The Nike Zeus antiballistic missile system, developed in the 1950s and 1960s, was designed to defend against a Soviet nuclear attack against the US mainland. It was never deployed. Photo credit: public domain.
The program to develop a missile defense system to protect the United States mainland has existed in one form or another for nearly six decades. Though it was controversial from the beginning and faced nearly unsurmountable technical challenges, it has enjoyed bipartisan support and continued funding in Congress for more than 20 years.
In July, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed their own versions of a defense authorization bill for 2021. By a wide majority, both chambers authorized more than $740 billion for defense spending next year. Tucked away in the Senate bill was $20.3 billion for missile defense, and that funding could make it into the final version that lands on the president’s desk. While $20.3 billion may not seem significant in a $740 billion budget, it is nevertheless a startling figure. What’s more, US taxpayers have invested nearly $200 billion on missile defense in the past two decades and another $100 billion in the decade before, with little to show for it. Even under artificially easy tests conditions, the most modern missile defense system meant to protect the United States mainland has failed more times than it has succeeded often in highly scripted tests.
When Congress gets serious about cutting waste from the federal budget so that social needs like healthcare and efforts to combat climate change can be funded, missile defense will be a low-hanging fruit.
To understand how and why a program that is unproven, arguably unnecessary, and even counterproductive has survived for so long, we have to go back to the beginning.
A history of the US missile defense program. Intercontinental
ballistic missiles burst into the Cold War foray following the Soviet launch in 1957 of the first ever earth-orbiting satellite named Sputnik. During the 1960 presidential election campaign, John F. Kennedy took a tough line on the Soviet Union and blamed outgoing President Eisenhower for the so-called “missile gap”—a perception among US officials that the United States trailed the Soviet Union in ballistic missile technology. After taking office, President Kennedy dramatically increased funding for missile and space programs. Antiballistic missile systems, designed to shoot down incoming missiles, followed.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States developed several antiballistic missile schemes, with names like Nike Zeus, Nike-X, Sentinel, and Safeguard. None of them proved feasible for defending against an all-out attack, much less against one that might involve incoming missiles tipped with not just one warhead each, but multiple.
The systems were also found to be destabilizing, since even the semblance of a US defense, however ineffective, pushed the Soviets to improve their offense, resulting in an arms race. In 1972, both superpowers woke up to the madness and agreed on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which all but banned such systems. The treaty would stay in force for four decades and paved the way toward more nuclear arms control.
However, a section of the US military and its supporters always bristled at the limits on the missile defense program. After Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Soviet Union, calling it the “Evil Empire,” and proposed to develop a missile shield over the entirety of US territory.
The research and development program he proposed was called the Strategic Defense Initiative. It called for the development of a wide array of sensors and weapons, including high-powered lasers, to be based on land, sea, and in space. Most of the proposal was a fantasy, however, as it was decades away from technical feasibility—which is why detractors began to derisively call it “Star Wars.”