, a program which could easily overwhelm Safeguard, the House of Representatives votes to close the Grand Forks ABM site.

November 18, 1975

Following the lead of the House, the Senate votes to terminate Safeguard.


The Safeguard program is completely shutdown. The discontinuation of the program was due to two major problems with the system. First, Safeguard's phased array radars were vulnerable to Soviet missiles. The entire system would be blinded if the radars were destroyed. Furthermore, detonation of the nuclear warheads on Spartan and Sprint missiles would themselves blind the radar system.


With the exception of its supporting radar, Safeguard is closed completely. The remaining radar is incorporated into the North American Air Defense Command's (NORAD) warning assessment network.


Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter withdraws the SALT II Treaty from Senate consideration.



As part of his Republican presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan takes a firm stance against mutually assured destruction and calls for the development of an ABM system.

With the deployment of their SS-18 missile, the Soviets gain first strike capability because of the 10 extremely accurate, high yield warheads per missile.

January 8, 1982

A contingent of private advisors, headed by Mr. Karl R. Bendetsen, brief President Reagan, recommend that he launch an emergency national program to develop missile defenses.

February 11, 1983

In a speech to the American people, President Reagan announces his decision to begin examining the feasibility of a missile defense system. The program becomes known as Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

March 24, 1983

Congressional opponents to President Reagan's vision of a national missile defense program label it "Star Wars."

April 18, 1983

President Reagan convenes two commissions: to examine the state of missile defense technology and recommend a technology program for the new missile defense program (the Defensive Technologies Study or the Fletcher Report), and assess the strategic policy implications of such a program (the Future Security Strategy Study or the Hoffman Report).

October 1983

The completed Hoffman Report concludes that missile defenses could enhance deterrence and development of tactical missile defenses could contribute toward development of a NMD system.

The first draft of the Fletcher Report suggests two separate research options, one funded at $20.9 billion between Fiscal Years 1984-1989 and a less favored , more fiscally restrained alternative.

April 24, 1984

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger is appointed Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, U.S. Air Force, as first Director, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO).

June 10, 1984

The Army's homing overlay experiment successfully intercepts and destroys a target outside of the atmosphere.

April 1985

The debate over the broad versus the narrow interpretation of the ABM Treaty gets underway.

September 6, 1985

The Mid-Infrared Advanced Laser destroys a Titan booster rigger to simulate the conditions of a thrusting rocket booster.

December 1985

Two reviews of SDIO conclude that the program is undermanned and needs to be reorganized, and the ineffectiveness of the developing computing and battle management software is a major problem.

July 30, 1986

SDIO is reorganized to give greater attention to resolving systemic architectual problems.

September 11, 1986

SDIO completes the Delta 180 experiment, the first equivalent of a boost phase intercept of a target.

October 11-12, 1986

Due to Soviet opposition to American SDI, an agreement between the U.S. and the USSR to drastically reduce strategic nuclear arms collapses at the Reykjavik summit.

November 1986

Lowell Wood and Greg Caravan propose the development of Brilliant Pebbles, an idea employing miniature sensors and computer that would reduce size, cost, and vulnerability of SDI space-based components.

November 1987

Lowell Wood brief General James Abrahamson on the interceptor concept that eventually became known as Brilliant Pebbles.

A Patriot PAC-2 missile successfully destroys another Patriot missile simulating the flight of an SS-23.

January 19, 1988

Proposing limitations on SDI, Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) calls for the development of a "limited system for protecting against accidental and unauthorized launches," pushing for a more comprehensive system.

February 9, 1989

In his end or tour report, SDIO chief General Abrahamson indicates that Brilliant Pebbles could be ready in 5 years at a cost of under $25 billion.

Summer, 1989 Four studies confirm the validity of Brilliant Pebbles concept.


March 15, 1990

An independent review of SDI, endorsing Brilliant Pebbles, details what becomes the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) concept.

January 29, 1991

President Bush announces the reorientation of SDI to GPALS, a move which would afford protection against up to 200 long range missiles.

April 28-May 6, 1991

Data obtained from experiments conducted during the Discovery space shuttle's mission provide SDIO officials information critical to the development of sensors to detect missile launches.

July 1991

The START I Treaty is signed by the U.S. and USSR.

December 5, 1991

President George Bush signs into law H.R. 2100, the "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993," of which the "Missile Defense Act of 1991" is part. The Missile Defense Act orders the Department of Defense to aggressively develop advanced theater defense systems to be deployed in the mid-1990s, or "by the earliest date allowed by the availability of appropriate technology."

May 1992

In committing to the Lisbon Protocol, former Soviet Republics become parties to the START I Treaty.

July 2, 1992

Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney dispatches to Congress a report that details the deployment strategy for limited protection by 1997. The advanced system is to be the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

The Department of Energy terminates the X-Ray laser weapons system program.

December 1992

Program responsibility for managing Brilliant Pebbles is transferred to the Air Force.

May 13, 1993

The Clinton administration redesigns the SDIO to become the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), and reorients the program to focus on theater missile defense.

