Ballistic Missile Defences: The Debate in the United States

Tara Kartha, Research Fellow, IDSA


Today there are few issues that are so contentious as that of ballistic missile defence (BMD). After years of living under the threat of that almost invincible weapon—the nuclear armed missile— BMD appears to be set to turn the technological cycle in favour of defence, with the potential therefore of turning the deterrence doctrine on its head and forcing countries to completely re-evaluate their options. The concept itself is far from new, and spans more than fifty years of research with frequent gaps and hiccups in between. But a series of factors—political, technological, and strategic,—seem to point to the fact that missile defence proponents are finding themselves "third time lucky". After the volte face of the 1960s, and the promise of Reagan years, the Clinton presidency has seen the virtual and quiet acceptance of one facet of missile defence—theatre missile defence—and the energetic espousal of national missile defence, an activity barred by treaty. Today, even its most strident opponents accept that some sort of defence effort would continue for the foreseeable future regardless of which administration comes in next. Thus it appears that the BMD debate has reached a stage of maturity, with all sides hardening and clarifying their stances, and poised for the next round of "when" rather than the "why" of defences.

This debate has been an acerbic one, at times becoming particularly virulent with neither side willing to hear the viewpoint of the other. The fact that Democrats and Republicans are poised at either end of the defence debate is well known. But there are clearly other actors- the Pentagon, the analysts, the scientists and other's whose inputs have been significant. In the final analysis, what interests us here is the effect this has on capabilities, (and deterrence postures thereof) not only in the United States, but also in China, and Russia. Clearly the BMD debate impacts far beyond the United States, and must force at some point a re-evaluation of what constitutes a minimum deterrence in the face of a possible horizontal proliferation of missiles—both offensive and defensive—in our neighbourhood. Thus the debate has to be followed and taken note of when evaluating our own security environment. This paper begins with a background of past BMD programmes, as a backdrop to understanding the present debate. With this backdrop, the various strands of the debate—and there are many—are grouped around certain common positions to achieve better understanding and for research brevity. The technical aspects are only covered in brief, (see Appx-1) and conclude with a review of the nature of the debate, and the possible consequences of US action in terms of the ABM Treaty. This would lead directly into the second phase of this project—which is the possible actions of the major international actors, and the effects of BMD on non-proliferation in general and deterrence doctrines in particular.

The Search for a Defence

The problem of defence in any given situation has always been a problematic one. Considerable energy has been devoted towards finding the perfect defense, either through technology or good planning. In past years, city states constructed thick walls and fortresses and considered themselves reasonably safe till better materials provided longer range arrows and battering rams to make the defenders task a difficult one. The cycle of offense and defense went on, with the advantage sometimes weighing against the former or bolstering the latter. Often, covert or innovative strategies found a solution where technology could not, and thus it was not always the side with the better resources which won, but the one that used what it had intelligently. Thus, Marshal Fouchet was forever accused of having lulled the French army into somnolence by constructing what was then seen as an impregnable defense. In the event, a brilliant German offensive simply passed around it in a devastating pincer action.

The advent of air power set new parameters for the defence, and the fear generated by air attacks even during the First World War sent the scales tipping to the offence. History shows that even the threat of a possible air attack was an important factor in persuading the British to sign the now infamous Munich Agreement (1938), a fear perhaps compounded by analysts who predicted "half a million casualties in three weeks"1 in a German air blitz.

