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Missile Defense Overview

Since missiles first rained down on England during World War II, countries have sought to develop systems designed to defend against such attacks, with limited success. From the deployed but rapidly abandoned Safeguard system in the 1970s to President Reagan's unrealistic vision of a "perfect shield" in the 1980s, the technology has been not lived up to the hopes of its advocates.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems set on repeating history. In December 2002, President Bush announced the United States would begin fielding several components of an anti-missile system designed to protect U.S. territory from attack by long-range (strategic) ballistic missiles. In July 2004, it fielded the first ground-based interceptor at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and since then has fielded and upgraded radars, built command and communication networks, and added interceptors at Ft. Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Bush administration is also pressing to field interceptors and a radar in Eastern Europe.

To field these components, the Bush administration dramatically increased funding for the program. Since 2002, the anti-missile program has received $7 billion to $10 billion annually—two-thirds more funding than at the peak of the Reagan administration's "Star Wars" era in constant dollars. A study by the Congressional Budget Office predicted that even higher levels of funding would be required to maintain the current programs in the near future.

A reasoned look at the technology shows that it is not ready for deployment. The system is still in the early stages of research and development. Test conditions remain far from realistic. Operational testing, if it ever happens, will not begin for years. As a result, the system that is being fielded has no demonstrated operational capability.
Moreover, even if the technology worked perfectly, the systems being deployed are vulnerable to countermeasures that are easier to build than the long-range missile on which they would be placed. The UCS-MIT report Countermeasures analyzed this problem in detail and contributed to President Clinton's 2000 decision not to deploy the system now fielded by the Bush administration.

More importantly, the Bush administration's extraordinary emphasis on long-range missile defense represents misplaced priorities. The administration's top priority should instead be combating the threat of nuclear terrorism by increasing its programs to keep nuclear warheads and materials out of the hands of terrorists. The Bush administration, however, is giving this problem a fraction of the attention and funding being given to missile defense. The missile defense system that has been rushed into deployment is not relevant to the war on terrorism.
The United States needs Russian and Chinese cooperation on a range of terrorism, nonproliferation, and other security issues. Getting that cooperation will be easier if the United States does not proceed with a missile defense program that Russia and China find potentially threatening. Moreover, continuing to build up this missile defense system will provide an incentive for Russia and China to deploy larger nuclear arsenals than they would otherwise.
UCS is working to keep the country from making a costly mistake. We've prepared technical analyses of the testing program to illustrate what it does—and does not—show about the capabilities of the systems being developed. We've presented testimony before Congress, and are working to increase congressional understanding and oversight of the program. We're making sure the press and the public understand the issue. We've talked to scientists in other countries to understand their concerns about this program, and helped other governments understand what the system can and can't do.

We understand that long-range missile defenses constitute a larger problem than simply wasting money on an ineffective system. Our main concerns are four-fold: (1) plans for a large-scale deployment will entail security costs for the United States and the international community due to longer term reactions from Russia and China; (2) the technology being developed will be more useful as anti-satellite weapons with potentially destabilizing consequences; (3) the desire for space-based defenses will provide an impetus for the United States to weaponize space; and (4) the deployment of missile defenses can reinforce aggressive military tendencies.

A sensible missile defense policy would provide for limited research into long-range anti-missile systems, at a much lower priority, while expanding efforts to reduce the number of long-range missiles and missile programs worldwide through international efforts and diplomacy.


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