US Ballistic Missile Defense Timeline: 1945-Today

Published Jul 21, 2007 Updated Mar 29, 2019

Table of Contents

Since the system's deployment in 2002, six out of ten test intercepts have failed


1945. Following World War II, the US Army begins planning for research and development of missile defenses. Meanwhile, US defense contractors conclude that such technology is beyond their current reach.

1957. US begins work on its first major missile defense effort, the Nike-Zeus system.

1962. After technology flaws doom the Nike-Zeus project, the US begins work on the Nike X missile defense program, which uses nuclear-tipped interceptors.

1966. US Defense Secretary McNamara announces that the Soviet Union has deployed its Galosh missile defense system.

September 1967. President Johnson announces plans to deploy the Sentinel missile defense system (a successor to the Nike X program).

February 1969. President Nixon delays deployment to review US nuclear programs.

March 1969. Now called Safeguard, the system is given go-ahead for deployment.

August 1969. US Senate votes to deploy Safeguard missile defense, with the Vice President casting a tie-breaking vote.

May 1972. US and Soviet Union sign the ABM Treaty, banning nationwide missile defenses and limiting each side to two missile defense sites with no more than 100 interceptors at each site.

July 1974. ABM Treaty amended to allow only one limited missile defense site to each side.

October 1, 1975. Safeguard system begins operating in Grand Forks, ND.

October 2, 1975. US House of Representatives votes to close the Grand Forks Safeguard site.

January 1976. The full Congress approves shutting down Safeguard, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announces the system's termination.

1978. The Safeguard system is terminated completely.

March 23, 1983. President Reagan announces that the US will start an expanded research and development program of missile defense system which makes "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." His idea becomes the "Strategic Defense Initiative," or SDI. Opponents call it "Star Wars."

April 24, 1984. Secretary of Defense Weinberger signs a Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) charter.

October 1986. President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev discuss the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, but the proposal collapses when Reagan refuses to agree to limitations on SDI.

June 14, 1989. President Bush decides to continue the SDI program, but focus on the development of "Brilliant Pebbles," a space-based interceptor design.

July 31, 1989. Presidents Bush and Gobachev sign START I, reducing arsenals to 6,000 deployed warheads on each side. 


January 29, 1991. President Bush announces the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system to counter unauthorized, accidental or limited attacks.

February 1991. During the Persian Gulf War, the US Patriot missile attempts to intercept Iraqi Scud attacks. Despite initial glowing reports from the Pentagon, a study by the General Accounting Office shows that only 9 percent of intercept attempts were reliably successful.

January 3, 1993. Presidents Bush and Yeltsin sign START II, limiting deployed warheads on each side to 3,000-3,500.

May 1993. Secretary of Defense Aspin renames SDIO the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO).

February 15, 1995. The House narrowly defeats the section of the Republican "Contract with America" requiring deployment of a nationwide missile defense as soon as practical.

November 1995. A report from the intelligence community declares that no country could threaten the US with a ballistic missile attack in the next 15 years.

March 1996. The "Defend America Act," which declares it US policy to build a limited missile defense by 2003 is introduced in Congress, but does not come to a vote due to the enormous projected cost of deployment, then estimated at $31-60 billion.

June 24, 1997. First fly-by test of the Boeing/TRW exoatmospheric kill vehicle for the NMD system. A lawsuit filed by a former TRW employee alleges that TRW misled defense officials about the results of the test.

March 21, 1997. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agree to a START III framework.

September 26, 1997. The US and Russia agree that the ABM Treaty includes Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

February 1998. First report issued by commission chaired by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch on the status of US missile defense programs. The report is critical of BMDO's efforts, finding a "rush to failure" schedule.

April 30, 1998. DoD selects Boeing as lead contractor for the NMD program.

July 1998. A commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld (now secretary of defense) finds that the threat of a ballistic missile attack could emerge sooner than predicted in the 1995 intelligence estimate. Many experts criticize the commission, however, for emphasizing what could happen rather than what was likely to happen.

August 31, 1998. North Korea launches a Taepo Dong 1 missile over Japan, but the third stage fails to put its payload in orbit.

January 20, 1999. DoD requests more funds for NMD and announces the delay of the target date for achieving initial operating capability from 2003 to 2005, also moving the deployment decision date to June 2000.

March 1999. "The National Missile Defense Act of 1999" passes the Senate, while the House of Representatives approves a measure committing the United States to deploy national missile defenses.

