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MD History

Brief History

Missile defense comprises of an array of systems employed in detecting, tracking, intercepting, and destroying ballistic missiles.  The beginnings of research in missile defense systems derived from the Allies’ need to defend themselves against German V-2 rockets during World War II.  Codenamed Project Thumper, the project was unable to produce viable defenses against ballistic missiles, given the progress of technology at the time.

As the 1950s witnessed a new era in the discovery and development of ballistic missile technologies, the defense department fielded missile defense projects within both the Army and the Air Force to address this growing threat.  Growing out of high-altitude antiaircraft research, the Army pursued Nike-Hercules and Nike-Zeus programs while the Air Force’s research was called Bomarc and Wizard.

Early versions of missile defense systems were meant to serve as early warning and tracking systems, used to detect massive launches of ICBMs and give those within the kill range time to head for shelter.  Interception and destruction of missiles were developed later, as the United States fielded its first intercept of a missile (Minuteman) in 1959 and the Soviet Union announced its first nonnuclear intercept in 1961.

Under the threat of strategic power shift from Soviet missile defense development and subsequent successful Soviet tests, President Kennedy resumed atmospheric nuclear testing in 1962 along with mandates to resume research in ballistic missile defense and defense penetration.  The 1960s saw a number of new technologies in missile defense as improved radar and missile systems became more sophisticated, leading to systems such as the high-acceleration Sprint missile.

In 1963 the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (NTBT) prohibiting all above-ground testing of nuclear weapons.  As a significant portion of US missile defense systems used nuclear detonation, the implications for BMD research was unclear.  With the Vietnam War and other pressing priorities to attend to, the Army froze procurement and deployment of missile defense systems but continued its research and development.  

During the 1960s, the Sentinel system, a ground-based, nuclear-armed interceptor missile platform, was developed by the Department of Defense.  While many argued that, at the rate which Soviet Union was producing ICBMs, available platforms could not provide adequate or meaningful protection, research and development was grounded in the idea that there existed value in providing a “thin” defense of US cities against Chinese ICBMs.  

Under the Nixon Administration, the strategic position of missile defense shifted to that of protecting of offensive deterrent stockpiles.  Renaming systems to “Safeguard”, Nixon pushed for the deployment of missile defense systems around American offensive ICBM fields rather than cities.  Such usage and deployment reflected American security policy embracing the “mutually assured destruction” paradigm, seeing missile defense as a guarantee for its ability to mount a retaliatory strike as opposed to being a shield against hostile missile action.  While Congress eventually did approve Safeguard, many began to push for negotiating limits on Anti-ballistic missile systems.

Negotiations on the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty started in November 1969.  During this time, Safeguard played a crucial role as a bargaining chip in both the ABM treaty and the SALT I treaty.  Signed in May 1972, the ABM treaty allowed Soviet Union and United States to deploy a missile defense system around the nation’s capital and one around strategic ICBM launchers.  In 1974 this was revised to one site around either the capital or ICBM deployment area.  The treaty banned the further development, testing, and deployment of mobile missile defense systems but did not set limits on defensive systems against short range missiles.

The missile defense’s role within our national security policy remained stagnant through the 1970s, even though its funding saw increases under the Carter administration.  In 1983, President Regan unveiled a plan entitled the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to drastically expand non-nuclear ballistic missile defense systems in the United States.  Outlining a comprehensive defensive shield consisting of thousands of land-, sea-, air- and space-based sensors and interceptors, the proposal constituted a complete shift in missile defense paradigm, moving from ensuring retaliatory abilities to significant disruption of an attack, over the long term, replacing deterrence with defense.  Phase I of the plan called for rigorous research and development with deployment of land-based and space-based sensors.  Though the plan ran into significant financial difficulties, in 1985, a laser destroyed a Titan missile.  Under the plan, direct hit missile interceptors were also developed.

The first Bush Administration inherited much different world than Reagan did.  Recognizing the financial and technical challenges of Reagan’s proposal and reacting to the end of the cold war, it opted to seek a system that provided Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS).  Under this new security paradigm, the administration argued that it was much more likely the United States or its allies would come under attack from small accidental or unauthorized missile attacks as opposed to a massive coordinated ICBM launch from Russia.  Missile defense systems needed to be small, mobile, and easily deployed around the world to protect US forces and allies against nations with limited ballistic missile capabilities.  The missile defense systems created under this framework were used in the first Gulf War, where its performance was inconsistent. In 1991, SDI’s name was changed to the Missile Defense Agency. 

Recognizing that GPALS would violate certain areas of the ABM treaty, the Bush administration engaged the Russian government to renegotiate the ABM Treaty.  However, President Clinton suspended the negotiations in 1993 pending a full review of DoD programs.  President Clinton continued the trend under the Bush administration to push for technologies to guard against short-range missile threats while research on ICBM defense was limited to research stage only.  

After India and Pakistan successfully fielded their first nuclear tests and North Korea attempted to test an ICBM, Secretary of Defense William Cohen called missile defense a strategic necessity. In 1999, Congress concurred and passed the National Missile Defense Act.  An interceptor test successfully discerned from decoy and intercepted a Minuteman missile.  While the Clinton Administration did adopt a long-term missile defense strategy, President Clinton never ended up authorizing the deployment of national missile defense systems, citing doubts over the NMD’s technological effectiveness.

The arrival of President George W. Bush marked another shift in missile defense strategy as United States formally pulled out of the 1972 ABM Treaty in June of 2002.  Citing changes in the security landscape, the American security policy was more concerned with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction to rogue states and terrorists than a massive missile launched by Soviet forces.  Facing only muted criticism, President Bush pushed for the deployment of long-range missile defense systems by the fall of 2004.  As a sign of the United States’ commitment to the security of Eastern Europe, President Bush agreed to build sites for 10 ground-based missile interceptors in Poland and a European midcourse radar in the Czech Republic.  

The United States currently have missile defense systems deployed in Alaska, California, and Hawaii along with a number of mobile sea-based systems around the world.  

National and International Legislative and Executive History

1967: The United States , the Soviet Union , and most of the other major powers signed the Outer Space Treaty, which prevented any weapon of mass destruction into orbit.


1969: Congress approved funding for the Safeguard missile defense system to be deployed.


1972: The first international Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty is approved by the United States and the Soviet Union . It prohibited a national missile defense and limited each country to two missile defense sites and 100 interceptors.


1974: The Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty was changed to allow only a single missile defense site.


1975: Congress cancels funding for the Safeguard missile defense system.


1983: President Reagan issues National Security Decision Directive 85 that states the United States   will pursue missile defense program.


1984: President Reagan issues National Security Decision Directive 119 that establishes the Strategic Defense Initiative.


1991: President Bush changed the Strategic Defense Initiative to the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes focusing on protecting against a more limited threat.


The START I treaty between the United States and Russia established a decrease in strategic nuclear arms between the two countries.


The Missile Defense Act of 1991 gave a deadline of 1996 for an ABM Treaty compliant national missile defense system to be deployed. It also required that


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