There have recently been new discussions, started by George W. Bush's administration and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, about national missile defense (NMD). In view of this, here is where things now stand.

Current types of missile defense systems:

The lower tier system is designed for short-range (under 600 mi.) ballistic missile attacks. This category includes (1) PAC-3 and (2) Navy Area. PAC-3 stands for Patriot Advanced Capability 3, a surface to air missile used to defend against short ranged attacks. The PAC-2 was used in the Gulf War to destroy Iraqi scud missiles. The PAC-3 is intended for the protection of allies, rather than attacks on United States territory. The Navy Area missile defense is a sea-based missile defense capability utilizing Aegis destroyer ships with radar systems to detect and track sea-based missiles. A modified surface to air missile is also used here.

The upper tier involves defending attacks from medium range (beyond 600 mi.) ballistic missiles. (1) THAAD, Theater High Altitude Area Defense, with the purpose of protecting deployed troops, allies and friends. A ground-based missile defense system, it is specifically designed to defend against Theater Ballistic Missiles (TBMs). (2) The Navy also has a theater system for medium range missiles.

Proposed missile defense plans would focus on attacks on the U.S. by larger, longer-range missiles, specifically intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). A missile shield, as the G.W. Bush administration has stated an intention to develop, is controversial because of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM treaty) between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The treaty prohibits both countries from developing and deploying such a national missle protection. It was a cornerstone of arms control during the Cold War, as it ensured the stability of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), an integral part of nuclear deterrence theory. Those in favor of developing a missile shield claim that the ABM treaty is no longer valid since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, critics bring up the point that after Boris Yeltsin was elected president, he declared that Russia would continue to uphold all treaties previously signed by the Soviet government.

thanks go out to Jurph for feedback regarding the fickle nature of missile defenses :)

Proponents of the a national missile defense (going back to Ronald Reagan) suggest that there is a moral obligation to build it: that to leave citizens defenseless against attack is an immoral policy. In addition, the threat of massive retaliation against a civilian population as a deterrent, while a longstanding pillar of U.S. policy, is viewed as immoral.

Interesting to note that the Rumsfeld Report, which surveyed the likelihood of attack from ballistic missile in the future, represents a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy thinking: it suggests that rogue states developing missile capability are a real threat to national security.* And while there are advances in technology that will allow the proliferation of these weapons to rogue states, the U.S. capability to massively retalitate has not changed. In other words, moral or not, the conditions for deterrence are still in place. The thinking of Rumsfeld et al proposes that leaders such as Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-Il are irrational actors-- willing to risk their country's annihilation for the sake of damaging the United States.
Pre July 15, 1998: assume all world leaders are rational.
Post July 15, 1998: assume despots are irrational.

* This was the third report commissioned by the newly elected conservative 1994 Republican Congress as part of its "Contract with America." The 1994 Republican Congress, asked U.S. intelligence agencies to assess the need for missile defense. The 1995 National Intelligence Estimate concluded "no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states or Canada." This was a setback for missile defense. The Congress set up another commission to investigate whether the 1995 NIE was compromised by politics (i.e., Democrats opposed to missile defense). This new independent commission, chaired by former CIA Director Richard Gates, announced their conclusions in December 1996: "For sound technical reasons, the United States is unlikely to face an indigenously developed and tested intercontinental ballistic missile threat from the Third World before 2010." In addition, "There was no breach of the integrity of the intelligence process. Beyond this, the panel believes that unsubstantiated allegations challenging the integrity of intelligence community analysts by those who simply disagree with their conclusions, including by members of Congress, are irresponsible." Missile defense proponents in Congress respond by commissioning yet another panel, with Donald Rumsfeld as the chair. And its conclusions re-defined the ball game. Rather than answer the question of whether, when, and will rogue nations develop ICBM capability, it concludes that the mere possibility of developing ICBM capability threatens the U.S. Finally! A justification for missle defense!)

Jones, Sherry. "Missile Defense." Frontline. Azimuth Media, Washington Media Associates, WGBH Educational Foundation. 2002.