The desperate search for a defence led to some brilliant inventions in the realm of defence like radio beacons and radar, but much of this was overturned as the first missiles hit, and Britains air defence had to be put on "scramble" once again. The use of the V-1 and V-2 in terror attacks against the civilian population threatened the now gathering might of the Allied forces, and major policy makers were one in noting that had the attacks been launched earlier, the whole operation may well have been affected. However, though the attacks came too late, the missiles did cause a considerable diversion of resources in trying to nullify the missiles and their sites. Overall the assessment made after the war, was that the campaign had cost the Allies to incur an expenditure of 47,635,000 pounds while the cost to the Germans was estimated at 12,600,000 pounds —which indicates at least a ratio of 4:1 in favour of the attack.2

The realisation that the missiles were well nigh impossible to stop, and that their launchers difficult to target immediately underscored the significance of the new weapon. It was not long before the triumphant powers went about replicating these missiles in their own countries,—even as they ensured that the precious technology did not seep into other countries, not even that of their allies. The catch—phrase that "the missile will always get through" became the centre-piece of doctrine thereafter. But this did not mean that the prospect of a defence was rejected outright. Both the Soviets and the US had initiated programmes to develop and deploy an ABM in the late 1950s.

The thrust for missile defense in the US provides an insight into the various interests involved in a multimillion dollar programme, and the wide gap between the actual and projected threat. In the US, work on the Nike-Zeus and the Nike -Ajax systems was collared by the Army pleading that it had a stake in the continental defence of the United States. The Air Force weighed in with the same plea, but discontinued some programmes (Project Thumper) due to inadequate technologies for radar , data processing and rocket guidance.3 By 1956 however the Army—which had been suffering from low budget allocations due to the expanding budget for strategic nuclear missiles—convinced Secretary of Defence McElroy that it would run the ABM programme. This programme was given a new urgency after the Soviets launched the Sputnik-1, and in reaction the Advanced Research Projects agency (ARPA) was created with responsibility for "Project Defender" a long term research programme for ABM. Meanwhile the army and defence contractors were going all out for funding of the Nike Zeus system (basically a terminal/late mid course defence system which however had a speed of about one fourth of that of an ICBM warhead) which received additional budgeting for research, in spite of the reservation of President Eisenhower. Through a process of creeping incrementalism the Nike programme was to grow until in 1964 it was known as the Nike-X, with improved data processing and phased array radar, and faster interceptors.

However before these improvements were made, the demand for a "Thin" ABM had already been raised by the Republicans as an election issue. With the perceived missile gap, and the Chinese nuclear test, the demand was also backed by the Army—as well as the other forces who hoped to win a sea based and air based role of ABM as well. Headlines of one trade magazine "Thin Nike-Fat orders" underlined the other interest groups involved. For instance Western Electric company, as prime contractors had won over $1.5 billion for ABM between 1963 and 1967, and could expect more. Another business magazine noted that over 15,000 companies including 12,000 small businesses, were expected to profit from deployment. Raytheon, Martin and McDonnell Douglas could each expect some $600 million. AT&T took over the programme for defensive guided missiles in a contract worth $2.25 billion for the Nike-Ajax alone.

The first (projected) threat perception for a thin ABM system was unquestionably the Chinese rather than the Soviets. Many reasons underlay this rather astonishing assessment at a time when the Chinese had no clear missile capability to speak of. In part the Chinese threat was identified in keeping with Secretary McNamara's opposition to an ABM against the Soviets—since as he pointed out, a limited ABM against such a large capability would be no shield at all. This was also the time when the violence of the "Cultural Revolution" had disrupted most long term intelligence estimates. China's missile chief was under repeated Red Guard poster and pamphlet attacks. Turmoil had broken out among two scientific factions, both responsible for the nuclear weapons programme, and reports told of the ransacking of the offices of one of the factions by Red Guards. The internal instability in China was therefore also an additional factor.

Another factor that impinged on the debate was considerable writing on the fighting of limited war. Preparations for a variety of options of conflict short of full-scale war had been under consideration in the Defense Department for some time. But the possibility that these options may have to be exercised against a possible nuclear backdrop was clearly something that needed more thinking over,—especially in a climate where the enemy was not the Soviets (with whom a certain amount of deterrence arising out of assured destruction was understood to be operating). Implicit in this argument—put forward cogently by Bernard Brodie for one4—was that another power may not be easily deterred (especially if its very integrity was threatened) which might push it into launching even a few nuclear weapons in desperation.

