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Published Airpower Journal - Winter 1987-88

From Project Thumper to SDI

The Role of Ballistic Missile Defense in US Security Policy

Dr Daniel S. Papp

RONALD REAGAN’S 23 March 1983 call to the American scientific and technical community to undertake a "comprehensive and intensive effort" to define a long-term research and development program designed to "achieve our ultimate goal or eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles" revived a debate over ballistic missile defense that had slumbered since the signing of the ABM Treaty in 1972.1 In the years since President Reagan reopened the debate on the public level, disagreement over strategic defense has been one of the dominant defense issues both in the United States and abroad.

To a surprising extent, the strategic defense debate of the 1980s is similar to ballistic missile defense (BMD) debates of earlier decades. In the three preceding decades, concerned citizens ranging from defense intellectuals and military officers to housewives and religious leaders debated the wisdom and feasibility of defending against, rather than responding to, a ballistic missile attack. And the questions so familiar in the late 1980s were asked during that earlier period also. Was BMD technically feasible? Would it be too costly? Would it be too dangerous and perhaps send the other side the wrong signal, a signal that the United States intended to attack first? Would BMD weaken Western alliances, and would it make war more likely rather than less likely? Could offensive weapons penetrate it easily, and could offensive weapons be added to arsenals less expensively than could defensive capabilities? The technologies of today's strategic defense debate are different from those of earlier debates, but many of the issues are the same.

The purpose of this article, then, is to lend a degree of historical depth to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) debate of the 1980s by examining the precedents of that debate. Put simply, it will examine the role that ballistic missile defense has played in US defense policy. Particular attention will be paid to past discussions about the objectives of ballistic missile defense, the cost-exchange ratio, interservice rivalry, and potential Soviet responses to BMD. Before turning to this examination, however, we should look at SDI's predecessors.

American Ballistic Missile
Defense Programs:
Nike-Zeus and Nike-X

The origins of US interest in ballistic missile defense may be traced to September 1944, when Nazi Germany began launching V-2 rockets against Allied targets. Within a year, the General Electric Company’s Project Thumper report concluded that defense against V-2 rockets was not possible given the state of then-current technology.2 This pessimistic conclusion about the possibility of defense against rockets did not deter Project Thumper from pursuing its primary mission of developing a high-altitude antiaircraft defense, nor did it deter Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Western Electric Company from pursuing work on Project Nike, also designed to serve as a high-altitude antiaircraft defense.3 Both Thumper and Nike were funded by the US Army.

Project Nike evolved from Nike-Ajax, the antiaircraft project, to Nike-Zeus, the first true US antiballistic missile project. But this evolution was a slow process, both because of the uncertainties of the technologies evolved and because of the slow growth during the early 1950s of the Soviet ballistic missile threat. Indeed, despite Germany’s World War II successes with V-2s, several noted American scientists, including Dr Vannevar Bush, were skeptical about the feasibility of an intercontinental ballistic missile.4

The move toward BMD accelerated significantly in 1955 as evidence accumulated that the USSR had begun to devote extensive resources to intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ICBMS. In November 1955 the Army let a contract to Bell Telephone Laboratories for a feasibility study on ballistic missile defense, and the following year the Army Rocket and Guided Missile Agency funded Bell, Western Electric, and the Douglas Aircraft Company for basic research on BMD. In 1957 the US Army established the Nike-Zeus Guided Missile Defense System Project, and in l958 the Army authorized Nike-Zeus as a full-scale BMD development program.5

Even before this, however, the Air Force and the Navy had initiated air defense programs designed to cope with their own concerns. These programs gradually took on BMD potential and eventually led to interservice rivalry in BMD. The Air Force, in conjunction with Boeing, began work on a ground-to-air missile, which the Navy recommended for BMD purposes in 1959.6

Army-Air Force rivalry over BMD development was particularly intense during the middle and late 1950s despite the efforts of two consecutive secretaries of defense to resolve this and other Army-Air Force conflicts. For example, on 26 November 1956 Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson issued a directive that gave the Army responsibility for developing and deploying surface-to-air missiles for point defense; the same directive gave the Air Force responsibility for area defense. Although the directive never explicitly defined the threat as aircraft or missiles, the Army and Air Force pursued both tracks, the Army with its Nike-Hercules and Nike-Zeus programs and the Air Force with its Bomarc and Wizard efforts.7 It was not until January 1958 that new Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy effectively curtailed the Air Force’s Wizard project ordering that Wizard develop only early warning radars, tracking and acquisition radars, and communications links that would be compatible with Nike-Zeus missile and launch system components. Equally important, in January 1985 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was formed and given responsibility to direct all other BMD research. This ARPA-directed effort was known a Project Defender.

Despite McElroy’s preference for Nike-Zeus, he still had doubts about the system. Appearing before the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee on 22 January 1958, McElroy emphasized that the $195 million he was requesting for BMD would be "devoted primarily to research and engineering instead of actual production and development" since the latter would be "premature."8 The Air Force, meanwhile, launched a rearguard action to revive the Wizard project, arguing that the Zeus did not have an ability to be upgraded to meet a threat environment that included enemy evasion, decoys, and countermeasures.

