Missile defenseAdministration unveils its Missile Defense Review

Published 17 January 2019

Thirty-five years after Ronald Reagan vowed to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” the administration has today unveiled its Missile Defense Review – the latest iteration of U.S. efforts to build an effective ballistic missile defense. The Pentagon says that its search for more effective missile defense technologies is the result of its focus on near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia, but the administration’s Missile Defense Review appears more suitable for defending the United States against more limited attacks, such as those likely to come from North Korea or, perhaps, Iran.

In March 1983, twenty years after Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara unveiled the U.S. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) nuclear strategy, President Ronald Reagan, in a speech to the nation, said that the United States was changing course: Rather they eschewing missile defense in favor of mutual vulnerability-based nuclear deterrence, Reagan vowed to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”

Reagan was persuaded by nuclear scientists Edward Teller that small nuclear explosions in space could generate laser beams which would destroy Soviet missiles as they left their silos – and before they released their warheads above the atmosphere, on their way to the United States.

The United States has invested billion of dollars in trying to realize Reagan’s vision, but it was not to be: Any defenses so far devises can be easily overwhelmed by large number of warheads – or a mix of warheads and decoys.

More limited theater missile defenses, and ship missile defense, have been developed, but they, too can deal with only a limited number of approaching munitions.

Israel layered missile defense has also been effective – but under limiting circumstances. The missiles and rockets Hamas and Hezbollah can fire are not the most advanced and, moreover, they do not carry nuclear weapons. One of the more brilliant conceptual innovation by Israel is the realization that not all missiles must be destroyed. The Iron Dome missile defense system, for example, calculates and plots the trajectory of an incoming Hamas missile to see whether it will reach a urban center or other valuable target. If the plotting of the missile trajectory shows the missile to fall in an empty field, Iron Dome does not bother to destroy it.

This logic does not work with nuclear weapons. A missile carrying a Hiroshima-size 15 kiloton bomb my fall 300 meters away from buildings on the outskirts of a town, but a nuclear explosion would still destroy most of the town, to say nothing of the lingering radiation damage.

Research into missile defense continued, though, even after the initial, 1980s-era confidence in the efficacy of the system waned.