Catalyst Spring 2019
Then and Now

An Indispensable Voice of Science and Sanity on Global Security

By Elliott Negin

The Global Security Program has deep roots at the Union of Concerned Scientists. From the start, our experts have focused on promoting arms control treaties, encouraging steep nuclear arsenal reductions, and blocking the development and deployment of new nuclear weapons. The work continues as vigorously as ever today, and we can point to some significant progress since we entered the fray.

Perhaps the most notable indicator is the current size of the world’s nuclear arsenals. Back in 1969, nuclear-armed states had more than 38,000 warheads in their stockpiles. The total peaked in 1986, when the world’s arsenals had more than 69,000 warheads—98 percent of which were retained by the United States and the Soviet Union. Thanks to a succession of US-Russian treaties, the world’s stockpile of nuclear warheads now stands at fewer than 10,000.

UCS helped push the most recent US-Russian arms control treaty across the finish line by spearheading a campaign that convinced several key senators to vote for its ratification. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed in 2010, capped deployed strategic nuclear weapons at 1,550 for each country. Unfortunately, there has been a serious deterioration in US-Russian relations since then, including threats to pull out of bedrock bilateral security treaties.

The program also has helped make the world safer by playing a key role in stopping dangerous and unnecessary weapons systems, including the now-retired Tomahawk cruise missile and the cancelled “bunker-busting” Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” says physicist Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program. “As history shows, treaties are essential not only to controlling these weapons, but also to improving relationships between adversaries.”

Presenting the Facts about Missile Defense

Perhaps no issue has been more enduring for UCS than missile defense.

Our very first report, released in April 1969, criticized the Nixon administration’s plan to build an antiballistic missile system and helped build support for the landmark 1972 US-Soviet Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, a critical arms control agreement that lasted nearly 30 years. Since then, a series of high-profile UCS analyses have consistently warned that building such a system is not a reliable way to defend against nuclear-armed missiles and could hinder future arms control agreements.

In the early 1980s, for instance, UCS helped lead the scientific community and the general public to oppose President Reagan’s chimerical Strategic Defense Initiative, widely known as “Star Wars.” Since then, instead of trying to establish a shield that would protect the United States from an all-out attack, as Reagan imagined, successive administrations focused on developing defenses that could intercept and destroy a limited, rudimentary attack by a country such as North Korea.

However, even that goal is impractical. In April 2000, a joint UCS-MIT report showed that any nation capable of firing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile at the United States would also be able to use decoys and other countermeasures to foil a defensive system. The analysis showed that tests of the proposed system failed to demonstrate that it would work in a real-world scenario.

In September of that year, President Clinton announced he would not deploy the system because it was “not yet proven,” citing its vulnerability to countermeasures as a major reason. Skepticism grew in Congress as well, and in 2001, it appeared ready to cut the system’s funding significantly.

A Critically Flawed System

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attack changed everything. Three months after 9/11, President George W. Bush announced the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty, and later announced plans to deploy a missile defense system in Alaska and California by 2004.

In its haste to get the system up and running, however, the administration exempted it from the Pentagon’s standard “fly before you buy” oversight protocol that would have required it to pass realistic tests before being deployed. A 2016 UCS analysis explained the consequences of that ill-advised decision: $67 billion spent to date on a faulty system with an extremely limited capability to defend against even a small-scale attack.

Regardless, Pentagon officials, members of Congress, and even presidents have falsely claimed that the system works. If it were not for UCS providing the facts, policymakers and the general public would likely take their specious claims as gospel.

Coming full circle, President Trump channeled Ronald Reagan when he released his administration’s Missile Defense Review at the Pentagon last January. “Our goal is simple,” he said, “to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” Trump’s aspirations for the system—along with congressional interest in putting interceptors in space—are certain to increase international tensions and complicate arms control efforts in exactly the way the now-defunct ABM Treaty was intended to prevent.

In other words, UCS will continue to have a vital role to play.

“We’ve been educating the public and sounding the alarm about this reckless missile defense program for more than two decades, and the stakes today are as high as ever,” says physicist David Wright, fellow co-director of the Global Security Program. “Unwarranted confidence in this system could lull policymakers into a false sense of security and embolden military and political leaders to start a war. We’re working to make sure that doesn’t happen.”