Increasingly during late 1958 and throughout 1959, the technical feasibility of BMD in general and Nike-Zeus in particular became an issue of contention. The Army argued for development, production, and deployment funding for Zeus, requesting $1.3 billion for fiscal year 1960. This request was eventually funded at $300 million.9 ARPA, meanwhile, stressed that a deployed BMD had to be technically feasible, be able to respond to all types of missiles threats in all types of environments, be economically affordable, and be operational as soon as possible. Other commentary from ARPA officials made it clear that ARPA questioned Nike-Zeus capabilities on all counts, particularly its ability to destroy warheads.10

The Air Force position was even more fascinating. By 1959 the Air Force had abandoned its earlier arguments for missile defense and had begun to argue that monies previously targeted for defensive research and development would be better spent on more and better offensive capabilities.11 This was a fundamental alteration in the Air Force’s position. At the same time, it further legitimized the Air Force’s continued emphasis on long-range bombers and growing interest in ICBMs.

Other voices outside ARPA and the Air Force had also begun to question the intellectual basis of BMD. Edward Teller, for example, argued that while BMD might be technically feasible, the increased cost to an enemy of penetrating a BMD screen would be less than the cost of strengthening the screen to prevent penetration.12 (This argument has been restructured in the SDI debate under the concept of the cost-exchange ratio.) And in December 1960 Jerome Wiesner argued at the Sixth Pugwash Conference that BMD was destabilizing; indeed, he even suggested that ballistic missile defenses be banned by an international agreement while offensive weapons be based in invulnerable basing modes.13

By the advent of the Kennedy administration, then, Nike-Zeus as a program and BMD as a concept were increasingly open to question. The pros and cons of Nike-Zeus and BMD as a concept as understood in 1961 were succinctly summed up by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in his 4 April 1961 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee:

Successful development [of Zeus] may force an aggressor to expend additional resources to increase his ICBM force. It would also make accurate estimates of our defensive capabilities more difficult for a potential enemy and complicate the achievement of a successful attack. Furthermore, the protection that it would provide, even if for only a portion of our population, would be better than none at all. . . .

There is still considerable uncertainty as to its technical feasibility and, even if successfully developed, there are many serious operating problems yet to be solved. The system, itself, is vulnerable to ballistic missile attack, and its effectiveness could be degraded by the use of more sophisticated ICBMs screened by multiple decoys. Saturation of the target is another possibility as ICBMs become easier and cheaper to produce in coming years. Finally, it is a very expensive system in relation to the degree of protection that it can furnish. 14

As a result of these considerations, McNamara and Kennedy opposed production of Zeus but supported continued development expenditures for Zeus ($270 million in fiscal year 1962). Other BMD projects also continued, notably Project Defender at ARPA. Interestingly, despite the Air Force's stated preference for strategic offensive over strategic defensive systems, the Air Force had itself reentered the BMD arena, this time under the auspices of its ballistic missile boost intercept (BAMBI) program. Additionally, even in the early 1960s, the Air Force was also studying ways to destroy ICBMs from space-based defense platforms.15

During 1961 an additional factor became increasingly important in the BMD debate as intelligence sources indicated that the USSR was proceeding apace with its own antiballistic missile programs. Indeed, sometimes during 1961 or 1962 the USSR successfully intercepted and destroyed two ICBMs during a Soviet atmospheric nuclear test,16 and at the 22d Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in October 1961, Soviet Minister of Defense Malinovskii proclaimed that "the problem of destroying rockets in flight has been successfully solved."17 The specter thus emerged that unless the United States proceeded with BMD, the USSR could gain an immense strategic advantage. American concern over Soviet progress in BMD was so intense that when President John Kennedy announced on 2 March 1962 the resumption of US atmospheric nuclear testing, he specifically tied that resumption to ballistic missile defense and defense penetration.18

While feared Soviet strides in BMD heightened the United States' sense of a need for its own BMD, concern over the capabilities of Nike-Zeus remained. It was somewhat ironic that this concern escalated even as the system for the first time proved in tests that it could work against smalls-cale unsophisticated ICBM attacks.19 The Army pointed to these successful tests as proof that Nike-Zeus should be procured and deployed, but Secretary of Defense McNamara and Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E) Harold Brown continued to have reservations, particularly over Zeus's ability to discriminate between decoys and warheads.20 As a result, the Department of Defense opposed procurement and deployment of Nike-Zeus, although it again requested continued development funds for fiscal year 1963.21 Nevertheless, the continued refusal of McNamara to support deployment of the Nike-Zeus clearly indicated that the Zeus was for all practical purposes a program of the past.