July 23, 1999. President Clinton signs the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, but lists four criteria he will use to make an ultimate deployment decision: threat, cost, technological status of NMD, and adherence to a renegotiated ABM Treaty.

September 1999. The Welch panel again concludes that the Pentagon's approach is extremely high-risk after assessing the reconfigured NMD program. 

October 2, 1999. This element test (IFT-3) of the EKV relied on a surrogate booster vehicle. Because the Inertial Measurement Unit malfunctioned, the EKV used a backup acquisition mode to acquire the target.


January 19, 2000. The first end-to-end system intercept test (IFT-4), relying on a surrogate booster vehicle. The test was designed to target a mock warhead, transmitting its location by GPS, and ignore a single large decoy balloon. The missile failed to intercept the target due to a failure of the EKV infrared homing sensors' cooling system a few seconds before the planned intercept. This was the first test that integrated other elements of the NMD system into the actual test scenario.

June 13, 2000. The third Welch panel reports that NMD deployment by 2005 for Initial Operational Capability (IOC) remains high risk.

July 8, 2000. First Integrated System intercept Test (IFT-5) featuring all NMD elements in the initial capability except for the interceptor booster. The test failed when the EKV did not separate from the surrogate booster used. As well, the test decoy failed to inflate.

September 1, 2000. President Clinton decides not to proceed with deployment of the NMD system, citing the status of technology and concerns among the US allies and opposition from Russia and China. He defers an ultimate deployment decision to the next administration.

January 2001. President Bush affirms his plan to deploy a robust NMD system. Russian President Putin warns the US that the ABM Treaty bans NMD systems on both sides.

May 1, 2001. In a speech to the National Defense University, President Bush outlines his vision for a national security policy. In the speech, the president advocates an ambitious missile defense and moving beyond the ABM Treaty.

June 2001. The White House FY02 defense budget calls for a 57 percent increase for missile defense, up $3 billion to $8.3 billion.

June 13, 2001. Bush meets NATO leaders. Among the 19 NATO states, Spain, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, and Britain publicly signal some approval, to varying degrees, for NMD. France, Germany, and others remain vehemently against Bush's plan, emphasizing the need to strengthen arms control regimes.

June 16, 2001. First Bush-Putin summit in Slovenia. Although a cordial meeting, the two leaders fail to reach concrete agreements on missile defense and the ABM Treaty.

July 14, 2001. The fourth intercept test (IFT-6) of the ground-based midcourse system successfully intercepts a mock warhead. Later reports find that this test, like others before it, was aided by the use of a homing beacon in the mock warhead.

December 3, 2001. In this test (IFT-7) the kill vehicle successfully intercepted the target.  One decoy balloon was used.  This test was a repeat of IFT-6.

January 11, 2002. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) changes name to Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

March 15, 2002. This successful intercept test (IFT-8) of the ground-based midcourse system included three balloon decoys (one large and two small).  While increasing the number of decoys increased the complexity of this test, the additional balloons did not increase the difficulty of the discrimination task, since their appearance was very different from the warhead.  For a detailed analysis of this test, see the UCS report Decoys and Discrimination in Test IFT-8.  

June 2002. Ground broken at Fort Greely, Alaska for construction of six missile interceptor silos as a test bed for missile defense system.

December 17, 2002. President Bush announces that he has instructed the Secretary of Defense to begin fielding a ground-based missile defense that would achieve initial operational capabilities in 2004.

October 14, 2002. This successful intercept test (IFT-9) of the Ground-Based Midcourse system used the same decoys as the previous test, but a modified warhead.  The ship-based SPY-1 radar observed the test for the first time, to assess the radar's capacity to track long-range missiles.  For a detailed analysis of the IFT-9 test, see the UCS report The Target Set for Missile Defense Test IFT-9.

December 11, 2002. This intercept test (IFT-10) of the ground-based midcourse system failed because the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) failed to separate from the interceptor and the booster rocket. Note that this is the same failure as that in the IFT-5 (July 8, 2000), detailed above. This was the first IFT performed at night. Previous tests had been conducted in the evening, with the sun illuminating the targets from behind the kill vehicle.  

July 22, 2004. First interceptor installed in silo at Fort Greely, Alaska.

December 15, 2004. This intercept test (IFT-13C) of the ground-based midcourse system failed when the booster carrying the interceptor failed to leave the ground in a launch from Kwajalein atoll. The interceptor was to hit a target coming out of Kodiak, Alaska.