November 30, 1993

The Extended Range Interceptor (ERINT) successfully collides with the warhead of a STORM target vehicle at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

February 1994

The Army System Acquisition Review Council selects the ERINT to be the missile in the Patriot PAC-3 theater missile defense program.

March 1996

The People's Republic of China launches four M-9 missiles that land near Taiwan.

August 1996

Israel completes a successful test of the Arrow II (Hetz-2) anti-ballistic missile.

February 7, 1997

The US Army's Space and Strategic Defense Command and the BMDO conduct a test in which a Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) missile successfully intercepts a theater ballistic target missile.

April 1, 1997

The BMDO establishes the Joint Program Office, responsible for deployment of an national missile defense (NMD) system by 2003.

June 24, 1997

IFTA 1A flight test of an experimental infrared sensor is conducted using the Boeing/TRW exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV).

January 15, 1998

Second NMD sensor test.

July 15, 1998

The Rumsfeld Commission issues a report indicating the threat of a ballistic missile attack on the U.S. is far more likely than intelligence experts estimated.

August 31, 1998

North Korea's attempt at a successful Taepo Dong I missile test fails in the third stage.

January 20, 1999

The Pentagon delays the deployment date for NMD until 2005.

March 16. 1999

The Senate passes the "National Missile Defense Act," which declares as U.S. policy that American will "deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective National missile Defense system."

March 17, 1999

The House of Representatives commits the U.S. to deploy national missile defenses.


January 18, 2000

The second attempt intercept (IFT-4) fails to hit its target.

February 5, 2000

A Hera target is successfully intercepted by a PAC-3 missile over the desserts at White Sands Missile Range.

April 14, 2000

In a vote of 228 to 131, the Russian Duma ratified the START II treaty. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin pledges to withdraw from the whole system of treaties on the limitations and control of strategic and conventional weapons if the U.S. forces changes to the ABM Treaty.

July 7, 2000

The third Integrated Flight intercept (IFT 5) test fails.

September, 2000

In light of Russia's refusal to modify the ABM Treaty, and the reluctance of America's European allies, President Clinton opts not to authorize work to begin on deploying NMD.

July 16, 2001

A 1.5 meter long kill vehicle, traveling at 16,000mph, launched from Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, hits the Minuteman II missile launched 29 minutes earlier from Vandenberg Air Force base in California.

February 20, 2001

The Russian Defense Ministry announces plans to build a missile defense system using existing theater range technology to intercept ballistic missiles in their "boost phase." The proposed Russian system would not violate the 1972 ABM Treaty, as the treaty permits the destroying of ballistic missiles at a limited range (3,500 km).

July 22, 2001

Bush and Putin agree to hold talks linking NMD to a reduction.

September 11, 2001

Terrorists highjack four US jetliners and crash two into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and one crashes in Pennsylvania.

September 19, 2001

In the wake of September 11th, Democrats in the House and Senate, concerned that the US is vulnerable on a number of levels to mass destructive incidents--one of the most frightening of which is the prospect of limited ballistic missile attack--abandoned attempts to cut over $1 billion from the Bush administration's $8.3 billion missile defense spending request for the next fiscal year.

December 13, 2001

White House announces the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

December 14, 2001

Due to cost overruns and poor performance, the Defense Department cancels the Navy Area Missile Defense Program.

January 2, 2002

Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, redesignates the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). This change provides the MDA greater bureaucratic independence, as its director reports directly to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.

April 25, 2002

The Missile Defense Agency and the Army conduct successful test of the PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3). This was the third of four operational flight tests planned during Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOTE) for the PAC-3 system.

May 15, 2002

Questions arise concerning the success of the April 25 missile intercept tests. Critics argue the "Lockheed Martin [LMT] Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile did not destroy its target," and "subsequent analysis indicates that the PAC-3 made contact with the target but failed to destroy it."

The Missile Defense Agency classifies as "secret" details of targets and countermeasures to be used in all future flight intercept tests of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System. Additional efforts to reclassify previously unclassified information are rapidly underway. The new policy extends to withholding information from the Pentagon's own independent review offices, such as the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.

June 11, 2002

In an attempt to prevent the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty on June 13, 2002, thirty-one members of Congress sued the Bush administration in federal court, claiming the withdrawal is unconstitutional.

June 13, 2002

The US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty becomes effective.

June 26, 2002

Pentagon officials announce proposal to merge the US Space Command with the US Strategic Command. The new command would harness in one entity the nation's missile warning network and the new national missile-defense systems, as well as the country's ability to plan and launch offensive strikes with nuclear and conventional weapons at suspected, chemical and biological weapons sites around the world.


The Defense Acquisition Board will determine whether to build and deploy interceptors.


Target date for deploying the Expanded Capability 1 system with 100 interceptors.


Target date for deploying the Capability 3 system with 125 interceptors at each of 2 sites in Alaska and North Dakota. Additionally, 3 command centers, 5 communications relay stations, 15 radars, and 29 satellites will become operational.

Prepared by David Simon.

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