But the concept of BMD survived and even flourished. McNamara often emphasized the need for active defense against ballistic missiles,22 and Brown of DDR&E declared that BMD research should continue "even if we think it will never be satisfactory" since research would yield data that could lead to "possible deployment of other systems."23 It was amid this aura of technical skepticism about then-present BMD capabilities and technical optimism about future BMD capabilities that Nike-Zeus faded into the past and Nike-X was born.

Although classified discussion of and work on Nike-X had begun during 1962, public revelation of the new program did not occur until 1963, when McNamara testified before the House Armed Services Committee. Citing the heightened and more sophisticated threat environment that would exist in the late 1960s and beyond, McNamara proposed to take advantage of new advances in radar technology and missile technology to create a layered defensive system.24 In simplest terms, whereas Nike-Zeus employed a single type of low-acceleration missile armed with an atomic warhead and was guided by a vulnerable radar system, the Nike-X employed two types of missiles: the Nike-Zeus for intercepts at 70 to 100 miles and the new high-acceleration Sprint missile for intercepts at 20 to 30 miles after the atmosphere had filtered out decoys. Newly developed phased-array radars were also to be incorporated in the Nike-X system, enhancing both survivability of the radar subsystem and the accuracy of the missile intercept. Both Nike-X and Sprint missiles used nuclear weapons as kill mechanisms.

As in the past, however, McNamara supported only research and development, not procurement and deployment. He argued that while deployment of a BMD, perhaps even the Zeus, could reduce US casualties in the event of a small Soviet attack and would complicate Soviet attack planning, deployment should not take place because target discrimination work still needed to be significantly improved. Additionally, McNamara argued, more had to be learned about the effect of nuclear detonations from defensive missiles on other parts of the BMD system.25 Equally noteworthy, McNamara stated he would "never" recommend deployment of a BMD system unless it were accompanied by an adequate civil defense program, including an extensive fallout shelter program.26 He took this position because of the threat to the population generated from radioactive fallout from the explosion of defensive nuclear weapons.

Throughout 1963 and on into 1964, Nike-X and the concept of BMD were inextricably bound to the debate over the nuclear test ban treaty and the strategic doctrine of damage limitation.27 The debate over BMD's relationship to the test ban treaty of 1963 centered around whether the risk of concluding a treaty was acceptable; no disagreement existed over whether the test ban treaty would slow BMD research--it would. At the same time, the strategic doctrine of damage limitation broached by McNamara during 1964 provided rationale for the United States not only to develop an improved strategic offensive retaliatory force, but also to move forward with research and development on the Nike-X and to pursue new programs in civil defense. Indeed, to McNamara, civil defense remained a higher priority than BMD. Given these contending pressures, then, it was little surprise that US BMD decisions during 1963 and 1964 with Nike-X were much like they had been before with Nike-Zeus: research and development would be continued, but procurement and deployment would be deferred.

The relationship of BMD to the test ban treaty and to civil defense also made it increasingly evident that BMD was more than a technical issue. It was a political issue as well, and one that extended beyond the confines of interservice rivalry between the Army, Air Force, and Navy. Harold Brown made this exceedingly evident in testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1964:

The decision on Nike-X will not be made, or should not be made, merely on the basis of technical capability. That is, even though the system does what we say it will do, that does not mean necessarily that we should deploy the system.28

Despite the political content of the debate over BMD and Nike-X, technical progress continued on the system. New radars and radar nets were developed and tested, and the Zeus missile received a new aerodynamic profile, new propellants, and new third-stage components--all of which made Zeus a credible exoatmospheric interceptor with a range of 400 miles. Successive iterations of improved performance capabilities led to the evolution of Zeus into DM15X2 and eventually Spartan. At the same time, Sprint improvements proceeded apace, with the first successful Sprint launching from an underground silo taking place on 15 November 1965.

Increasingly, however, the uncertain strategic environment of the niid-1960s led proponents and opponents of BMD alike to ask, against whom and what would Nike-X, or any BMD, defend? Such questions became more acute as China moved closer to attaining ICBMs and as the US-Soviet "détente" of 1963 and 1964 continued. By May 1965, reports circulated that any US decision to deploy Nike-X would depend on the speed of Chinese ballistic missile development and on the nature of the Chinese threat.29 At the same time, the United States was concerned lest a US deployment decision be viewed by the Soviets as a threat to the USSR. This concern existed despite uncertainty about the direction of the USSR’s own strategic rocket program and despite growing intelligence that the USSR had begun to deploy its own ballistic missile defense system.30

The layered nature of Nike-X also raised questions about the wisdom of area defense versus point defense. The upgraded Zeus gave proponents of area defense and a light defensive shield ammunition for their arguments, while proponents of point defense or a heavy shield turned to the Zeus-Sprint combination to buttress their case. Indeed, with the Zeus-Sprint combination, a variety of different defensive systems was possible. Key questions emerged. What sorts of threat environments were expected? Which potential targets should he defended? How much money should be spent on BMD, especially in light of escalating costs of social programs at home and the war in Vietnam? These uncertainties led different observers and analysts to different conclusions. Indeed, during 1966 the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended production of long lead-time items for eventual Nike-X deployment, and the House Armed Services Committee agreed. However, McNamara remained opposed to production, arguing that the cost of Nike-X would be too high, that Soviet reaction would be uncertain, that the Chinese threat was not well-enough defined or developed, and that civil defense was a needed adjunct to any BMD program. Debate also took place in the Senate over the wisdom of Nike-X production.31