February 13, 2005. This intercept test (IFT-14) was a repeat of the test on December 15, 2004, and the interceptor again failed to leave the silo.

September 1, 2006. In this intercept test (FTG-2) of the ground-based midcourse system the target ballistic missile was successfully intercepted over the Pacific, having been launched from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska and the interceptor from Vandenburg Air Force Base. No decoys were used.

March 21, 2007. The target vehicle in this test was successfully tracked by the Sea-Based X-band (SBX) radar and two Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ships using onboard SPY-1 radar.

May 25, 2007.  The interceptor for a planned test (FTG-3) of the ground-based midcourse system was never launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base in this test because the target vehicle launched from Kodiak, Alaska fell far short of the designated interceptor range in the Pacific.  

September 28, 2007. In this repeat (FTG-3A) of the May 25, 2007 intercept test of the ground-based midcourse system a target missile launched from Kodiak, Alaska was successfully intercepted by an interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

July 18, 2008. This test of the ground-based midcourse system initially had been planned to be an intercept attempt, but faulty parts in the test interceptor made Missile Defense Agency (MDA) officials opt instead to see how four sensors – the Sea-based X-band radar, the AN/TPY-2 X-band radar temporarily placed in Juneau, Alaska, the Aegis Long-Range Surveillance and Track system, and an upgraded early warning radar in Beale Air Force Base, Calif. – fared in tracking a test target.

December 5, 2008. In this intercept test (FTG-5) of the ground-based midcourse system an interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., intercepted a target launched from Ft. Greely, Alaska. While an intercept did occur, the countermeasures that were used (two balloons) failed to deploy. And even if they had, the decoys were reported by MDA to be "less sophisticated than the countermeasures flown in 2002," so the interceptor would have been less challenged than with decoys in tests six years prior to FTG-5. See the UCS report Missile Defense Test FTG-05.

2010 - today

January 31, 2010. In this intercept test (FTG-6) a target missile was successfully launched from the U.S. Army’s Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Approximately six minutes later, an interceptor was successfully launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Both the target missile and interceptor performed normally after launch. However, the Sea-Based X-band radar did not perform as expected and the interception failed.

June 6, 2010. In this flight test a two-stage Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. After performing flyout maneuvers, the two-stage booster delivered an exoatmospheric kill vehicle to a designated point in space. After separating from the second-stage booster, the kill vehicle executed a variety of maneuvers to collect data to further prove the performance of the kill vehicle in space.

December 15, 2010. In this intercept test (FTG-6A), an intermediate-range ballistic missile target was launched from the Ronald Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and a long-range interceptor missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Sea Based X-Band radar (SBX) and all sensors performed as planned. The missile failed to intercept the target.

September 2012. The National Academy of Science releases a report entitled “Making Sense of Missile Defense,” which called the GMD system “deficient” with respect to all of the study’s fundamental principles for a cost-effective missile defense, and recommended a complete overhaul of the interceptors, sensors, and concept of operations.

March 15, 2013. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directs the Missile Defense Agency, in response to advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, to field 14 more GBI by 2017, to bring the system to a full complement of 44 interceptors. He also cancels the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense program, due to a lagging development timeline.

January 26, 2013. In this flight test (GM-CTV-01) of a three-stage Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, the three-stage booster deployed the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle to a designated point in space. After separating from the booster, the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle executed a variety of pre-planned maneuvers to collect performance data in space. Engineering data from this test will be used to improve confidence for future intercept missions. This test is the critical first step in returning GMD to successful intercept testing.

July 5, 2013. In this intercept test (FTG-7), a target missile was launched from the U.S. Army’s Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands and a Ground-Based Interceptor missile from its silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The test required an exoatmospheric kill vehicle to separate from the GBI’s upper stage booster and maneuver to a collision course with the target. The kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster. Though the exact cause of the FTG-07 anomaly is not yet known, the EKV has failed to separate from the interceptor and booster on two previous occasions, first in July 2000 and again in December 2002.

July 11, 2014. The Pentagon changes its assessment of Iran’s ICBM prospects, from “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015,”  to “Iran has publicly stated it may launch a space launch vehicle by 2015 that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as a ballistic missile.”

September 8, 2014. The Department of Defense’s Inspector General releases a report evaluating the quality control of the production of the GMD system’s kill vehicles. It states that “A combination of cost constraints and failure-driven program restructures has kept the program in a state of change. Schedule and cost priorities drove a culture of “Use-As-Is” leaving the EKV as a manufacturing challenge. With more than 1,800 unique parts, 10,000 pages of work instructions, and 130,000 process steps for the current configuration, EKV repairs and refurbishments are considered by the Program to be costly and problematic and make the EKV susceptible to quality assurance failures.”

