An expensive false promise

Six hours north of Anchorage, Alaska, lies a sprawling, snow-covered military base called Fort Greeley. Three thousand miles to its south, hidden outside Lompoc, California, is another major installation—Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The two bases are linked by a unique security objective: to destroy nuclear-tipped missiles bound for the United States, should they ever be launched from North Korea, Iran, or another hostile state.

Known as “Ground-based Midcourse Defense” (GMD), the system’s basic premise is simple: incoming warheads are tracked by radar and satellite and destroyed by defensive “interceptor” missiles, launched from the bases in Alaska and California—an arrangement sometimes described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has analyzed the technical and political aspects of missile defense for more than three decades. Though the idea of a missile shield may sound attractive, today’s homeland system is hugely expensive, ineffective, and offers no proven capability to protect the United States—and no credible path forward for achieving success.

National missile defense doesn't work

Missile is lifted at Alaskan missile defense site.


Most military systems face mandatory oversight and accountability requirements, developed to keep projects on-time and at-cost.

Not missile defense. The current system—built by the Bush administration in a post-9/11 security environment—was exempted from almost all of the normal requirements used for decades.

As a result, nearly all of the GMD’s interceptors were fielded before a single missile of their type was successfully tested. A full two-thirds of test intercepts failed in the 15 years following Bush’s order.

Early analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists also showed how countermeasures could easily defeat missile defense, an issue never credibly addressed by administration officials.

As it exists today, the system would offer little to no protection in any realistic scenario. It’s also diplomatically counterproductive, and potentially dangerous; policy makers, misled to believe in missile defense’s effectiveness, may act in ways that increase the likelihood of conflict.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recommends that the United States fundamentally change its approach to strategic missile defense. If the GMD continues to play a role in US security strategy, it needs, at a minimum, clear goals, rigorous testing, and effective oversight and accountability.

Learn more—Missile Defense Basics:

Learn more—Ground-based Midcourse Defense:

Learn more—Space-based Missile Defense:

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