Op-Ed

Missile Defense

Stephen I. Schwartz

In the Jan. 13-19 Inside View supporting deployment of ballistic missile defenses, U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Md., quizzes readers by asking, “In which year did the United States complete construction of its national defense system designed to defeat incoming ballistic missiles? Was it 1958, 1963, 1971, or 1985? The answer is none of the above. In fact, the real answer is never.”

Not so fast. The correct answer is none of the above. Along with a surprising number of missile defense proponents, Ehrlich appears to have forgotten about the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system. Safeguard was proposed by President Richard Nixon in March 1969 as a scaled-down version of the controversial Sentinel system.

Whereas Sentinel was designed to protect American cities from Soviet and Chinese missile attack, Safeguard would defend intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and Strategic Air Command bases. Its total anticipated cost (including operations and support) was $10.3 billion ($43.2 billion in 1996 dollars).

Congress was deeply divided over Safeguard. The Senate approved the first phase of development in August 1969 only on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Spiro Agnew. The signing of the ABM Treaty in 1972 limited Safeguard to two sites. The 1974 ABM Treaty protocol further limited the program to one.

After spending nearly $6 billion ($21.5 billion in 1996 dollars), the sole Safeguard site at Nekoma, N.D., became fully operational on October 1, 1975. But U.S. Army missile defense officials had already decided to shut it down on July 1, 1976. The House Appropriations Committee concurred, noting the limitations of a single site, coupled with the recent Soviet deployment of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, meant “the utility of Safeguard to protect Minuteman will be essentially nullified in the future.”

Overcoming strong Senate opposition, Congress mandated the immediate closure of Safeguard in the FY 1976 defense appropriations bill, which was approved on January 27, 1976.

Since the mid-1950s the United States has expended more than $100 billion for missile defense programs (in 1996 dollars). Of that total, $51 billion has been spent since the inauguration of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.