September 30, 2014. The Ground-based Midcourse System turns 10 years old. On September 30, 2004 the George W. Bush administration declared that the GMD system had achieved a limited deployment option (LDO) capability, meaning the system was now capable of being turned on and used if necessary. Only five interceptors were in place that day: it would be almost exactly two years before an intercept test of the kind of interceptors that were fielded was even attempted. It was another year beyond that—on September 28, 2007—before an intercept test was successful. On this date, the intercept test record is seven successful intercepts out of 16 attempts.

November 5, 2014. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, and General Raymond Odierno, US Army Chief of Staff, urge the Secretary of Defense to take a fresh look at the problem of defending against ballistic missiles. They state that “the present acquisition-based strategy is unsustainable” and that the Pentagon must develop a “more sustainable and cost-effective” “long-term” approach to both homeland and regional missile defenses. 

June 2015. A US Government Accountability Office report revealed two important problems with the GMD system. The Pentagon stated that it will delay “emplacing” the interceptors until a test had validated the fixes, but would not wait for a successful test before producing them. The reason: delaying the production and integration until a successful flight test is conducted “would unacceptably increase the risk to reaching the Secretary of Defense mandate to achieve 44 emplaced interceptors by the end of 2017.”

July 14, 2015. The negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concludes. The agreement, reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), substantially limits the ability of Iran to develop nuclear weapons. 

October 2015. Congress directs the Missile Defense Agency to “commence the concept definition of a space-based ballistic missile intercept layer to the ballistic missile defense system that provides— (1) a boost-phase layer for missile defense; or (2) additional defensive options against direct ascent anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles, and maneuvering reentry vehicles.”

January 2016. MDA performs a non-intercept test of the GMD system, meant to validate fixes and updates to the kill vehicle and to gather information about how well the system can discriminate target from decoys. While described by MDA as a success, later information came out that suggested that one of the motors on the kill vehicle did not restart after being shut down, and that the kill vehicle veered far off course from its nominal target.

February 2016. North Korea successfully puts its second satellite into orbit.

December 2016. Congress scraps the 1999 Missile Defense Act language and removes the modifier “limited” from the missile defense mandate, opening the door to building missile defenses intended to defend not only against the anticipated limited missile capabilities of North Korea and Iran, but those of the peer and near-peer forces of Russia and China. Congress also calls for the MDA to begin research and development, and to test and evaluate space-based missile defense programs. 

May 30, 2017. Successful GMD test FTG-15 tests against what is described to be an ICBM-range target. It is a nearly head-on engagement of a test missile of around 5,800 km. This brings the intercept test record to nine successful target destructions out of 18 attempts.

July 28, 2017. North Korean missile test indicates that its ICBM appears to be able to reach major US cities.

March 25, 2019. Successful GMD test FTG-15 pitted two interceptors against a target. It was the first test of “salvo” engagement and the first operational, rather than developmental, test of the system. The GMD system has now successfully destroyed its target in ten of 19 attempts.

Summary of test intercepts

Test # Date Designation Successful?
1 10/2/1999 IFT-3 Y
2 1/18/2000 IFT-4 N
3 7/7/2000 IFT-5 N
4 7/14/2001 IFT-6 Y
5 12/3/2001 IFT-7 Y
6 3/15/2002 IFT-8 Y
7 10/14/2002 IFT-9 Y
8 12/11/2002 IFT-10 N
System is deployed
9 12/15/2004 IFT-13C N
10 2/14/2005 IFT-14 N
11 9/1/2006 FTG-02 N*
12 9/28/2007 FTG-03A Y
13 12/5/2008 FTG-05 Y
14 1/31/2010 FTG-06 N
15 12/15/2010 FTG-06A N
16 7/5/2013 FTG-07 N
17 6/22/2014 FTG-06B Y
18 5/30/2017 FTG-15 Y
19 3/25/2019 FTG-11 Y


*The interceptor in FTG-02 hit the target with a glancing blow that did not destroy the warhead. The Missile Defense Agency rated the test as a “hit” but not a “warhead kill,” counting it as a success. But because the goal of developing hit-to-kill interceptors is to guide the kill vehicle to destroy the warhead, we do not count this as a successful demonstration.


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