Episode II: US Ballistic Missile Defense

By Hsin, Honor | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Episode II: US Ballistic Missile Defense


Hsin, Honor, Harvard International Review


The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty restricted US and Soviet development of missile defense systems. Based on the logic of mutually assured destruction and in an effort to curb the Cold War arms race, each country was allowed to deploy limited ground-based missile defense facilities at one site. Development or deployment of sea-, air-, or space-based systems was prohibited. By the early 1980s, however, strategic analysts in the United States were concerned that the Soviets had developed a first-strike capability large enough to debilitate US forces and destroy cities. On March 23, 1983, US President Ronald Reagan unveiled plans for the strategic space-based missile defense initiative, or "Star Wars," project. This extensive system would destroy missiles in their early stages of launch, while they were still loaded with multiple warheads and decoys.

The Star Wars project sparked widespread criticism and debate for its cost, feasibility, and encroachment on the ABM treaty. Furthermore, the Soviet collapse at the end of the decade caused a restructuring of strategy to focus on threats from shorter-range theater missiles (mostly against US forces abroad) and ground-based defense, such as the Patriot interceptor system deployed in Iraq to protect against Iraqi SCUD missile attacks in the 1991 Gulf War. Nonetheless, the United States continued to develop limited-strike defense systems, with plans for a more extensive ground-based national missile defense and a space-based global defense scheme protecting deployed US forces from missile attacks.

On June 14, 2001, a significant turn of events occurred: under US President George Bush's administration, the United States withdrew from the ABM treaty. The next day, construction began at Fort Greely, Arkansas, the site of a new extended missile defense testbed that would prepare the United States to defend against ballistic attacks from rogue states or terrorist organizations, to whom the principle of mutually assured destruction is insufficient deterrent. In 1998, an independent commission under current US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield concluded that efforts by "potentially hostile" countries to obtain ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads posed a significant threat to the United States and its allies within the near future. In fact, in August 1998, North Korea launched an impressive (albeit unsuccessful) test of its Taepo Dong-1 missile, fuelling fears of a potential missile attack on US soil. In the proposed 2004 defense budget, US$7.7 billion will be allocated for the development of missile defenses under the proposed ABM system.

There are many reasons why the United States should refrain from developing and deploying such an extensive missile defense system. First, the perceived risk of a ballistic attack has been questioned: a 1995 national intelligence estimate concluded that a missile attack on the US homeland was not likely in the next 15 years, and the total number of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world has actually decreased significantly since the Cold War. …

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Episode II: US Ballistic Missile Defense
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