But the debate that truly mattered was the one that President Lyndon Johnson engaged in with himself over Nike-X deployment. In January 1967 Johnson indicated on at least two occasions that he had serious reservations about ballistic missile defense,32 and other administration spokesmen indicated that a BMD freeze with the Soviets would be pursued. At the same time, however, Johnson indicated that he had not excluded BMD deployment in the near-term future if negotiations with the Soviets failed. Thus, in his 1968 budget message, Johnson observed that if discussions with the Soviets proved unsuccessful, "approximately 375 million dollars has been included in the 1968 budget for the production of Nike-X for such purposes as defense of our offensive weapons systems."33

Throughout 1967 Johnson was buffeted by a succession of arguments opposing and supporting deployment. Secretary of Defense McNamara remained an ardent opponent of BMD deployment, arguing that a "mutuality of interests" existed between the United States and USSR in "limiting the deployment of anti-ballistic-missile defense systems." McNamara remained convinced that the USSR sought an assured destruction capability and would increase the number of ICBMs it had deployed to maintain this capability if the United States moved to deploy BMD. He therefore asserted that all that BMD deployment would accomplish would be "to increase greatly our respective defense expenditures, without any gain in real security for either side."34

At the same time, McNamara believed that the United States had ample time to make a future decision to deploy BMD for defense against a Chinese ICBM threat. Other senior Defense Department civilians--including the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force--agreed with McNamara but made it exceedingly clear that should negotiations with the Soviets fail, they favored deployment of a light BMD screen.

Significantly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed with McNamara. The chiefs asserted that the United States should move forward with a light BMD deployment that they felt would provide damage limitation capabilities against a Soviet attack, complicate Soviet attack planning, stabilize the nuclear balance, demonstrate to the Soviets that the United States had no first-strike intentions, and deny the Soviets an "exploitable capability."35 Additionally, reports circulated throughout 1967 that the USSR was making substantial progress in BMD research and development. Congress remained internally divided over BMD deployment. At the same time, it quickly became evident that the Republican party intended to make nondeployment an issue in the 1968 presidential campaign as two leading Republicans, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, both called for BMD deployment.36

Political pressures on Johnson to move forward with BMD deployment were further heightened as it became evident the Soviets no longer were interested in reaching an agreement with the United States to ban or limit BMD.37 Having argued for standby monies in the 1968 fiscal year budget for BMD production if negotiations failed, being confronted with evidence of Soviet progress in and deployment of BMD capabilities, having the US military leadership support BMD deployment, and being faced with Republican criticism in the upcoming presidential campaign over nondeployment decisions, Lyndon Johnson finally authorized BMD deployment. Robert McNamara, long an opponent of ballistic missile defense, announced the decision on 18 September 1967 in San Francisco.38

From Sentinel and
Safeguard to SDI

McNamara listed four "marginal grounds" that legitimized the administration's decision to pursue a "light deployment" of ABMs designed primarily to protect against a future Chinese threat. First, it would be "relatively inexpensive" and would have "a much higher degree of reliability" than a heavy screen designed to thwart a possible Soviet attack. Second, it would serve as an indication that the United States intended to "deter China from nuclear blackmail." It would therefore discourage nuclear proliferation, McNamara asserted. Third, a thin shield could also be used to defend Minuteman silos, thereby enhancing the survivability of the US offensive missile force and lessening the need for its expansion. Finally, a light ABM system would also provide protection of US cities against an accidental launch of an ICBM.

The decision, then, had been made. A thin Nike-X system would be deployed beginning in late 1967. It would cost about $5 billion. The deployed system, to be called Sentinel, would be oriented against China and have 17 sites, 15 in the continental United States and one each in Alaska and Hawaii. All sites would have Spartan and Sprint ABM missiles, with the exception of Hawaii, which would have only Sprints. Despite assurances that Sentinel would remain a thin BMD system, the fact that 10 of the 15 continental sites were near major urban areas gave Sentinel the appearance that it could at some future time be upgraded to a heavy defensive system whose orientation could be changed to defense against the Soviets.

As might be expected, the Sentinel deployment decision evoked considerable response both pro and con. Beason Adams, a noted analyst of ballistic missile issues, has identified seven distinct areas of debate over the Sentinel deployment decision: (1) the validity of the deployment rationale; (2) impacts on international affairs, including the cold war and alliance relationships; (3) impacts on arms control; (4) cost; (5) implications for domestic programs; (6) contributions to US security; and (7) Sentinel's effectiveness and technical feasibility.39 The debate over each of these issues was heated and extensive, and it was not satisfactorily resolved in any of the issue areas.

