The Enduring Issues for U.S. Missile Defenses


In January 1983, 70 percent of Americans supported a nuclear arms freeze, and domestic politics was pushing the White House to do something. President Ronald Reagan’s March 23, 1983, speech was designed to show that his administration understood the Cold War fears of many Americans and would undertake a technological solution, the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Nearly all of Reagan’s speech was to justify increased Department of Defense (DoD) spending to counter the Soviet threat that he mentioned nearly 50 times. Reagan didn’t turn to missile defense until his speech was nearly 90 percent complete when he posed the question, “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” The concept may have been new to some Americans, but not to the DoD.

Ever since World War II, when German V-1 cruise missiles and V-2 ballistic missiles terrorized England, France, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg, the DoD has tried to build effective missile defenses. Developed under President Harry Truman, the first Nike-Ajax battery was deployed in 1953. By 1962 under President John Kennedy, approximately 240 Nike-Ajax sites were in place. By 1958 the U.S. Army began upgrading with Nike-Hercules missiles, with nuclear warheads optional. By 1963, 134 Nike- Hercules batteries were established, some with nuclear warheads. Development of Nike-Zeus and Nike-X missile defense systems continued from President Dwight Eisenhower through President Lyndon Johnson. In 1967 Johnson proposed the Sentinel anti-ballistic missile system, based on the Nike X. In 1969 President Richard Nixon renamed Sentinel the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system. Like the predecessor Nike-Hercules, Nike-Zeus, and Nike-X systems, Sentinel and Safeguard interceptors carried nuclear warheads.

A major focus of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was the nuclear-bomb-pumped X-Ray Laser, advocated by physicist Edward Teller. The X-Ray Laser program was terminated in July 1992 with the cancellation of “Greenwater,” a planned underground nuclear test of the concept. The Soviet Union and Great Britain had stopped nuclear testing in October 1990 and November 1991, respectively, and both worldwide and congressional pressure ended U.S. nuclear testing in 1992, and with it the X-Ray Laser and other nuclear-armed ballistic missile defense systems.

This meant the future of U.S. missile defense development would rest with conventional, non-nuclear systems. Fighting nukes with more nukes was no longer in the cards.

The Army’s early success in the 1984 Homing Overlay Experiment, with the first hit-to-kill intercept of a mock ballistic missile warhead outside the Earth’s atmosphere, became a model.

Reagan’s speech spurred work on other kinetic energy systems as well. Notable was the Brilliant Pebbles program, established in 1986. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a system of small satellites orbiting the Earth and ready to attack enemy missiles in flight. Brilliant Pebbles was canceled in 1994 as too costly and complex.

By late 1987 the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization developed the “Strategic Defense System Phase 1 Architecture,” a system of space- and ground-based interceptors, satellites for detection, tracking and discrimination, and many other features later embodied in National Missile Defense and still later the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. Except for space-based interceptors, today’s GMD system is not that different from the Reagan Phase 1 Architecture.

President George W. Bush formalized the GMD system. He also initiated U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe with bilateral agreements to establish GMD-like interceptors in Poland and a ground-based radar in the Czech Republic.

President Barack Obama continued the GMD program and broadened the footprint of U.S. missile defenses in Europe with the European Phased Adaptive Approach. Under NATO, the European Phased Adaptive Approach involves agreements with Romania, Turkey, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well cooperation from Bulgaria, Slovakia and Georgia. Interceptors are to be both sea- and land-based. Aegis cruisers and destroyers carrying Standard Missile-3-type interceptors would patrol in the Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. Interceptors would be deployed at land-based sites in Poland, Romania and perhaps Bulgaria.

Last September, a study by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences brought new attention to the idea of also establishing interceptor sites in the northeastern United States, and perhaps also near Grand Forks, N.D., but there is little support as yet from the Obama administration or Congress.

In addition the Obama administration has said it intends to build two new regional missile defense systems, one in the Middle East to defend Iran’s neighbors against Iran, and another in Asia to defend North Korea’s neighbors against North Korea.

For 70 years every U.S. president has supported missile defense, so it is questionable that Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech gets so much of the credit for revitalizing U.S. missile defense efforts. Obama arguably has done more to broaden the geographic scope and diversity of U.S. missile defenses than any previous U.S. president, including Reagan.

Despite continuing presidential support, U.S. ballistic missile defenses are hobbled by a never-changing set of intractable obstacles that have confounded the DoD for decades:

  • Terrorism and asymmetric warfare against which missile defenses have little effect.

  • Cruise missiles, a common missile threat.

  • The incentive for adversaries to build more offensive missiles and plan raid attacks to overwhelm missile defenses.

  • Vulnerability to decoys, countermeasures, stealth and confusion from debris from rocket stage separations.

  • The slow pace of testing, and excessively scripted tests that avoid the realities of battle and impede effective operational capability.

  • The worldwide arms race in missile defenses including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Japan and Israel.

  • Costs that add to the nation’s fiscal deficit by spending on the deployment of systems that don’t work.

  • U.S. missile defenses continue to be a major obstacle to improved relations with Russia.

In 1986, President Reagan met with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, and reprised his proposals to eliminate all ballistic missiles and all nuclear weapons between their two countries. Beginning in 1981, Reagan had made proposals toward these ends, and he would return to those themes throughout his second term. At Reykjavik, Reagan proposed that the Soviet Union and the United States comply with the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty for at least 10 years, reduce their strategic offensive arms by 50 percent by 1991, and eliminate all remaining offensive ballistic missiles by 1996. Gorbachev responded by insisting that all research and testing of space-based ballistic missile defense systems be restricted to “laboratories” for at least five years. Over that one word, “laboratories,” the negotiations broke down. If Reagan had accepted, U.S. progress on missile defenses would not have been slowed. It was still very early in the development of U.S. ballistic missile defense systems. If Gorbachev had accepted Reagan’s offer, within a few years Russia and the United States could have eliminated nuclear weapons, and the world would be a very different place today.

However, the Reykjavik Summit led the way to the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987, and to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 1991. This history is a reminder that as much as we may wish for a technological solution, a silver bullet, to solve our problems on the international stage, there is no substitute for American leadership in diplomacy.


Philip Coyle is a former associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; former assistant secretary of defense and director of operational test and evaluation; and former deputy assistant secretary of energy for defense programs. Coyle worked for 33 years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and is a recognized expert on U.S. and worldwide military research, development and testing, on operational military matters, and on national security policy and defense spending. Currently he is a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a Washington-based national security study center.



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