National Missile Defense: A Status Report

The United States has pursued missile defense technologies for six decades, with mixed results. Changes under the Obama administration, including adjustments to planned defenses in Europe, could portend a new direction.

Last updated September 17, 2009

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The United States has pursued missile defense technologies since the end of World War II, though efforts to deploy a layered missile shield only took shape during the two terms of President George W. Bush. Since the election of President Barack Obama, however, the future of anti-missile defense has grown less certain (Arms Control Association). The Obama administration has framed its national missile defense strategy with the caveat that continued support will be contingent on pragmatic and cost-effective technological advances and will "not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public." Missile defense experts interpret these statements to suggest the pace of development will slow (CQ), since the technologies have repeatedly failed in field tests. A February 2009 New York Times report quotes unamed U.S. officials claiming Obama offered to halt deployment of a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow aided Washington in curbing Iran’s nuclear program but Obama later denied offering a quid pro quo. Still, in September 2009 he announced the United States would alter the architecture of its European-based missile defense system. The new plan, Obama said, will be implemented in phases over the next decade, and scratch permanent systems planned for the Czech Republic and Poland in favor of a collection of sea-, land-, and air-based radar and interceptor sites. Obama said the new approach, based in part on advances in technology, will greatly improve the United States’ ability to counter the growing threat from Iran’s short- to medium-range missiles.


"Not only can we hit a bullet with a bullet, we can hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet." - Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, Former Director, Missile Defense Agency

A Missile Defense History

U.S. efforts to develop missile defense capabilities can be divided into two eras: interceptors tipped with nuclear warheads and nonnuclear "hit-to-kill" vehicles intended to destroy incoming missiles by colliding with them. The first missile defense research effort dates to 1946, when the U.S. Army Air Forces launched two rudimentary antiballistic missile design programs, Wizard and Thumper (PDF). This effort was followed by the Army’s first foray into missile defense, Project Plato, which in the early 1950s sought to create a theater antiballistic missile system. But it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the Department of Defense began a concerted undertaking to counter the threat of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). A number of competing programs were stood up by the Army, Air Force, and Navy, including the so-called Nike Zeus program, which sought to use nuclear detonations to destroy incoming missiles. The plan called for deploying Nike nuclear interceptors in polar regions, and in December 1962, a simulated test of a Nike interceptor successfully destroyed an incoming dummy warhead. In 1963, however, the Partial Test Ban Treaty between the United States, Britain, and the USSR made such tests illegal. By 1972, arms control had turned its attention to missile defense. With U.S. and Soviet arsenals growing exponentially in size and power, the two signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), limiting the number of missile defense sites each could maintain to two, in an effort to prevent both sides from building more and more weapons to overcome such systems.

When Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, military strategists were still warning of potential gaps between U.S. and Soviet missile capabilities, and the new president announced an expanded research and development effort to include space- and ground-based defensive systems. In a March 1983 speech, Reagan unveiled his plan, the Strategic Defense Initiative, later dubbed "Star Wars." He even offered to share the system with the Soviets at one point. The next year, the U.S. Army successfully tested its Homing Overlay Experiment, the first successful demonstration of a hit-to-kill vehicle.

"It’s embarrassing to the Missile Defense Agency and to their contractors when these tests fail, and it can also be costly. Contractors can lose their award fee if a test fails and try to plan each test so it won’t fail." - Philip E. Coyle III, Senior Advisor, World Security Institute

Meanwhile, tactical or "theater missile defense" continued to develop. American Patriot missile batteries, designed to intercept Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Western Europe, were deployed to the Middle East and saw action during the Gulf War, ostensibly protecting Israel from Iraqi Scud attacks. While they proved ineffective in Scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia in 1991, the concept drew increased attention and funding during the 1990s. By the later part of the decade, advocates pushed for a full-blown national missile defense system, citing nascent North Korean, Iraqi, and Iranian ballistic missile capabilities. One of the major proponents of such a system was an influential neoconservative group called the Project for the New American Century. President George W. Bush brought several senior figures in this movement into his cabinet, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Richard Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who envisioned an integrated, layered defense capable of defeating enemy missiles on a global scale. Within months of assuming office he notified Russia of plans to withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty, renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization the Missile Defense Agency, and ordered the Pentagon to "proceed with fielding an initial set of missile defense capabilities" within two years. On July 22, 2004, the first ground-based missile interceptor was installed at Fort Greely, Alaska, giving the Pentagon limited defensive capabilities of U.S. soil.