The National Missile Defense Shield is a system designed to protect the US and it's interests from foreign nuclear threats. Through such means as antiballistic missiles and other technologies, the goal is to stop the threat before it is able to deliver its payload and cause damage. It's an extremely controversial technology, and is in many ways, a relic of a different time.

In order to understand the current desire for a national missile defense shield, its best to start at the beginning of research into the field. During the height of the cold war, the US and the Soviet Union were in a nuclear arms race. Each country was trying to maintain the upper hand in the policy of mutually assured destruction - that uneasy peace caused by knowing that if either side struck, both sides would end up destroyed. Antiballistic missiles, or anti-missile missiles, were supposed to be what gave the US the upper hand.

Instead of worrying about not starting a nuclear war, the US would simply shoot down missiles as they come in. There would no longer be a need to fear "them" sending over missles. US policy makers would have the upper hand; they could set much more wide-ranging policies without worrying about the other side starting a nuclear war. After all, if you can shoot down all their missiles you can theoretically strike with impunity.

Unfortunately, real world practices differ from theoretical applications. Shortly after the realization that such a system was possible, engineers and politicians on both sides began wracking their brains trying to determine both how to implement the technology for their side, and circumvent the technology the other side uses. Ideas were thrown back and forth as to how to best utilize the technology, when the frightening yet simple way around this technology was discovered. Just flood them with missiles.

It's almost mind-numbing how low tech the way around this technology is. Instead of sending out 100 missiles as a first wave, just send out two hundred, or five hundred, or however many it takes to overload the other end's defense. Sure, a vast majority of the missiles will be shot down, but throw enough of them at the enemy, and at least a few of them are bound to get through. This meant that both sides were right back where they started. Just build more missiles, and try to break through their defenses.

Obviously, policy makers on both sides saw how this could lead to disaster, antiballistic missiles didn't lessen the vulnerability of either side. In fact, all they did was increase already strained relations between to behemoths. High level leaders on both sides met and hammered out a treaty banning antiballistic missiles. After all, World War III was, and still is, something to be avoided.

Fast forward to the present day. The "evil empire" has fallen, so you'd think that there would no longer be any consideration for a missile defense system. When the other major nuclear power has trouble just paying their electric bills, it is doubtful that they are going to wage war anytime soon. That instability, however has lead to the threat of a so-called rogue state, such as Iran, North Korea, or China getting a hold of a nuclear device and detonating it in a major US city.

The theory goes that a rogue state or terrorist group will purchase a nuclear device on the black market and build a missile-based delivery system to attack a US city. The missile defense system is supposed to stop an attack such as this because unlike the former Soviet Union, most rogue nations won't have more than a handful of nuclear weapons. Thus, any attack could be easily handled with a relatively small number of missiles.

Unfortunately, that's not how a rogue state would probably use such a device. For starters, creating an ICBM is both technically and financially difficult. Exceedingly few entities are able to afford creation of such a delivery system, and most of them have extensive such ties to the US that an attack would mean extensive sociopolitical ramifications for themselves as well. Additionally, many of the materials required to create such a system are closely monitored. It's extremely doubtful that even a well-financed organization would be able to procure the materials necessary for launching a warhead without facing close scrutiny by external parties.

At this point, many supporters of a Missile Defense Shield are probably saying to themself "but the US is such a big target, They'd try at least something to deliver a warhead". I agree with that they would try something; the US is disliked by a great number of parties, some of which would try a nuclear attack if they were able to. But, a missile is just too high tech, and too error-prone to be considered. Any organization trying to attack the US would be much more likely to do so with a more low-tech approach, such as through a so-called suitcase nuke, or through a much more low key mode of transportation, such as a boat or airplane. Who needs a missile when the alternatives are much cheaper and much more effective?

