Missile Defense Technology and Costs

Technological readiness is one of the most controversial hurdles for missile defense because developing complex hardware and getting the several components to work as intended takes time and a lot of money. Since the early 1980s the United States has spent more than $50 billion on missile defense technology with little success to show for it and without ever fielding an effective system. The Bush administration wants to move as quickly as possible to develop defenses against missile threats. The Bush administration's missile defense testing program includes land-based missiles, sea-launched interceptors and airborne lasers. The administration is planning anti-missile test sites at Fort Greely and on Kodiak Island in Alaska whicht would be part of a vast Pacific test bed that allows realistic intercept tests.The missile defense program is to be accelerated in order to have at least a basic system in place by 2005.

  • Latest Documents
    Missile defense testing and fiscal years 2002/2003 funding process
  • Congressional Committees
    Material from the Senate and House Armed Services Committes and the House Committee on Government Reform
  • The Postol Letters
    Criticism on the technical feasability of missile defense by MIT scientist Theo Postol.
  • Research Reports
    Technical issues, costs, sea- and space based missile defense, and congressional debates.

Latest Documents

Testing Program

The Bush administration's missile defense program will explore systems that would intercept missiles in the boost and terminal phases of their flights as well as in the midcourse phase. Subsequent decisions regarding the architecture of missile defense or the mix of systems to be deployed will be based on the results of that research and development program. By the end of 2002, Pentagon intends to conduct up to 17 flight tests involving ground- and sea-launched missiles.

New GAO-Report

A February 2002 report by the General Accounting Office found irregularities in an June 1997 flight test of the ground-based midcourse kill vehicle and disclosed informations in written reports by key contractors.

Sea-Based Midcourse Test, January 2002

Pentagon Cancels Navy Area Missile Defense Program

Missile Intercept Test, December 2001

See also Missile Defense Tests Yield One Success, One Failure, Wade Boese, Arms Control Today, January/February 2002

Missile Intercept Test, July 2001

Ballistic Missile Defense Funding

FY 2003 BMD Budget Request

On February 4, President Bush's defense budget proposal for 2003 was sent to U.S. Congress. The administration requested a $379.3 billion federal budget for 2003, including $7.8 billion for missile defense programs, an amount identical to the 2002 missile defense budget. In a testimony on February 12 before the House of Representatives budget committee, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said the defense budget request was based upon the results of last year's strategy review and a quadrennial review of the armed forces' operations.

FY 2002 BMD Budget Request

The Bush administration's fiscal year 2002 defense budget request included a substantial increase in spending on missile defenses to vastly accelerate the missile defense testing program. It included about $7 billion for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) to conduct missile defense research and testing as well as funds for a new anti-missile test bed in Alaska, and another $1.3 billion for theater missile defense programs.

See also Nearly $500 Million Cut From Bush Missile Defense Request, Wade Boese, Arms Control Today, January/February 2002

Department of Defense

Welch Panel Reports

This series of schedule and technology reviews (three to date) was compiled by an independent panel chaired by former Air Force Chief Gen. Larry Welch. The first report, released in February 1998, concluded that the NMD and several TMD programs were directed on a "rush to failure". Accelerating testing schedules was "far more likely to cause program slips, increased costs, and even program failure" than to prove successful. The second report released in November 1999 recommended to delay the deployment decision which should be made only after certain key program elements are proven through testing, which would not happen before 2003. Pentagon was advised to consider its forthcoming missile defense assessment (the DRR, see below) rather as a "system development feasability review than a deployment readiness review". As a consequence of these findings, the Pentagon restructured the NMD and TMD program, raised the budget, and postponed the initial deployment from 2003 to 2005. In June 2000, the third Welch Panel Report affirmed that the deployment decision should not take place before 2003. 

Annual Defense Report

These documents detail the Pentagon's efforts to ensure the nation's defense requirements and future programs. 

Coyle Report  

In August 2000, the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOTE) produced the Deployment Readiness Review (DRR) or Coyle Report. The DOTE assessed the operational and live-fire testing performance of missile defense systems until early 2002 when normal Pentagon oversight for the missile defense programs was eliminated. The Coyle report revealed several major problems with test realism having a profound bearing on whether or not a system could succeed. The finding of the the Coyle Report were such devastating in respect to the missile defense testing program that the Pentagon refused to deliver the report to Congress for over eight months. 

Missile Defense Agency

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is responsible within the Pentagon for managing, directing, and executing the various missile defense programs. MDA combines all missile defense responsibilities in a single agency that wields more authority than the former Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation (BMDO). Pentagon officials argued that the changes had become necessary to allow greater flexibility in the development program. See the January 2 memorandum by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

MDA Fact Sheets

BMDO Fact Sheets

Annual Reports to Congress

Congressional Committees

Senate Armed Services Committee

Bipartisan committee approaching matters related to national defense and security.

Reports on the National Defense Authorization Act (all pdf)

Testimonies before the SASC on the ballistic missile threat

House Armed Services Committee

Performs general oversight on the structure and management of the Department of Defense. It has long been at the forefront in support of a strong NMD. Its most important function is the consideration of the annual national defense authorization bill which authorizes funding for Pentagon and other national security programs.


