Ballistic Missile Defense: A Review of Development Problems

By Fox, E.; Orman, S. | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Ballistic Missile Defense: A Review of Development Problems


Fox, E., Orman, S., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


This article examines the manner by which ballistic missile defense (BMD) could be integrated with the longstanding concept of deterrence through the threat of overwhelming retaliation to enhance international security. Despite recent attention given to terrorism, the threat of ballistic missile attack on cities and military establishments has not subsided, and the authors conclude that effective BMD defenses remain a priority. Furthermore the level of effectiveness should be demonstrated to potentially hostile nations through well-publicized testing programs.

They assert that the BMD system that is currently being deployed may have some capability against small, unsophisticated raids, but express concern that enhancements under development may not significantly increase the overall capability. In their opinion, far too much reliance has been placed on simulations that lack validation through actual flight-testing. Congressional oversight of the program has been sadly lacking, and since its inception in 1983, BMD has consumed more than $100B but still does not have a proven capability against even the simplest of threats. In their opinion, unless Congressional oversight improves, there is a distinct risk of yet more money being wasted in poorly-managed activities.

Yet BMD continues to have a vital role in maintaining security in a world in which proliferation of warhead and missile technology to additional nations has significantly increased the dangers of unprovoked attacks in future years.

Key Words: Missile defense, ABM Treaty, deterrence, defense policy.

BMD has been the subject of a coordinated and focused research and development program by the United States for twenty-three years. It was started when President Reagan made his surprising challenge to the technical defense community in March 1983(1). At the time, he was attempting to find a replacement for the mutually assured destruction (MAD) policy that had dominated East/West relations throughout much of the Cold War.

The central theme of the President's speech was encapsulated in the following extract:

What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack and that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?

It is clear from the extract that the President was seeking an effective form of defense that could defend American and allied populations should diplomatic means to prevent an outbreak of hostilities fail. The President also stipulated that the defense should be based on nonnuclear technology, as distinct from the Safeguard system the Americans had deployed briefly in the 1970s and the Russian system that still relies upon nuclear interceptors. Another objective of the move to introduce effective defense into the equation was the expectation that over time it would lead to a reduction of weaponry as the effectiveness of the defense increased.

It is timely after a lapse of 23 years and the expenditure of over $100B to examine where BMD is now and where it is headed.

The Balance between Deterrence and Defense

Prior to the effort to develop an effective BMD, peace between the two superpowers during the Cold War was assessed to depend upon the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). President Reagan saw BMD as an addition to deterrence, by making it less attractive to attempt to attack the US, and in the fullness of time making the defense so effective that an attack would be ineffective. As a result of the long emphasis on MAD, great reliance was placed by many nations on the importance of retaining the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT). The Treaty limited the ability of the two signatory powers, America and the Soviets, later replaced by Russia, to deploy an effective defense2. When originally conceived, it was hoped that by limiting each side to 100 ground-based interceptors and restricting the location of sensors, the treaty would lessen the desire of each side to keep increasing its offensive capacity. …

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