A Sure-Fire Missile Defense System

Stephen I. Schwartz

Sen. John McCain, in his May 22 editorial-page commentary “The Missile Threat the White House Ignores,” argues that after spending “13 years and $38 billion to develop capabilities to defend effectively our citizens and our troops overseas from ballistic missile attack” it is time to deploy “a system that will defend Americans at home.”

From this statement, Sen. McCain appears to believe that work on ballistic missile defenses began with President Reagan’s inauguration of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on March 23, 1983. In fact, U.S. efforts in this area date back to World War II, with the first intensive work beginning after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October 1957. From the late 1950s through 1965, research and development on the Nike-Zeus system consumed more than $3 billion (this and the following figures are in constant fiscal year 1996 dollars). The follow-on Nike-X program (part of the nationwide Sentinel system to defend against the then-developing Chinese missile threat) cost another $9 billion from 1964-1968 before it too was abandoned after concerns were raised about high costs and the danger of surrounding American cities with hundreds of nuclear-tipped interceptor missiles. In its wake emerged Safeguard, a scaled-back effort to defend not cities and people but 150 Minuteman missiles.

Safeguard, the first phase of which won Senate approval only with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Spiro Agnew, was eventually deployed at Nekoma, North Dakota, in the mid-1970s. Yet it operated for only a few months before the Army deactivated it in 1975, determining that high annual operating costs greatly exceeded the system’s limited defensive benefits. Safeguard ultimately cost an estimated $22 billion.

According to official data from the Departments of Defense and Energy, the U.S. has spent $51 billion on ballistic and theater missile defense programs since 1983. Including $14 billion spent since 1962 on various efforts not directly associated with any of the above programs, the U.S. has expended nearly $100 billion on ballistic missile defense efforts over the past 34 years.

Sen. McCain and other proponents of a crash program to deploy ballistic missile defenses by 2003 ignore (or are ignorant of) this history—and the enormous costs associated with it—at taxpayers’ peril. They should be required to explain why it is more sensible—on military, economic, and political grounds—to devote tens of billions of dollars to providing a potential remedy to the ballistic missile (and only the ballistic missile) threat during a missile’s final 15 minutes of flight than to spend just a few billion dollars ensure the certain destruction of that missile on the ground before it is even launched, either by helping to dismantle it (as under the bi-partisan Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program) or by preventing our adversaries from acquiring the technology in the first place (through the Missile Technology Control Regime, the START treaty, and similar agreements).