Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Ballistic Missile Defense: The Need for a National Debate

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Ballistic Missile Defense: The Need for a National Debate

Article excerpt



Consensus on Theater Missile Defense

There is a strong consensus in the United States concerning the need for active defenses against theater ballistic missiles, defined as missiles with a range of 3,500 km or less. This consensus was forged in the Gulf War, when Iraq launched conventionally-armed missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia one striking a U.S. barracks, causing one-quarter of the U.S. combat fatalities of the conflict. Iraqi missiles were derived from the 1950's-vintage Scud-B missiles previously provided by the Soviet Union. The political and military utility of even these relatively crude missiles was not lost on other states who would use force to achieve their own territorial and political objectives.

Developments since Desert Storm have confirmed that states seeking NBC weapons also seek increasingly capable ballistic missiles as their delivery system of choice. For example, Iran and Pakistan reportedly have been provided Chinese technology for M-9 and/ or M-11 missiles. North Korea has flight tested the 1000+ km-range No Dong-1, a missile with the potential to carry NBC warheads, and may have concluded agreements to provide the No Dong to Iran, Libya and Syria. Indeed, according to unofficial sources, the delivery of No-Dong missiles to Iran may already have begun. Such transfers could have profound implications for stability in the Middle East and Persian Gulf areas of vital U.S. interest.

The Gulf experience and the accelerating pace of missile proliferation have demonstrated the need for a robust theater missile defense capability. As a result, the United States has initiated a number of programs to protect U.S. forces and allies from ballistic missile attack. The "core" TMD programs of the U.S. effort include: (1) improvements to PATRIOT (PAC-3) and the new ERINT missile for point defense; (2) THAAD for wide-area theater defense; and (3) AEGIS/SM-2 Block IVA for tactical missile defense from the sea.

In addition to these core TMD programs, the Clinton Administration has recently declared the much more capable Navy Upper Tier system described as an "advanced concept" for "extensive theater-wide protection" to be compliant with the ABM Treaty. However, as discussed below, it is not clear how substantially this system (as well as THAAD) has been "dumbed-down" to make it compatible with the Administration's view of the Treaty.

Divergence on National Missile Defense

The consensus on TMD does not exist on national missile defense. In fact, differences on the central issue of defending the U.S. homeland from ballistic missile attack are stark, influenced by widely contrasting perceptions of the threat and the relevance of traditional arms control, specifically the ABM Treaty, in the post Cold War environment.

Those who oppose initiating an NMD deployment program begin with the premise that, presently, no proliferant state has the capability to strike U.S. territory with ballistic missiles. Furthermore, they contend that the emergence of such a threat in the near or mid-term is very unlikely. Therefore, given defense budgetary constraints, the United States need not and should not now pursue NMD. Moreover, NMD critics argue that if a missile threat does emerge, the United States will be able to deter attacks on its territory through its conventional superiority and, if necessary, its nuclear offensive forces, as it did during the decades of the Cold War. In fact, opponents believe NMD would undermine deference and lead to a new U.S.-Russian nuclear offensive arms race.

In contrast, NMD advocates point to the proliferation of ballistic missile programs in countries hostile to the United States. They cite, for example, the North Korean development of two new multistage missiles. Then-Director of Central Intelligence, James Wails, publicly acknowledged these North Korean missiles, and noted that they could pose a threat to "all of Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, much of the Pacific area, and even most of Russia. …

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