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Key Issues Missile Defense The Basics Introduction to Ballistic Missile Defense

Introduction to Ballistic Missile Defense

Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems in various forms have been a recurring idea of US policymakers since the Soviet Union launched its first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in the late 1950s. ICBMs, which can carry nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction, are capable of reaching the territory of countries separated by oceans or continents in a matter of minutes. BMD systems would be designed to defend against missile attacks by shooting down the missiles during their short flight times.

The current version of Ballistic Missile Defense being proposed by the Bush administration is a scaled down version of the Reagan era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as "Star Wars." Reagan had a grandiose vision of being able to protect the United States from a major missile attack by an opponent as well armed and powerful as the former Soviet Union. SDI was proposed as a space-based system incorporating many new technologies, including ground and space based lasers. Reagan's vision, unworkable though it was, proved to be a stumbling block to the plans to eliminate nuclear weapons proposed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the end of the Cold War, Reagan's SDI was dismissed as being unworkable and unneeded. Reagan's successor, George Bush, however, continued to support research and development of BMD systems. He called for a far more limited system of missile defenses based primarily upon ground-launched interceptors. The Clinton administration also envisaged a primarily ground-based system, one that could provide protection to the entire country but only against limited attacks from so-called "rogue" states. The timeframe for deploying a National Missile Defense (NMD) slipped back under the Clinton administration due primarily to test failures of the system.

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Ballistic Missile Defense 1: General
Ballistic Missile Defense 2: Boost-Phase Intercepts
Ballistic Missile Defense 3: Midcourse-Phase Intercepts
Ballistic Missile Defense 4: Terminal-Phase Intercepts
Missile Proliferation and Missile Defenses


Clinton was unable to conclude whether or not an NMD would enhance overall US security, andin September 2000 he deferred a decision on deployment of an NMD to his successor.

George W. Bush has made deployment of ballistic missile defenses a major goal of his presidency. In a speech on May 1, 2001, President Bush announced that he had asked for an examination of "all available technologies and basing modes for effective missile defenses that could protect the United States, our deployed forces, our friends and our allies." He indicated that some near-term options had been identified "that could allow us to deploy an initial capability against limited threats." In the same speech, Mr. Bush indicated that he was prepared to "move beyond the constraints of the 30-year-old ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty." He argued, "This treaty does not recognize the present or point us to the future. It enshrines the past."

Many US allies, with whom Bush has promised to consult, have expressed serious reservations about US willingness to unilaterally abrogate the ABM Treaty. Even stronger reservations have been expressed by Russia and China. A spokesperson for the Secretary General of the United Nations released this statement after the Bush speech: "The Secretary-General believes that, in promoting respect for the rule of law in international affairs, there is a need to consolidate and build upon existing disarmament and non-proliferation agreements, specifically to prevent a new arms race and to maintain the non-weaponized status of outer space."

The issues surrounding the deployment of BMD systems are controversial and complicated. They involve both national missile defenses and theater or regional missile defenses. They involve issues of unilateralism verses multilateralism. They involve issues of security and the rule of law. They involve the relationship of defense to offense, a relationship that many believe is closely intertwined. They involve the possibility of starting new nuclear arms races, including arms races in outer space. They involve the provocation to nuclear proliferation. And they involve judgments as to the credibility of missile threats, and as to the workability of potential defensive systems.

Ballistic Missile Defense is a program on shifting sands. In his May 1, 2001 speech, President Bush stated, "We have more work to do to determine the final form the defenses might take." Nothing is yet certain, except the desire of the Bush administration to move forward rapidly in deploying BMD systems. Among the concerns raised by the US plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses, particularly a National Missile Defense, are the following:

. Any Ballistic Missile Defense system that is deployed will have major uncertainties as to reliability in a real world situation. It will not be possible to adequately test a deployed system of missile defenses to assure its reliability.

. Most experts who are not being paid to develop ballistic missile defenses believe that it is relatively inexpensive to improve offensive missile capabilities or to deploy decoys to overcome missile defenses.

. Missile defenses will not prevent the possibility of hostile countries or terrorist groups delivering weapons of mass destruction by means other than ballistic missiles. It is acknowledged that it would be both easier and less traceable to deliver a nuclear weapon by means of a van, ship or airplane than by means of a ballistic missile.

. A National Missile Defense will make the United States less secure by antagonizing both Russia and China, halting progress on nuclear disarmament and initiating new arms races.

. Many supporters of ballistic missile defenses are willing to violate or abrogate long-standing treaties, such as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, that have provided a basis for global stability and nuclear arms reductions. If the United States violates or abrogates the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Russians have said that in their national interest they would withdraw from the START II Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

. Ballistic missile defenses will undermine adherence to the obligations made at the Non-Proliferation Treaty for good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament and to the promises made at the 2000 Review Conference of that Treaty to an "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapons states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."

. The deployment of ballistic missile defenses could move the nuclear arms race into outer space, violating yet another international treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, and defiling the beauty and mystery of the heavens.

. Ballistic missile defenses as envisaged by the US are unilateralism in its most egregious form. The deployment of ballistic missile defenses will be divisive among US allies, many of whom do not support deployment.

. Those who stand to gain the most from deployment of ballistic missile defenses are US defense contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and TRW. These corporations will reap tremendous profits from the $100 billion or more projected to be spent on a National Missile Defense. Ballistic missile defenses have so little potential value for security that one might conclude that profit and greed are the primary motivating factors in promoting them.

. The development and deployment of ballistic missile defenses mean lost opportunities. Work on ballistic missile defenses requires a major diversion of monetary and scientific resources from other security and societal priorities, such as education, health care, and even pay increases for military personnel.