National Defense Authorization Act FY 2002, H.R. 2586

On September 25, 2001, the House endorsed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002, on a bipartisan 398 to 17 vote. In light of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, the bill contained approximately $6 billion for Department of Defense programs to combat terrorism. It marks the most significant increase to the U.S. defense budget since the mid-1980s. The bill also supports development and testing of an effective, layered ballistic missile defense system.

Other National Defense Authorization Acts
  • FY 2001, H.R. 4205 as passed by the House (also pdf
  • FY 2000, H.R. 1401 as passed by the House (also pdf)
  • FY 1999, H.R. 3616 as passed by the House (also pdf
  • FY 1998, H.R. 1119 as reported by the National Security Committee (also pdf
  • FY 1997, H.R. 3230 as passed by House (pdf only) 
House Reports on Defense Authorization 
Missile Defense Legislation
Reports on Missile Defense Legislation

House Committee on Government Reform

On September 8, 2000, a hearing took place before the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations on failures in the NMD testing program and on anti-missile technology development.

Congressional Budget Office

Provides Congress with analyses and cost estimates needed for economic and budget decisions. These assessments often had an important influence on the legislative process. For exemple, efforts to pass the 1996 Defend America Act were haltet after CBO assessed that the system envisioned would cost $31-$60 billion. In April 2000, another CBO report estimated that the Clinton administration's NMD proposal to build and maintain a two-site, 250-interceptor system would cost $60 billion through 2015.

General Accounting Office
The General Accounting Office (GAO) is Congress’s nonpartisan investigative agency that examines all matters relating to the receipt and disbursement of public funds. GAO has proven to be a reliable instance of technical and budgetary assessments related to missile defense. In a June 1998 report reviewing the funding requirements for the NMD program, GAO concluded that that "even with the mitigation actions resulting from the increased funding, schedule and technical risks associated with a 2003 deployment remain high; [..] successful execution [..] on the planned schedule is highly unlikely; and [..] that the program would benefit from the earliest possible restructuring to contain the risk."  A February 2002 report found irregularities in an June 1997 flight test of the ground-based midcourse kill vehicle and disclosed informations in written reports by key contractors.

The Postol Letters

On May 11, 2000, MIT scientist Theodore Postol, who had contributed to the only independent scientific analysis to date on ballistic missile defense test data, wrote a letter to the White House in which he detailed potential pitfalls in the Clinton administration's missile-defense plan. The chief difficulty in trying to develop missile defenses was not getting vast systems of complex hardware to work as intended. The key problem was that the defense has to work against an enemy who is trying to foil the system and can do so with technology much simpler than the technology needed for the defense system. The system being developed can't differentiate a potential enemy's decoys from its warheads.This inherent asymmetry means that the attacker has the advantage despite the technological superiority of the United States. BMDO claimed that the letter attachments contained classified information. 

Attachments to May 11 letter, all pdf:

Research Reports

Technical Issues 

  • An Assessment of the Intercept Test Program of the Ground-Based Midcourse National Missile Defense System, Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, Stephen Young, Union of Concerned Scientists Working Paper, November 30, 2001 (pdf)
    Examines the first four intercept tests of the ground-based midcourse national missile defense system and the plans for the fifth test. Particular attention is paid to the controversial role that the C-band beacon on the warhead played in the recent tests. The paper finds that the current test program is still in its infancy, and that the United States remains years away from having enough information to make an informed decision on the deployment of even a limited nationwide missile defense system.

  • The Alaska Option, CRND Missile Defense Briefing Paper, July 20, 2001 
    The proposed missile defense facilities at Fort Greely would serve no useful purpose for flight testing of the NMD system, nor would they provide even a minimal defense of the United States, because the technology for the system is still in the early stage of research and development testing.

  • NMD Development is Not Hostage to the ABM Treaty, Philip Coyle, CDI Defense Monitor (Special Issue), June 2001 (pdf)
    Development of NMD will take a decade or more for technical and budgetary reasons, but not due to impediments caused by the ABM Treaty. At least 20 or more flight intercept tests, plus hundreds of component and subsystem tests will be needed before the Pentagon will be ready to attempt realistic operational testing of such an NMD system. 
  • Fighting Fire with Fire: Missiles against Missiles, Christophe Carle,Disarmament Forum No. 1, 2001 (pdf)
  • In all previous historic episodes of the missile defence debate, a recurring question has been whether BMD would work effectively, if at all. But whatever their actual future performance, missile defenses have already proved fearsomely effective as weapons of rhetoric. 
  • NMD: Political and Technological Challenges, Daryl Kimbal, Phillip Coyle and Joseph Biden, CRND/CDI Information Briefing, April 4, 2001

  • Comprehensive information briefing on the Bush administration's missile defense plans. Concludes that despite the Bush administration's commitment to missile defense, the project will have to deal with many of the same questions and hurdles that ultimately led President Clinton to decide not to deploy national missile defense in 2000. 
  • Where Do We Go From Here? Harold Brown, Arms Control Today, October 2000
  • President Clinton made the right decision in deferring deployment of an NMD system. It allows the next administration to reconsider the purpose, value, and risks of an NMD and what kind of system should be deployed. A boost-phase intercept approach from sea or land, should ease Russian and Chinese apprehensions.
  • A Defense that Will Not Defend, Richard Garwin,The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2000 (pdf)