Countering the Current Threat

Early advocates of missile defense used the potential of a Soviet or Chinese attack to justify the program. Today, North Korea and Iran are the publicly discussed threats, though the number of states with medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missiles (PDF) has expanded to Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, and Pakistan. Dozens more possess short-range capabilities, according to a January 2008 review (PDF) by the Missile Defense Agency, which operates, plans, and tests the Pentagon’s network of land-, air-, sea-, and space-based systems. Currently deployed defenses include ground-based antiballistic missile silos in Alaska and California; Aegis warships outfitted with short- and medium-range antiballistic missile technology; and forward-deployed batteries like the Patriot Advanced Capacity-3, which is currently operating in Iraq. This Backgrounder explains how systems in the U.S. missile defense network interact and operate.

European Expansion

The system originally proposed for placement in Eastern Europe would have deployed a trio of connected sensors and interceptors in permanent positions: an advanced radar constellation located near Prague in the Czech Republic; a missile field of ten interceptors in Poland; and a forward-deployed early-warning radar site at an undisclosed location somewhere near Iran. After considerable negotiations and with significant opposition from domestic publics, both the Czech Republic and Poland agreed in principle to host the systems. But Russia, a key U.S. ally in the region, long protested the planned deployment, arguing the system could ostensibly be turned into an offensive capability to target its territory. In September 2009, the Obama administration, recognizing Moscow’s concerns, announced a major overhaul in its European missile defense plans. The new approach, the White House said, would "strengthen defenses against the growing Iranian missile threat" while providing an "adaptable architecture" for addressing future threats in the region. The principle changes, White House and Pentagon leaders said, will be the reliance on sea-based interceptors (such as the Aegis weapons system, equipped with SM-3 missiles) and forward-based radar arrays, "removing the need for a single field of ten ground-based interceptors in Poland" and a "fixed European radar that was to be located in the Czech Republic."

While the Bush administration had argued the original system was intended to counter an Iranian missile threat, a claim the Obama administration has repeated, the Congressional Budget Office concluded in February 2009 that the system proposed by President Bush would have left large swaths of southeastern Europe vulnerable to Iranian missiles (PDF). George N. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol, writing for Arms Control Association in October 2007, note that "despite claims to the contrary" the system would have been highly effective against Russian intercontinental ballistic missions launched against the United States, undercutting the Bush administration’s argument that Moscow was not a target. "It is difficult to see why any well-informed Russian analyst would not find such a potential situation alarming," they write. Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said the new approach will employ missile and radar technologies that cannot be retrofitted to target Russia. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in announcing the changes, said while Russian may not be thrilled that the United States is continuing its missile defense plans for Europe, changes to the system’s architecture should allay some of their concerns.

Questions of Viability

The viability and cost-effectiveness of missile defense in its many forms has sparked debate for decades. In November 2008, Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, then-director of the Missile Defense Agency, told CNN that technology had caught up with ambition. "Not only can we hit a bullet with a bullet, we can hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet," the general said. The agency’s current director, Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, has avoided such predictions and has instead highlighted the need to improve testing parameters (PDF). But critics--from analysts to lawmakers--nonetheless take collective umbrage with rosy projections put forth by missile defense supporters. John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says it’s a "common public relations tactic" used by the military to couch missile defense "as a monolithic whole." While some components show promise, Isaacs says, the system remains unproven. "There is no current U.S. missile defense system that can neutralize a ballistic missile threat that employs even simple decoys," he argues.

"Additional test data collected under realistic flight test conditions is necessary to validate models and simulations and to increase confidence." - Charles E. McQueary, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation

Perhaps the most often cited limitation of the antiballistic missile program involves testing scenarios that do not mimic real-world battle conditions (USA Today), a problem even Pentagon overseers acknowledge. Charles E. McQueary, director of the Defense Department’s Operational Test and Evaluation command, writes in his 2008 annual assessment (PDF) of the missile agency that "additional test data collected under realistic flight test conditions is necessary to validate models and simulations and to increase confidence." Experts like Philip E. Coyle III, a senior advisor to the World Security Institute and former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, are more blunt in their criticism. "It’s embarrassing to the Missile Defense Agency and to their contractors when these tests fail, and it can also be costly," Coyle says. "Contractors can lose their award fee if a test fails and try to plan each test so it won’t fail."

Paul Francis, director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s acquisition and sourcing management division, told lawmakers in February 2009 of a different problem. Francis said that the Missile Defense Agency had begun fielding system components before being adequately tested, raising the possibility of cost overruns and making it impossible to determine (PDF) the system’s progress. It’s a costly guessing game. Coyle says since Reagan’s 1983 Star Wars speech, the United States has spent at least $120 billion to develop missile defense, although the actual figure is probably much higher. According to the Government Accountability Office, the missile agency has spent about $56 billion since 2002 and is budgeted to spend an additional $50 billion through 2013. Some congressional leaders, like Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), suggest the time has come to rein in that spending. "The Missile Defense Agency was allowed to cut corners" in the early years of the Bush administration, Levin told Bloomberg in February 2009. "I would say we’ve got to slow that down and properly test it."


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