Throughout late l967 and 1968, debate over the wisdom of the Sentinel deployment decision, land acquisition, site surveys, construction of missile sites, and procurement of long lead-time system components proceeded. In the eyes of many, Richard Nixon's 1968 election to the presidency guaranteed that Sentinel deployment would proceed despite questions about the system and lack of resolution of the issues under debate. It was a rather surprising development, then, when on 6 February 1969 new Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird ordered a halt to the entire Sentinel program for one month during which the program would be reviewed.40 It was widely assumed that the halt resulted not only from Laird’s and Nixon's desire to acquaint themselves thoroughly with the program, but also from Nixon's desires to build bridges to the Democratic leadership in Congress and to send a friendly and accommodating signal to Moscow.

On 14 March 1969 Nixon announced that the Sentinel program would be scrapped since it could not respond to the growing Soviet threat to US strategic offensive forces. At the same time, a defense against a large-scale Soviet attack was not yet possible. Even so, research and development on BMD systems by themselves were not sufficient to answer the many remaining questions about BMD; hence deployment of a new revised BMD system must take place.41

Nixon named the new program Safeguard. The primary objective of Safeguard would be to protect US ICBMS, but it could also defend US urban areas against a limited Chinese nuclear threat or against accidental launches from any country with missile capabilities. Original deployment of Safeguard would start with protection of two ICBM fields, with periodic reviews and revisions of the program to determine whether deployment should be accelerated, altered, or stopped. When completed, the entire Safeguard system was projected to have 12 sites and to cost about $7 billion.

But Nixon's rationale for Safeguard deployment was not the only rationale. Secretary of Defense Laird asserted that a BMD system had to be deployed to protect cities and people from a large-scale Soviet attack, to protect retaliatory forces from a Soviet attack, and to defend cities and population from a Chinese attack. He also maintained that an ABM system would protect against accidental ICBM launches and against a "demonstration launch."42 The Joint Chiefs of Staff meanwhile continued to argue for a thick BMD defense to protect US cities from a large-scale Soviet attack.43 Obviously, within the Nixon administration itself there was no consensus over the rationale for Safeguard deployment.

Debate over Safeguard deployment was, if anything, more intense than debate over Sentinel. For the most part, the same seven issue areas served as focuses for debate. Again, none of the issues of debate were ever resolved. A series of congressional attempts to delete Safeguard funding from the fiscal year 1970 budget failed, and the program eventually was funded at $1.5 billion for 1970.

Meanwhile, as a result of faster-than-expected Soviet deployment of large SS-9 ICBMS, the Nixon administration began to argue that Safeguard expansion was required immediately, with one more Minuteman site to be defended. Additionally, four other sites were to be prepared for defense, including one more Minuteman site, Washington, D.C., and two other cities. The increased emphasis on city defense implied that the rationale for BMD was once again changing.

But by mid-1970, with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and the USSR making progress, the strongest and most pressing rationale for Safeguard had become its role as a bargaining chip with the Soviets. And indeed, throughout late 1970 and 1971 up until the time that the 1972 ABM Treaty was signed,44 the most effective administration argument for continued deployment of Safeguard was its utility in arms control negotiations.

The rest of the Safeguard saga need not be detailed here. Suffice it to say that one site, at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota, achieved operational status but was placed on inactive status in 1976. A protocol to the original ABM Treaty was signed in 1974 that further limited ABM deployment to only one site in the United States and the USSR, either defending the national capital or an ICBM field.45 As a result of the ABM Treaty, interest in and concern over BMD for all practical purposes disappeared during the 1970s. One indication of this disappearance of interest and concern was the funding level of ABM expenditures. During the late 1960s, US ABM expenditures averaged approximately $1 billion per year (in 1980 dollars), but by 1980, expenditures on ballistic missile defense had fallen to $100 million per year.46

Nevertheless, by the early 1980s, US interest in BMD had been revived by a combination of technical advances, the collapse of détente, and a changed political leadership. Technical breakthroughs in radar, high-speed computers, boost technologies, command, control, and communication (C3) capabilities, and lasers increased the feasibility of BMD; and the growth of US-Soviet hostility in the late 1970s and early 1980s removed many of the political constraints on renewed BMD emphasis. By fiscal year 1982, then, US BMD expenditures had grown to $462.1 million, a fourfold increase from only two years before. 47 And with Ronald Reagan's March 1983 call for a "comprehensive and intensive effort" to "achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles,"48 more growth would come. By fiscal year 1987, funding for strategic defense had grown to $3.5 billion.

