Defending the West: Current Debate over Ballistic Missile Defense

Brian T. Kennedy

June 1, 2001

On May 6, George W. Bush presided over the opening day of “T-Ball on the South Lawn of the White House.” T-ball players from the Capitol City Little League and their families met the President and played an inning of solid t-ball. Prior to the game they recited the Little League pledge: “I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win, but win or lose I will always do my best.” Bob Costas called the play by play, describing the kids’ favorite major league players and their hobbies. Cynical members of the Washington press corps heard such astonishing things as a young black boy who enjoyed reading the Bible and another who hoped to grow up to be just like his dad. Anyone fortunate enough to watch the game on C-Span caught a glimpse of that gentle part of America the President is proposing to defend with a ballistic missile defense.

In fairness, the President will be building, if he can master this country’s political and media elites, a missile defense that will defend Americans, gentle or not. In his remarks at the National Defense University he, like President Reagan, turned away from the ideology of arms control and the principle of mutually assured destruction in favor of a national security doctrine that explicitly holds the preservation of the people and political system of the United States, indeed the future of western civilization, as its highest good.

Although missile defense is the single most important component of national security policy in the nuclear age, there is amazing ignorance on the current state of our defense. Indeed, prior to the election of George W. Bush, 74% of Americans believed the United States possessed a national missile defense. Since the election, and the publicity the issue received from the campaign, that number is down to about 58%. Still, all in all, an amazing statistic if you consider that over half of the American people believe the United States possesses a missile defense when in fact not a single, solitary missile can be stopped.

The confusion is understandable. In a democratic republic like ours it is expected that matters of national security will be examined and explained by the president and members of Congress. Citizens assume that their representatives will be well-informed about such matters having access to the best military and political intelligence in the country. After all, they heard from President Reagan that he was going to build a national missile defense, and they assumed he did. Their representatives say little about the threat to the United States from missile attack and the absence of a defense.

Only in the past five years has their been a renewed call for missile defense and this because of a threat by a Chinese general and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by such tyrannical regimes as North Korea, Iran and Iraq with the help of the equally offensive regimes in Russia and Communist China.

The Threat

The current case for missile defense began in February of 1996, when China became belligerent toward the United States during heated confrontation between China and Taiwan. During this confrontation, Lt. Gen. Xiong Guang Kai, a senior Communist Chinese official, made an implicit nuclear threat against California, telling U.S. official Chas Freeman not to interfere because Americans “care more about Los Angeles than they do Tai Pei.”

This led some in the U.S. defense community to reassess our strategic position amidst the complacency that set in following the end of the Cold War. To be clear, the reorganization of the Soviet Union into Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States did not mean its disarmament. The Soviets’ massive investments in nuclear-war fighting capability remain at the disposal of the Russian government and their president, ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, who appears to be not much different than his former Soviet bosses. Because of its sheer size, the Russian nuclear arsenal remains the single greatest threat to U.S. security.

The Communist Chinese are likewise building a nuclear arsenal to challenge the United States in the Pacific. The Central Intelligence Agency confirmed in 1998 that in addition to having over 600 short range and tactical nuclear missiles, China has at least 30 nuclear-armed ICBMs, 13 of which are aimed at and capable of destroying a major U.S. city. Moreover a casual reading of Chinese military journals would disclose the contempt they have for the United States who they perceive as a superpower in decline.

The Dong Feng 31 missile, with a range of 4,960 miles, gives China major strike capability against targets in Hawaii and along the entire west coast of the United States. China’s next generation of ICBMs, the DF 41 and the DF 5A—using the best of Russian, Chinese and American technology—will soon be capable of delivering large nuclear payloads anywhere in the U.S.

The North Korea threat is equally alarming. Their Taepo Dong II when completed will be capable of hitting the western states of Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.

A North Korean defector, Colonel Choi Ju-hwal, explained at a 1997 U.S. Senate hearing why North Korea is developing nuclear missiles: “If war breaks out in the Korean peninsula, the North’s main target will be the U.S. forces based in the South (Korea) and Japan, which is the reason the North has been working furiously on its missile program.” Colonel Choi also testified that the “ultimate goal for the development of North Korean missiles is to reach the mainland of the United States.”