  • The United States are far from ready to make a decision to deploy an NMD. The system as proposed will not be effective against the strategic threat of attack by biological weapon agents in bomblets and can readily be defeated by feasible countermeasures.
  • The Politics: How Did We Get Here?, Michael Nacht, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2000 (pdf)

  • Offers an historic perspective on the missile defense debate, and analyzes the shift in attitudes toward sustaining the ABM Treaty.
  • The Wrong Plan, Richard Garwin, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, March/April 2000

  • The proposed NMD would have zero effectiveness against even a few warheads. Any nation that can build an intercontinental ballistic missile can construct countermeasures that could easily defeat it. If the United States wishes to build defenses against an ICBM threat, it should try another approach: boost-phase interceptions while the rocket is still burning. 

  • Missile defence policy: strident voices and perilous choices, Gordon Mitchell, ISIS BMD Briefing, March 2000 

  • The technical capabilities of any new anti-missile system must be questioned thoroughly. 'Hitting a bullet with a bullet' presents immense technical problems which are still at the margins of current capabilities. Missile defence systems are largely useless unless they perform effectively the very first time.
  • National Missile Defence: Developing Disaster, Charles Ferguson and John Pike, Disarmament Diplomacy, March 2000
    Even a political commitment for NMD in 2000 does not mean a collision course with the ABM Treaty. As long as the U.S. does not intend to abrogate it, America and Russia could find a way to reconcile the Treaty with any NMD developments through subsequent negotiations. 

  • The Planned US NMD System: Is the Technology Ready for Deployment? Will the Pentagon Know If It Is? Lizbeth Gronlund,Union of Concerned Scientists, September 29, 1999 

  • The decision on deployment is not about technology. The Pentagon has not enough information to assess the technical readiness of the system, and the planned test program will not allow an assessment by 2005. 
  • Understanding the Extraordinary Cost Of Missile Defense, David Mosher, Arms Control Today, December 2000 

  • A nation-wide missile defense may be the most complex system that the United States has ever attempted. The missile defense systems now under development probably will cost significantly more than current estimates suggest. 

Sea- and Space Based Missile Defense

  • Defending America: Ending America's Vulnerability to Ballistic Missiles, Missile Defense Study Team, Heritage Foundation, June 1996 (also in pdf)

  • The Clinton Administration refuses to give serious consideration to building an effective missile defense program, whether to protect the U.S. homeland or U.S. troops abroad. The study argues that global defenses must be deployed urgently, initially from the sea and then from space, as these are the least expensive and most effective defenses possible.
Congressional Debates
  • Still Kicking: A Forecast of the Post-Clinton NMD Debate, Joseph Cirincione, Disarmament Diplomacy No. 50, September 2000

  • When the presidential elections are over, the missile defence issue will deflate, but not disappear. The selection of the next President will be important for the program, but not decisive. Anyway, momentum towards deployment will slow considerably.
  • A Call to Deploy, Stephen Hadley, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2000 
  • The right decision for Clinton would be to immediately approve NMD deployment. America needs to engage Russia in an intensive dialogue about the proliferation of WMD and ballistic missiles. ABM diplomacy with Russia should also seek permission of the extended, not the limited version of the NMD system. For the very next future, the system does not need to be perfect to significantly help the United States deal with the ballistic missile threat. 
  • The Administration’s Approach, Walter B. Slocombe,The Washinton Quarterly, Summer 2000 
    The former Under Secretary of Defense justifies the limited system planned by the Clinton administration.
  • National Missile Defense: Collision in Progress, John Steinbruner, Arms Control Today, November 1991
  • President Clinton is determined to avoid a direct confrontation with congressional Republicans. The NMD program schedule probably is inspired by domestic politics, as it makes no sense in technical or strategic terms: Tthe intercept technology is not ready for operational application, and none of the alleged rogues have actually initiated deployment of ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
  • The President on National Missile Defense: Of Two Minds and No Commitment, Baker Spring,The Heritage Foundation, July 30, 1999 

  • After the President signed the National Missile Defense Act in 1999, Congress should ensure that steps are taken to deploy missile defense in the near term. Congress also should insist that the President submit to the Senate the agreements signed with the former Soviet states that would revive the old ABM Treaty and limit the types of systems the military could deploy. 
  • Missile Defense: It's back, John Isaacs, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, July/August 1999
  • With the 1999 National Missile Defense Act, the prolonged Republican campaign for national missile defense deployment has finally come the closest to accomplishment since Ronald Reagan's Star Wars project.
  • The Missile Defense Act of 1995: The Senate's Historic Opportunity, Thomas Moore,The Heritage Foundation, August 1, 1995
    The Senate in 1995 had an historic opportunity to reinvigorate the BMD program and put the United States on the path to nationale missile defense. Otherwise the U.S. would remain mired in the orthodoxies of the past and leave Americans vulnerable to weapos of mass destruction.