The Role of Ballistic
Missile Defense in
US Security Policy

If this brief survey of the evolution of US ballistic missile defense programs has illustrated anything, it is that there has rarely, if ever, been a consensus on what role BMD should play in US defense. Although the ideal objective of all BMD programs was to provide a perfect and impenetrable shield for all potential American and allied targets, the recognition of technical, economic, political, and other limitations of deployable BMD system continually forced proponents of BMD to provide a variety of rationales for why BMD should be deployed. This was true of Nike-Zeus, of Nike-X, of Sentinel, and of Safeguard. And it is true of those defensive technologies being developed under the rubric of the Strategic Defense Initiative as well. President Reagan is prone to describe SDI as intended to provide eventually a perfect or near-perfect shield for the United States and its allies, while Gen James Abrahamson, the director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Office, frequently argues that SDI will enhance the survivability of US strategic offensive forces, complicate Soviet attack planning, and strengthen US deterrence.49

This disagreement over the objectives of SDI is not unique to that particular BMD effort, and neither is the Reagan administration's decision to pursue research into BMD with the hope of sufficiently improving technical capabilities so that future BMD deployment would be warranted. Throughout the Nike-Zeus and Nike-X programs, similar decisions were made to pursue research and development, to forgo current deployment, and to improve technical capabilities so that future deployment might be pursued.50 Only in the case of Nike-X under the auspices of Sentinel and Safeguard were deployment decisions ever authorized, and only in the case of Safeguard did deployment actually proceed.

The recurring phenomenon of positive research decisions and negative deployment decisions bears further examination, if only because of the inevitable question, if deployment never (or almost never) occurs, why pursue research? Two answers are immediately apparent. The first is the prevailing fear that if US research does not proceed, the USSR may attain a technical advantage, perhaps even the defensive equivalent of a "breakout," and as a result gain a decisive military-strategic advantage over the United States. The second is a continuing sense of technical optimism that leads political, military, and scientific-technical leaders alike to believe and argue that a credible defense against ballistic missiles is possible. This technical optimism is couched in a variety of scientific, strategic, and even moral terms, but at its root the argument is always the same: a certain percentage of attacking ICBMs will be eliminated by BMD, and the elimination of that percentage will justify the economic cost of deploying BMD, whatever its objectives. The combination of a fear of a Soviet defensive breakout and US technological optimism has consistently provided sufficient rationale for BMD research even if deployment was, in most cases, not seriously considered.

But at the same time, one should not overlook the role that strategic doctrine has played in influencing American attitudes toward BMD. Before the era of mutual assured destruction, US emphasis on damage limitation made BMD seem a desirable policy alternative, especially when coupled with a counterforce targeting posture and civilian civil defense. Acceptance of mutual assured destruction as a strategic during the late 1960s and throughout much of the 1970s led to decreased emphasis on counterforce targeting, civilian civil defense, and BMD.

Nevertheless, as American nuclear strategy began to move away from assured destruction and toward a modified damage limitation posture in the 1980s,51 BMD and other earlier aspects of damage limitation once again became feasible, logical, and even inevitable subsets of nuclear policy. If a nation contemplates fighting and surviving a partal nuclear exchange, it must obviously seek to limit damage in order to survive to the greatest extent possible. And so, the Carter administration in 1978 promulgated Presidential Directive (PD) 41, which committed the United States to a program of population relocation during crises. This was carried to a higher level under the Reagan administration with National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 26 in 1982, which stressed the importance of civil defense. Carter's emphasis on counterforce targeting put forward in PD 59 was carried further under Reagan with NSDD 13, which argued that the US strategic posture was to deter at all levels but, should deterrence fail at the nuclear level, prevail in a conflict. All that was left was for the Reagan administration to reemphasize BMD, a step taken with SDI. A historian might be excused for having a sense of déjà vu; in some ways, Ronald Reagan’s strategic posture is similar to that of Robert McNamara.

But one cannot overlook the technological changes that have taken place, nor the changes in political and economic environment that have transpired during the history of BMD. Under early BMD programs, nuclear weapons were the preferred BMD kill mechanism, and only a few visionaries such as those who worked in early 1960s projects such as a BAMBI contemplated space-based defense. The changes in the political environment that rendered nuclear defense unacceptable significantly heightened the technical requirements needed for BMD; proximity was no longer sufficient for target destruction, but exact accuracy was needed. This, in turn, heightened the cost of BMD, which reduced the political acceptability of BMD.

The cost factor has been and continues to be one of the most significant drawbacks to BMD from three different perspectives. The first drawback relates directly to absolute expenditures. How much will BMD cost, and what other societal opportunities will not be achieved because of BMD expenditures?

Closely related to opportunity cost is the second drawback, cost benefit. As we have seen earlier, proponents of BMD have rarely been able to agree on the objectives of a deployed BMD system, and thus the benefits of such a system have been difficult to identify specifically. Cost benefit advantages of BMD in general and SDI in particular have been rendered even more questionable in a perceptual sense by the currently popular political perception that any nuclear exchange regardless of size will lead to cataclysmic destruction of unprecedented proportion. In many instances, then, BMD proponents who admit that BMD systems will be less than perfect are placed in a classic dilemma: if BMD is not perfect, then cataclysmic destruction will result, so where is the cost benefit in deploying a less-than-perfect BMD?