In 1998, Congress tasked Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, with chairing a commission to study these and other missile threats. The unanimous, bi-partisan report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States found that Iraq had been, and continues to develop short, medium, and long range missiles capable of carrying nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads. These include Scud missiles which they launched against Israel during the Gulf War, the Al Hussein missile (Range 600 km) and the Al Abbas missile (range 900 km). Undeterred by U.N. inspectors, Iraq continues their efforts to build a missile capable of hitting not merely U.S. troops and allies in the Middle East, but the continental United States as well.

With regards to Iran, the Rumsfeld Commission stated that: “Iran is placing extraordinary emphasis on its ballistic missile and WMD development programs. The ballistic missile infrastructure in Iran is now more sophisticated than that of North Korea, and has benefited from broad, essential, long-term assistance from Russia and important assistance from China as well.”

The Commission further reported that Iran has the technical capability to test an ICBM-range missile capable of hitting America’s heartland: “A 10,000 km-range Iranian missile could hold the U.S. at risk in an arc extending northeast of a line from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to St. Paul, Minnesota.”

In light of such developments Congess passed, and Clinton signed into law, the National Defense Act of 1999 that stated it would be the policy of the United States to deploy missile defense as soon as it was technologically feasible. Unfortunately the Clinton administration hindered any significant missile defense research and the Congress failed to point this out to the American people.

All this has changed however with President Bush’s new initiative and the fact that Secretary Rumsfeld has supported the concept of missile defense since his days as a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.

Our Best Options for Missile Defense

The science of missile defense is often described as futuristic and near impossible. Missile defense opponents liken anti-missile intercepts to a “bullet hitting a bullet.” In reality missile defense is well within our capability depending on how we want to perform the task.

In fact, in 1962 a test missile was fired from a test facility on the Kwajaleen Atoll toward the United States. An interceptor was fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base and got within 500 yards of the test missile. The idea was to merely get close to the target and use a small nuclear warhead in the upper atmosphere to destroy the enemy warhead. Although this would have been one way of doing missile defense—and is the method used today by Russia—it was thought to be a less desirable method since it required a nuclear explosion to achieve its objective. In reality missile defense opponents have found any excuse whatsoever to prefer the idea of arms control to strategic defense.

When Reagan revived the idea of missile defense in 1983, his advisors advocated a system that included ground based, and space based interceptors. Even though Reagan knew that a system could not be perfect, he nonetheless believed that with America’s technological advantage a system could be built that would stop such a high percentage of enemy missiles no enemy would dare risk attack. Today our best options are a combination of systems that will form a “layered” missile defense using sea-based, land-based, and space-based defenses.

One technical point bears mentioning: Ballistic missiles can be stopped in their boost phase, their mid-course phase, and in their terminal phase, which is to say when they are coming down upon you. The surest time to stop them is in their boost phase, while they are slow and easy to see. More difficult is the mid-course phase when the warhead has entered space, is building up speed and may have deployed decoys to throw off an anti-ballistic missile. Also problematic is the terminal phase when the warhead is re-entering the atmosphere since the warhead will certainly have deployed decoys and there is little time to distinguish the warhead from any so-called penetration aids.

That having been said, the sea-based option is the most popular near-term solution since it can be done using our existing fleet of Aegis Cruisers (Ticonderoga class) and Aegis Destroyers (Arleigh Burke class) currently tasked with defending America’s naval battle groups from air attack. Called the Navy’s Theater Wide System, the Aegis Cruisers double as a missile defense platform by retrofitting the ships with modified Standard II, Block IV Interceptor missiles, performing some improvements to the ship’s computer systems, and interfacing the ship’s missile tracking systems with infra-red satellites. If stationed off North Korea it should be able to stop a missile launch by them in the boost phase. Failing this, other Aegis Cruisers in the Pacific could attempt interception in the more difficult mid-course and terminal phase.

The land-based option is also a possible near-term option but with a decidedly less ambitious goal. Proposed now for Fort Greely, Alaska, a system of 100 to 200 ground-based interceptors would be built in silos and launch a non-nuclear hit-to-kill vehicle to destroy an enemy warhead. Built by both Raytheon and Boeing, the interceptors would be launched to intercept long-range enemy missiles in mid-course. Since there are a limited number of interceptors it would be designed to prevent an attack by North Korea who may view Alaska as a key target because of its large oil reserves and the practical fact that it is within range of the Taepo Dong II missile.

Critics of missile defense rightly claim that the land-based system is inherently less effective since it is trying to stop warheads in mid-flight after possible decoys have been deployed. And it is trying to destroy the warhead by a direct collision with it —the so-called bullet hitting a bullet—rather than with a nuclear explosion. Despite the difficulty, and the fact that in tests it was performing with radars rather than a more effective constellation of infra-red satellites, the system has shown it can work.