In conclusion, like so many ideas, a National Missile Defense Shield looks brilliant on paper, but fails in the real world. When first proposed, it failed due to the arms race; the other side would simply make enough missiles to overwhelm the defenses. The current proposal fails for an equally simple reason - using a high tech device to deliver a weapon is not the way a rogue group would operate. As was shown on September 11, 2001, groups will attempt to subvert the system from methods which place a low emphasis on technology. Any message they want to send would be done so with a method which minimizes the threat of detection, and a missile is just too flashy and too failure-prone. Instead of worrying about a non-existent threat, much more time and effort needs to be placed in dealing with the problems that truly do exist through such tried and true methods as communication, diplomacy, and compromise. Playing a multi-billion dollar version of missile command isn't going to help.

I recently participated in a debate on the merits of the National Missile Defense Shield. The strategy professor is a ruthless fiend, so he chose those of us who opposed the subject to defend it. "This," he said, "will be an exercise in yellow hat thinking." And how. There are so many good reasons against it; surely someone had an argument in favour of it? The research was thought-provoking, to say the least...

Is President George Bush's decision to deploy an anti-ballistic missile defence system (designed to protect the United States from a nuclear attack by a "rogue" state) in his nation's best interests?


"What is the concept of defence?" asked Carl von Clausewitz. "The parrying of a blow. What is its characteristic feature? Awaiting the blow." Today, America is changing the way it waits for the blow. It's called the National Missile Defense Shield, and it's in America's best interests to deploy it. There are four main reasons for this:

  1. It will be a cornerstone in America's move away from a doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD);
  2. It will protect America from a serious and growing threat from the world's superpowers and rogue states;
  3. It will protect America from an unforseen threat - an attack that we don't know will happen until the missile is launched;
  4. It will allow the United States to pursue its policies without the constant threat of retaliation.

1 MAD is no longer a viable policy

Bush's decision to build a missile defence shield was taken because America is no longer interested in maintaining "deterrence through retaliation." Back in 1983, Ronald Reagan intended to develop "effective strategic defences that might some day completely eliminate the present state of mutually assured destruction." In fact, he even went so far as to say that it was "ethically repugnant."

So what's wrong with MAD? The policy was developed when there were just two super-powers, Russia and America. But now, there are many international powers with the capability to strike against America. And not all of them are interested in deterrence and stability.

Take the Gulf War as an example. Lt. Gen. Malcom O'Neill of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (now known as the Missile Defense Administration)states that Iraq attacked America despite America's overwhelming forces, since it "took the gamble" that America would not respond with nuclear weapons. In this case, the so-called stability of MAD provided nothing.

As forseen by Reagan in 1983, America must defend itself from those countries who are not deterred by MAD. This is the first reason why it is in America's best interests to develop a missile defence shield.

2 It directly addresses a serious threat

But the deployment of a missile shield won't just defend against the possibility of non-deterrence. It directly addresses a serious threat from the world's superpowers and rogue states. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate, supported by the 1998 "Report of the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States July 15, 1998" (aka The Rumsfeld Report, concluded that "during the next 15 years the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq."

In the wake of the Cold War, the focus of anti-ballistic missile attention has traditionally fallen on Russia. But the Rumsfeld Report indicates that the Russian threat has changed significantly since the 1980's: "the likelihood of a deliberate missile attack on the U.S. from Russia has been greatly lessened but not entirely eliminated." Instead, China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq are nominated as primary concerns. Each of these countries could have a fully capable ICBM program ready to deploy within 5 years of deciding to do so (in the case of Iraq, 10). The report stated that due to sketchy regional intelligence, "the U.S. is unlikely to know whether some of these countries possess nuclear weapons until after the fact."

Also, all of these countries are capable of assisting any other nation to develop a nuclear missile system. Countries such as India and Pakistan may not have a motive for attacking America, but they might not feel any need to protect it. These countries have the capability to donate or sell technology to interested parties, if they so choose. This indirect threat is all the more dangerous, since it is difficult to determine which countries have sufficient technological knowledge.

