Missile Defense: Introduction

The idea of missile defense originated as part of the strategic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States have been engaged in missile defense research and has designed several such systems over the past 50 years, but has never managed to field one that is effective. The missile defence issue effectively disappeared until the early 1980s. This section outlines the main course since the missile defense revival, starting with President Reagan's controversial Strategic Defense Initiative.


Strategic Defense Initative 

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan revived ballistic missile defense with his multi-billion dollar Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly referred to as "Star Wars" after the famous scienc- fiction movie. SDI sought to exploit new technology to catch ballistic missiles in their boost phase. The principle behind it was to make the threat posed by nuclear long-range missiles "impotent and obsolete", an attempt to find  technological solutions to the strategic problem of nuclear danger. The proposed system was to incorporate a variety of land-, air-, sea- and space-based weapons to intercept incoming ballistic missiles. Critics pointed out this system would violate the ABM Treaty, which prohibits the deployment of space-based components. Political support waned, as the idea of an impenetrable shield soon appeared hopelessly impractical. 

Brilliant Pebbles and GPALS

The administration of US President George Bush Sr. scaled back but essentially maintained the Reagan administration's committment to SDI: continued research and eventual deployment of a system to protect the United States against a ballistic missile attack. Its version of SDI would place in earth orbit approximately 10,000 ICBM interceptors, called Brilliant Pebbles, to intercept ballistic missiles in the first minutes of flight, before they could release their multiple warheads and decoys. Although less ambitious than Reagan's SDI, the Brilliant Pebbles program would also still violate the ABM Treaty.

After the Gulf War, the Bush administration changed the mission of SDI from emphasizing a defense against large-scale Soviet attack to protection against limited ballistic missile strikes. The new component of SDI was called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS). It perpetuated the old program’s multilayered architecture, combining a space-based layer, a ground-based theater missile defense (TMD) and a ground-based National Missile Defense (NMD). GPALS was the first anti-missile system that had a North-South rather than East-West orientation. 

Theater and Limited National Missile Defense

In contrast to the Bush administration, the Clinton administration refocused its efforts and budgets to land-based theater defense programs, designed to protect deployed forces and allies in a theater of military operations against missiles up to 3500km. The concept of a global shield evolved into a modest research program called 3+3 NMD Deployment Readiness Program.

Missile defense became an issue in the 1996 presidential campaign. The Republican party advocated legislation that would require the Clinton administration to develop a comprehensive system as soon as possible. The point of contention in this debate was the timeline in which so-called rogue states would acquire long-range ballistic missiles. In response to the Rumsfeld Commission report and the August 1998 testing of a long-range missile by North Korea, the Clinton administration announced to accelerate the development of a limited NMD capability. In July 1999 President Clinton signed the National Missile Defense Act which mandates automatic deployment of a missile defense system "as soon as technologically feasible". Although not a multilayered system, the Clinton administration's NMD scheme would have violated certain aspects of the ABM Treaty, and a number of U.S.-Russian discussions were held on this issue. In December 2000, after a series of testing failures, President Clinton decided the technology was not mature enough in order to make a commitment to deploy it. 
Layered Missile Defense 

During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised to pursue NMD deployment as rapidly as possible and to explore a more robust system than the land-based option under consideration during the Clinton administration. Key Bush Administration officials  have repeatedly stated that missile defenses are necessary to protect America's ability to project power by limiting the vulnerability of the American homeland and troops abroad. The Bush administration also rejects the strategic principle of mutually assured destruction as it is described in the 1972 ABM Treaty and others, arguing that 'deliberate vulnerability' is not an option. 

Click here to learn more about the Bush administration's ABM diplomacy

Research Reports


  • Shield Embattled, Missile Defense as a Foreign Policy Problem, Peter Rodman, The Nixon Center, October 2001 (pdf)
    Analyzes the national and international debate on ballistic missile defense. The report argues that the U.S. should review the full range of technicological options to break the psychological and political taboo against U.S. deployment. An understanding with the Russians should be the U.S. preference, but it should proceed unilaterally if the discussion fails. Washington should seek an intensive dialogue with NATO allies and accelerate cooperation with Asian allies on TMD. Also pursued should be a dialogue with China.

  • Defending America: Redefining the Conceptual Borders of Homeland Defense, Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2000 (full report, pdf only)
    This comprehensive report examines the need for and the implications of missile defense. It reaches the conclusion that missile defense is not now critical but could become necessary in five or ten years. It needs to be linked to a strong global counterproliferation strategy, an integrated approach to homeland defense, and the commitment to balance NMD against both arms control programs and US efforts to improve its offensive and retaliatory options.

    Also available are the Conclusions on NMD, CBRN and Cyberwarfare and an Executive Summary, pdf all
  • Harnessing the Power of Technology, Department of Defense, September 2000 (pdf only)
    Comprehensive report which is useful as a basic primer although biased towards the general idea of missile defenses.

  • Pushing the Limits. The Decision on National Missile Defense, Stephen Young, July 2000 (also in pdf)
    Examines the debate over NMD during the Clinton administration and concludes that the case for deployment of a limited system is weak.

  • National Missile Defense: Rushing to Failure, Johne Pike, Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, November/December 1999

Missile Defense History 


  • Moving Away from MAD, Michael Krepon, Survival, Summer 2001
    The deconstruction of MAD constitutes an  ambitious and difficult agenda. The dangers of proliferation are growing, and  singleminded approaches of missile defence enthusiasts and staunch treaty protectors are not sustainable. A new approach is needed, and the essential choice the Bush  administration faces is cooperative threat reduction or strategic superiority. 

  • Does Deterrence Have a Future? Lawrence Freedman, Arms Control Today, October 2000
    In the post-Cold War world, deterrence still has a role to play, although not the one it had during the Cold War. The problem with NMD is that it fails to calm the behavior of states of concern, but will likely aggravate other problems, in particular the already tense American relations with Russia and China. 

Public Oppinion towards NMD

  • Missile Defence Poll, July 12, 2001 (complete data available as MS-Word file)
    According to an opinion poll conducted by MORI on behalf of the UK Working Group on Missile Defence, 70% of British voters agree that U.S. missile defence development will encourage other countries to build more advanced nuclear weapons.
  • Analysis of Recent Polling Data on National Missile Defense, Council for a Livable World/The Mellman Group, July 9, 2001 (pdf)
    Missile defense is an issue to which few Americans are paying close attention. Support for a missile defense shield turns to opposition when voters are focused on the failure of the system to work and the fact that developing such a system would violate the ABM Treaty.
  • 'Go Slow': The People Speak on Missile Defense, John Isaacs, Arms Control Today, January/February 2000 
    The American public generally supports national missile defense but also accepts most of the criticisms advanced by its opponents. In terms of broader policy choices facing the United States, the public still strongly supports arms control, even as an alternative to missile defense.