The Persistent Challenge of Ballistic Missile Defense

By Sinnreich, Richard Hart | Army, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The Persistent Challenge of Ballistic Missile Defense


Sinnreich, Richard Hart, Army


Concurrent with the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Defense Department has released its first-ever Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) review. Mandated like the QDR by Congress, the BMD review furnishes a comprehensive look at U.S. BMD policies, strategies, plans and programs.

Historically, and ironically, few other defense programs have been as contro versial as ballistic missile defense. The irony is that, since World War II, no other defense program has more directly sought the military safety of the U.S. itself. Indeed, until the events of 9/11, many considered the ballistic missile to be the only truly existential threat to the U.S. homeland.

Nevertheless, defense against such weapons has been controversial virtually from the outset and remains so today. Objections have ranged from the technological and fiscal to the strategic and even ideological and, in many cases, have combined all four.

The technological and fiscal problem is that, at least until now, means of defeating ballistic missile defenses have been much easier to design and even cheaper to field than missile defense systems.

A ballistic missile attack has the advantage of choosing its time and target, and the latter is a fixed point on the Earth. The defender must detect the launch, locate and track a relatively small object moving at very high speed hundreds or even thousands of miles away, then intercept and destroy it, preferably before it spawns multiple nuclear warheads and decoys.

As a result, a capable attacker can saturate any defense much more easily than the defender can respond with additional defensive weapons. So far, every solution proposed to offset this asymmetry would require deploying defensive weapons on satellites. Doing so not only would be expensive but also would further militarize space, whence both legal and ideological objections.

Confronting the challenge of deterring a major nuclear power such as the former Soviet Union, such objections were compelling. Thus as part of the first U.S. -Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) agreement, the United States terminated its 1960s Safeguard BMD program after construction of a single radar site.

Since the implosion of the U.S.S.R., however, U.S. BMD efforts have focused on deterring China and discouraging such nuclear wannabes as North Korea and Iran. Because, until now, that challenge has been so much more modest, it has been possible to meet it with a combination of sea-based defensive systems and a very few land-based missiles deployed in California and Alaska. …

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