If diplomacy cannot prevent an attack? If MAD isn't a deterrent? What will stop them? Even the most advanced missile shield could not stop every missile that is launched; but if it neutralises just one missile, if it saves one life, then it has fulfilled its mission.

This is the second reason why it is in America's best interests to build a missile defence shield - to defend itself from an increasing threat from countries with ballistic missile capabilities.

3 It directly addresses an unforeseen threat

But that's only the nations that we know might attack. What if another nation - or organisation - chose to attack America? The third reason why America should build the Missile Defense Shield is because it directly addresses an unforeseen threat.

"The Intelligence Community's ability to provide timely and accurate estimates of ballistic missile threats to the U.S. is eroding," declared the Report of the Ballistic Missile Threat. "The U.S. might well have little or no warning before operational deployment."

Imagine that a well-funded terrorist organisation arranges to rent a silo in the Ukraine for a few hours. I agree that it's extremely expensive, but should the U.S. rely on price as a prohibitor? Imagine if a mad sailor takes a nuclear submarine hostage - you've all seen 'The Hunt for Red October.' Imagine if North Korea 'accidentally' sends a test missile in the wrong direction. Imagine if Dr Strangelove enjoys a resurgence in popularity. And imagine that the limited capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community means that nobody knows about this threat until the missile is launched. Again, diplomacy will mean nothing. MAD will mean nothing. The U.S. will be powerless to stop the attack.

The missile defence shield protects against all of these scenarios. It ensures that in instances where intelligence fails, the protection of America does not. Thus, this is the third reason that it is in America's best interests to develop protection from an unpredictable, unforseen threat to its territory.

4 It allows the U.S. to pursue more wide-ranging policies.

And now that America is more protected from the aforementioned threats, she is free to pursue more wide-ranging global policies. This is the final reason why it is in America's interests to build the missile shield - because it allows America to act internationally without hesitation or fears for her own safety.

As Senator Thompson of Tennessee stated, he did not wish to see "American cities become hostages when our interests elsewhere in the world are challenged by a rogue state." In this scenario, an attacker may not intend to obliterate life in North America; they may simply wish to smack America's hand.

  • A good example of this is the U.S. promise to protect Taiwan from China. America lacks credibility as a defender for its protege if it cannot adequately defend itself from a retaliatory attack by China. As Lt. Gen. Xiong Guang Kai stated, "Would the U.S. be willing to trade Los Angeles for Taipei?"

  • In another example, Moammar Qaddafi said after the 1986 U.S. attack on Tripoli, he felt America would have "lacked the resolve to attack Tripoli conventionally" if he had had an ICBM.

With the protection of an anti-ballistic missile shield, these two examples would not be a concern for America. Thus, it is in America's interests to build a missile defence shield so that she can protect her own political interests around the globe.


In conclusion, as former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said, "The goal is noble and straightforward: to destroy missiles that kill people." The anti-ballistic missile shield will help the United States to dismantle the "repugnant" doctrine of MAD; it will protect the United States against increasingly likely threats from superpowers, from rogue states or from unforseen danger, and it will allow the United States to pursue its global policies without fear of retaliation against its citzens. For these reasons, it is in America's best interests to build the National Missile Defense Shield.


Thompson, Sen. F. National Missile Defence [online]
Available: [2002]

1998, Report of the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States July 15, 1998, aka The Rumsfeld Report
Available: [1998]

Blagovolin, S. 1994 'Stability and Deterrence Under Contemporary Conditions and the Role of Ballistic Missile Defence', Comparitive Strategy 13, Taylor & Francis, United Kingdom

Crouch, J.D. 1993 'National Missile Defence?', Comparitive Strategy 12, Taylor & Francis, United Kingdom

Freedman, L. 1987 'Strategic Defence in the Nuclear Age', Adelphi Paper no. 224, Institute for Strategic Studies, London

Gray, C. S. 1996 'The Influence of Space Power upon History', Comparitive Strategy 15, Taylor & Francis, United Kingdom

Lionetti, D. 1993 'Achieving National Missile Defence', Comparitive Strategy 12, Taylor & Francis, United Kingdom

Schroeer, D. 1987 'Directed Energy Weapons and Strategic Defence: A Primer', Adelphi Paper no. 221, Institute for Strategic Studies, London

I still can’t quite understand the logic of those who promote national missile defense. It would seem that the arguments against a Missile Defense System (MDS) preclude any premature unilateral deployment, but proponents for this financial and technical boondoggle keep pushing.