By far the most effective system is space-based. Any ballistic missile must travel into space. As it is going into space it is vulnerable to attack from a space-based laser and once there by a system of space-based interceptors dubbed during the early days of the Strategic Defense Initiative, “Brilliant Pebbles.” Both of these systems would allow for the destruction of long-range ICBMs launched anywhere in the world. Although this is the most costly option, it is also the best for combating large numbers of long-range missiles and short-range missiles.

It is often charged that missile defense won’t work since a short range ballistic missile could be launched 200 miles off the coast of the United States from aboard a merchant ship. But of course this missile must also travel into space where it is vulnerable to space-based lasers or space-based interceptors.

Extensive research was done on space-based lasers using a combustion of hydrogen and fluorine or oxygen and iodine, back in the 1970s and 1980s. Scientists then proved the theory that the skin of a missile, under the pressure of launch, could be penetrated and the missile destroyed. Space-based defenses also have their champions including Boston University professor Angelo Codevilla and former Senator Malcolm Wallop.

The ABM Treaty and the Ideology of Arms Control

Standing in the way of missile defense, however, is the 30 year old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with a nation that does not exist, the Soviet Union. Called the “cornerstone of strategic stability” by the Clinton Administration, it has proven difficult to overcome. The ABM Treaty’s language is very clear in its prohibition against building a national missile defense. This is stated in Article I, Section 2:

Each Party undertakes not to deploy ABM systems for a defense of the territory of its country and not to provide a base for such a defense, and not to deploy ABM systems for defense of an individual region except as provided for in Article III of this Treaty.

When the Nixon Administration negotiated the ABM Treaty, it did so based on the logic that since they believed a nuclear war could not be won, the greatest security would come from a ban on any defense that would make nuclear war even possible. Even then some people doubted this premise. Today the idea of remaining vulnerable to attack strikes most Americans as utterly absurd.

It is also worth noting that the Soviets, and today the Russians, likewise thought it absurd. No sooner was the ink on the Treaty dry than were the Soviets building an air and missile defense for Moscow that today includes some 9000 interceptors according to ex-CIA analyst and author, William Lee. Although under the terms of the Treaty 100 interceptors were allowed for each nation’s capitol (none were ever built or deployed for Washington, D.C.) the current Russian force, however effective, would provide a significant defense for Moscow, Russia’s main population center.

Many legal scholars, including Robert Turner at the University of Virginia, believe that the Treaty no longer exists since the Soviet Union no longer exists. Even so, the President can give, under the terms of the Treaty, six months notice of our intent to withdraw from the Treaty, as is possible under Article 15, if we declare that it is in our supreme interest.

Some missile defense proponents were disappointed that President Bush did not do just that at his address at National Defense University, appearing at once to denounce the Treaty and acknowledge its existence. One thing is clear, if missile defense is to become a reality, the ABM Treaty must be either withdrawn from or its existence denied.

The Current Debate

The issue of missile defense is by no means decided despite its obvious necessity and public opinion that overwhelmingly supports missile defense once it is understood that the United States does not possess one.

The preferred liberal solution is a protracted negotiation with the Russians and the Chinese followed by the building of a “limited” missile defense. This limited defense would be designed to prevent attack from the rogue states of Iran, Iraq and North Korea—serious threats all of them—but leave unchecked the arsenals of China or Russia. This is simply unacceptable. If missile defense is worth doing it should be designed to stop any threat.

President Putin has said, as has Jiang Zemin, that they may entertain the idea of a limited defense against the rogue states—they having helped arm the rogue states in the first place. It is, of course, the goal of Russian and Chinese statecraft to make sure that they have the ability to attack or blackmail the United States. A limited defense against the rogue states would be a small price to pay.

It is not an easy thing that President Bush is trying to do. We should remember that Ronald Reagan was committed to missile defense, and never withdrew us from the ABM Treaty, so powerful was the political orthodoxy of arms control in Washington. And, 18 years later, we do not have a missile defense.

The question for Americans is whether they are willing to defend western civilization or are they willing to gamble it away and rely on the good will of tyrants. If it is the former they must be able to confront an enemy that possess nuclear ballistic missiles. These are not prospects a prosperous, free people think much about. But they will have to, and soon, before it is too late.

Brian T. Kennedy is Vice President of the Claremont Institute in California and the editor of