The most compelling and "realpolitik" rationale naturally came from the scientists. Herman Kahn5 argued that not only would a thin ABM constrain an arms race, but would prevent "other countries" from projecting themselves as invulnerable superpowers by fielding a few hidden missiles. This was the argument of the "nth nuclear power" (the Europeans) who constituted a still unknown entity in the delicate business of deterrence. The argument was that missile defence being so prohibitively expensive, only the superpowers could possibly afford it. Thus the assumption was that—given the energetic Soviet interest in BMD,—this should remain a big power preserve, which would permanently render all others capabilities more or less questionable. It must be noted that this marked the heydays of non-proliferation when the Nassau agreement with the British was being renegotiated, and when the Americans were frowning on Gaullist temerity in pursuing a nuclear programme.

Other arguments are also interesting in the light of the ongoing arguments today for a thin NMD. Kahn argues that given that there was no certainty of a complete defence, the balance of terror would continue, though at lower levels, and in the same breath noted that even a thin system would reduce the lead time necessary to quickly go in for crash deployment of a nation wide system (in three to four years at that period). Yet another analyst argued that a thin ABM would ensure stability (read intervention) in Asia, since China would not be able to ensure a credible second strike, even after a US first strike at her known forces. Thus the US would have a certain "blackmail power" against China.6

Much of this was resisted by the Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, and his opposition was shared by the Office of International Security—which had no links with contractors, and Secretary Dean Rusk of the State Department. Also at his side were a bipartisan group from Congress who put out a landmark paper on the disaster that would result world wide in deploying an ABM. But this spirited attack against the programme failed and the decision on the Grand Forks site was passed by a 51-50 vote (with the Vice President providing the tie breaking vote).7 However later the Chinese threat was downgraded, and Secretary McNamara noted that the Chinese threat in itself would not dictate the deployment of ABM defences . His own fear that Sentinel might generate a certain "mad momentum"8 was soon proved right Preoccupied by Vietnam, he had little time to supervise the implementation of the ABM announcement, which gave the Services the leeway to deploy the system the way they wanted. But those who assumed that the people who were to be defended would welcome this gladly were proved wrong after huge protests in the cities involved (including the Church, liberal and anti-war groups) forced the Pentagon to rethink its policy (which included a massive campaign to gain congressional support, and influence newspaper editors and reporters). However the two sides were evenly matched, and then came Safeguard.

In 1968, the Nixon Administration reviewed the system and recommended a modification of the "Sentinel". This was renamed "Safeguard" with the changed objective of a "limited defence" of Minuteman silos, bomber bases, and command and control centres. The contractors remained largely the same, with some like General Electric continuing research to become major contractors for SDI in the 1980s. Federal laboratories (Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore) and four leading contractors (Lockheed, Boeing, TRW, and Rockwell) emerged in the forefront.

However the political rationale for BMD was eroding. Elected on a campaign pledge of negotiation rather than confrontation, Nixon declared his intention to negotiate on both offensive and defensive systems. Supporters of ABM noted that such a defence would give more credibility to the extended guarantee that lay at the heart of NATO strategy (since the US would remain relatively safe). Policy makers like Brezinski argued that the "Ambiguous Strategic equivalence demanded an ABM, "since the USSR had "outstripped the United States in the momentum of arms build up and had made giant strides in accuracy". Thus neither side had a high degree of confidence regarding the outcome of a nuclear attack.9 But post-Vietnam America was going through an agonised debate and self-doubt, and the motives of the military were considered suspect, with the whole deployment decision relying on intelligence estimates which hinged on the assessment that Soviet missiles would continue to grow at an assumed rate and that all of them would be MIRV'ed, the whole resulting in a "first strike" capability that would presumably be able to take on the vastly more numerous US and NATO mobile and concealed threat . Scientists like Richard Garwin also pointed out the technological unfeasibility of such a defence, which in the end was a telling enough argument t