But the third drawback is perhaps the most problematic for BMD, the so-called cost-exchange ratio. From Nike-Zeus to SDI, there has been concern that additions to offensive forces will be able to enhance penetration of defensive systems less expensively than additions to defensive systems will be able to prevent that penetration. Hence, from all three perspectives—opportunity cost, cost benefit, and cost exchange—BMD and its proponents have failed to present convincingly persuasive.

Even so, the attractiveness of BMD remains immense. Who can deny the desirability, the wisdom, and even the morality of a weapon system that defends against destruction rather than destroys? And that remains the core of attractiveness for SDI, even as it has for all earlier forms of BMD.

Nevertheless, problems remain. BMD advocates have never reached consensus on the purpose of SDI or on the purpose of earlier BMDS. Is it to defend cities? Is it to defend strategic offensive forces? Or is it to do both? And against whom, at what costs, and at what levels of attack?

The variables are many, but until they are answered it is probable that no BMD will be deployed, at least if history is a teacher. First and foremost, BMD is a technical question: what is the future threat environment, and what success rate may a deployed BMD system be expected to have against it? The technical question merges rapidly with economic, political, and strategic concerns. What level of strategic defense can be acquired for a given dollar total, and what is the cost to the opponent of penetrating that given level of defense? Politically and strategically, who and what should be defended, and why? Can deterrence be maintained by mutual assured destruction, in which case SDI is not needed, or must deterrence be maintained by warfighting capabilities, civil defense, and BMD?

This essay has offered few answers, but it has raised many questions. Few of these questions are new. Nevertheless, unless these questions are answered and answered convincingly, history implies that proponents of SDI will be no more successful in moving toward deployment of their preferred BMD systems than earlier BMD proponents were in deploying their preferred systems.

While a perfect defense is a laudable objective, the technical, economic, political, and strategic difficulties that SDI proponents face are immense. The chances are great that a perfect defense is not attainable. And if SDI and its proponents fail in their effort to achieve a perfect defense, SDI proponents must put forward alternate rationales to legitimize SDI, even as proponents of earlier BMD systems sought to legitimize their own less-than-perfect BMD programs. So, despite whatever technical marvels SDI may achieve, it is probable that the fate of SDI will be much the same as the fate of Zeus-, Nike-X, Sentinel, and Safeguard. While some limited deployment may occur, SDI-and BMD-will remain a technology of the future. It is too attractive to ignore but not yet sufficiently advanced to cope with the projected threat environment. Hence, research will continue, but deployment will be deferred. With only a single exception, it has been that way from Project Thumper to SDI.


1. For the transcript of President Reagan's 23 March 1983 "Star Wars" speech, see the New York Times, 24 March 1983, A20. Most of Reagan's speech was devoted to military spending, not strategic defense.

2. See Science: The Key to Air Supremacy, the introductory volume of Toward New Horizons, a report submitted to Gen H. H. Arnold on behalf of the Army Air Forces Scientific Advisory Group by Theodore von Karman, December 1945, 73-75.

3. Senate, Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, The United States Guided Missile Programs, prepared by Charles Donnelly, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, 4.

4. Vannevar Bush, Modern Arms and Free Men (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949), 83-87. The Army Air Forces Scientific Advisory Group also expressed doubt about ICBM feasibility in Toward New Horizons.

5. Benson D. Adams, Ballistic Missile Defense (New York: American Elsevier, 1971), 20. In addition to Nike-Zeus, the Army also began work on a mobile field BMD systems named Plato, initiated under the auspices of Sylvania Electric Company. The project was canceled in 1958. See Anti-Missile Defense (Washington, D.C.: Government Data Publications, 1965), 59.

6. Adams, 18.

7. For the text of the directive, see The United States Guided Missile Programs, 114.

8. Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy, as quoted in Adams, 28.

9. US Library of Congress, Legislative Reference Service, United States Defense Policies in 1959, 86th Cong., 2d sess., 1969, H. Doc. 432, 24.

10. See "Nike-Zeus May Be Inadequate, Top Defense Scientist Warns," Aviation Week and Space Technology 69 (10 November 1958): 33.

11. FY 1960 Defense Appropriations, 164-74.

12. US Library of Congress, Legislative Reference Service, United States Defense Policies in 1960, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, H. Doc. 207, 57.

13. See Jerome Wiesner, "Comprehensive Arms Limitation Systems," Conference Proceedings of the Sixth Pugwash Conference, 1960, 247. See also the special arms control issue of Daedalus, Fall 1960.

14. House, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1962: Hearings Before a Subcommittee on Appropriations, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, pt. 3:16-17.

15. Adams, 44.

16. New York Times, 5 February 1967, 76.

17. Ibid., 24 October 1961, 1.

18. John F. Kennedy, "Nuclear Testing and Disarmament," Department of State Bulletin 46, no. 1186 (19 March 1962): 445. See also the New York Times, 8 February 1962, 15, for another Kennedy comment linking atmospheric nuclear testing and BMD.