The technical case
The technical reasons against the deployment of an MDS are many. The early-warning aspect of the system is relatively mature, as much of it was developed and upgraded since the beginning of the Cold War, but the technology behind what happens after the alert is given is still in development. There are three places an ICBM is vulnerable to attack from the time the launch order is given to the time it reaches it target: the boost phase, the exoatmospheric phase, and the terminal phase.

Boost phase
In the boost phase, the ICBM leaves its launcher and flies upward into space. The most-suggested attack method at this stage uses a high-energy laser to strike the ICBM when it is at its weakest and most vulnerable. The ICBM is still a huge, fuel-filled steel tube at this point, and a relatively weak attack can destroy the missile. However, there are several hurdles to overcome. First, due to the nature of laser beam behavior in atmosphere and over distance, the laser itself would have to be based in a country bordering the area under concern, or carried in a large aircraft flying in the area, close enough to the launch site for the laser to be effective. To combat this, the missile can be “hardened” to resist laser fire. Adding a shiny exterior, covering the booster with relatively light ablative (it protects by burning away in a controlled manner) armor, or making the missile rotate about its axis as it rises (or all three) complicate the laser’s job of putting enough energy on a given spot on the missile long enough to burn through.

Exoatmospheric, or Flight phase
The time the ICBM spends in its long suborbital arc to its target is another point where it is vulnerable to attack. The weapon proposed to destroy the warhead at this phase is called an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV). This is a three-stage rocket that is launched from the ground to intercept the missile as it cruises through outer space. A weapon of this type recently succeeded in striking its target during the most recent test. However, the test conditions were slanted to favor success in the area of target detection. Decoys are a very effective method of increasing ICBM survivability. The testing currently being performed uses a single balloon to simulate a decoy, but this is a dangerous assumption. In reality, decoys could be made out of metal with weight, flight characteristics, and radar signature of a real warhead.

The terminal phase
Once the real warhead has been detected and the decoys discounted, the warhead must be intercepted high up enough that the interception actually accomplishes something. The performance of the Patriot Anti-Missile System in the Persian Gulf has shown us that hitting an incoming missile with an interceptor is not enough, as the warhead must be destroyed or thrown far enough off track to completely miss its target to be considered a successful intercept. America has not achieved this capability yet.

The dangers of unilateral deployment
These technical hurdles will be overcome. America is throwing huge sums of money at the problems, and will eventually succeed in creating a rudimentary MDS. What will happen then? Unilateral deployment of an MDS can only be viewed as destabilizing. In this, President Bush is making a grave error. By fielding an MDS to combat “rogue states” America is also provoking other nations to develop methods of overcoming such a system. Several countries, such as Russia, depend on their nuclear arsenals to give them a seat at the big table, where they would otherwise have to wait at the door like the rest of the non-nuclear (or non-rich) world. An MDS, even if declared to be for use against others, would be a major provocation, threatening to marginalize them. Their fear is that if their arsenals are rendered largely useless as a result of MDS deployment by the USA, they would become helpless in the face of American hegemony.

The Terrorist Equation
The entire Missile Defense house of cards collapses in the face of terrorism. As the recent tragedy at the World Trade Center demonstrates, you do not need a missile to hurt America. The number of ways to do significant damage to the US is uncountable. A determined enough foe will find the hole in your armor. Ways will be found to penetrate any missile defense system. America should research missile defense. That is obvious. However, an MDS wouldn't be able to prevent a boat or a car or a van with a nuke in it from reaching this country.

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