19. On 21 December 1961, a Nike-Zeus successfully destroyed another missile in flight. On 20 July 1962 a Zeus missile fired from Kwajalein destroyed an Atlas ICBM that had been launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. See US Library of Congress, Legislative Reference Service, United States Defense Policies in 1961, H. Doc. 502, 87th Cong., 2d sess., 1962, 161; and the New York Times, 20 July 1962, 1-2. Adams reports (p. 240) that the 1961-62 Zeus tests resulted in 10 hits out of 14 attempts.

20. House, Department of Defense Appropriations for FY 1963: Hearings Before a Subcommittee on Appropriations, 87th Cong., 2d sess., 1962, pt. 5:85.

21. The final request was for $272.1 million. Ibid., pt. 2:348.

22. Ibid., 43.

23. Ibid., pt. 5:85.

24. House, Committee on Armed Services, Hearings on Military Posture and H.R. 2440, 88th Cong., 1st sess., 1963, 324-25.

25. US Department of Defense, Statement of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara Before the House Armed Services Committee on the Fiscal Year 1964-68 Defense Program and 1964 Defense Budget, 30 January 1963, 48.

26. House, Department of Defense Appropriations for FY 1964: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, 88th Cong., 1st sess., 1963, pt. 1:439. See also ibid., 49.

27. For detailed discussion of this period, see Adams, 76-91.

28. Senate, Department of Defense Appropriation 1965: Hearings Before Subcommittee on the Department of Defense of the Committee on Appropriations and the Committee on Armed Services, 88th Cong., 2d sess., 1964, pt. 1:397.

29. "Chinese Nuclear Threat Pushes of Nike-X Options," Missiles and Rockets, 31 May 1965, 17. See also the New York Times, 15 May 1965, 2; and the Washington Post, 26 May 1965, A9.

30. This was the Tallin Line, which by the early 1970s had come to be viewed by US experts as an advanced antiaircraft system with some potential for upgrade to BMD capabilities.

31. For details, see Adams, 125-42. For a totally different perspective of the same period, see Ernest J. Yanarella, The Missile Defense Controversy (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1977), 102-42.

32. New York Times, 11 January 1967, 1; and 18 February 1967, 1,6.

33. Ibid., 25 January 1967, 17.

34. US Department of Defense, Statement of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara Before a Joint Session of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Department of Defense Appropriations on the Fiscal Year 1968-72 Defense Program and 1968 Defense Budget, 23 January 1967, 44, as cited in Adams, 147-48.

35. Senate, Committee on Armed Services and the Subcommittee on Department of Defense of the Committee on Appropriations, Military Procurement Authorizations for Fiscal Year 1968, 90th Cong., 1st sess., 1967, 251-52.

36. New York Times, 15 September 1967, 9.

37. See the Washington Post, 26 June 1967, A11.

38. For the text of McNamara’s speech, see the New York Times, 19 September 1967, 18.

39. Adams, 182.

40. New York Times, 7 February 1969, 1.

41. Ibid., 15 March 1969, 1, 17.

42. House, Safeguard Antiballistic Missile System Hearings Before Subcommittees of the Committee on Appropriations, 91 st Cong., 1st sess., 1969, 16-17.

43. See the New York Times, 18 March 1969, 1, 9.

44. For the treaty text, see Army Control and Disarmament Agreements (Washington, D.C.: US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1982), 139-42.

45. For the protocol text, see ibid., 162-63.

46. E.C. Aldridge, Jr., and Robert L. Manst, Jr., "SALT Implications of BMD Options," in U.S. Arms Control Objectives and the Implications for Ballistic Missile Defense, ed. Michelle Marcouiller (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Science and International Affairs, 1980), 55-56.

47. Senate, Department of Defense Authorization for Fiscal Year 1984: Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, 98th Cong., 1st sess., 1983, 337.

48. New York Times, 24 March 1983, A20.

49. See, for example, Gen James A. Abrahamson, "An Overview of the Strategic Defense Initiative," in The Strategic Defense Initiative: New Perspective on Deterrence, ed. Dorinda G. Dallmeyer (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1986), 3-6.

50. Decisions under Zeus and X were "similar" rather than "identical" to the Reagan administration decisions on SDI in that Zeus and X decisions were to proceed with "research and development" while the SDI decisions have been to proceed with "research." SDI’s elimination of "development" is a direct result of the 1972 ABM Treaty, which forbids either side "to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components which are sea-based, air-based, space-based, or mobile land-based." See Article V of the ABM Treaty, in Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements, 140.

51. This movement began publicly in 1980 with Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59.


Daniel S. Papp (BA, Dartmouth College; PhD, University of Miami) is professor of international affairs and director, School of Social Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. He has served as a senior research fellow at the Air University Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education; as research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, and as visiting professor of Western Australia Institute of Technology. Doctor Papp has published more than 40 articles on various issues on US and Soviet foreign and defense policies and is author of Vietnam: The View from Moscow, Peking, Washington (1981) and Soviet Policies Toward the Developing World During the 1980s: The Dilemmas of Power and Presence (1986).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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