Missile Defense Takes the MADness Out of Defense Policy, by Grant Threlfall

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the forty-year Cold War. Until that point, nuclear war with the United States was largely averted by a form of deterrence known as “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD). MAD doctrine surmises that if one superpower attacks the other, the counterstrike would result in the destruction of both superpowers. Since neither side could win, nuclear war would be prevented.

MAD worked, but we now live in a different geopolitical reality. China is a world power. Rogue dictators and terrorists are suspected to have acquired nuclear technology and weapons since the break-up of the Soviet Union. We must reassess our defense strategy to deal with these new threats. That is why we need missile defense.

One of the pillars of MAD theory was the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Signed in 1972 by the United States and the Soviet Union, both sides pledged not to deploy missile defense systems beyond limited exceptions. This was crucial because an ability to defend against incoming missiles would make it possible for the nation with such defenses to launch a nuclear first strike without being annihilated in return.

But 2001 is different from 1972. During his recent European trip, President George W. Bush said, “The ABM Treaty is a relic. The days of the Cold War have ended, and so must the Cold War mentality.”1

President Bush advocates the swift deployment of missile defense. A recent Central Intelligence Agency report determined the threat of missile attack against the United States has grown, not shrunk, since the end of the Cold War.2 New countries have missile production programs, and some will export missiles to anyone with the money to buy them. China and Russia have repeatedly broken the Missile Control Technology Regime, selling missiles and missile technology to nations like Iran and Iraq.

In the near future, countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea could possess ballistic missiles with the ability to strike the United States. While the United States does not face obliteration from an attack of just a few missiles, the potential physical and psychological damage inflicted by just one makes these missiles a powerful tool for blackmail. Would the U.S. have fought the Gulf War if Saddam Hussein had been able to strike New York City with a nuclear missile? Nuclear military power could give a rogue state the green light to operate without the fear of facing the United States on the battlefield.

This missile threat has more than strategic implications – it has economic ones as well. The Israeli economy lost a full 25% of its value during the Gulf War because people were too terrified of Scud missile attacks to leave their homes and go to work.3 Do we in the United States want to suffer a similar situation? Interestingly, the Israelis, with American aid, have now deployed the Arrow, a missile-interception system to cover Israeli cities from future missile attack.4

The United States must follow Israel’s example. Critics of missile defense complain of huge costs, but we must remind ourselves that the cost of missile defense is less than the cost of an American city. What price tag can be attached to the lives of millions of U.S. citizens? How great do we value our freedom to act around the world without fear of being held hostage at home by dictators?

The science to deploy missile defense exists. It was proven on July 14, 2001, when a missile launched in the South Pacific successfully hit another missile launched 4,800 miles away in southern California while both were travelling thousands of miles an hour.5 Test failures will occur, but they will pave the way for progress. The Corona spy satellite suffered 13 straight failures before it worked properly. Now we rely heavily on such satellites for vital national security information.6

In 1995, Chinese General Xiong Guangkai (now PRC defense minister) threatened to destroy Los Angeles if our government continued ties with Taiwan, in particular, if we came to the aid of Taiwan during a Chinese attack.7 The United States called the Chinese bluff with no repercussions. As time goes on, this might not always be the case.

Our government must not leave its citizens defenseless against the rapidly growing threat of a lone nuclear missile. Missile defense must be a crucial part of our national security strategy, and should be deployed as soon as possible.


Grant Threlfall is a research associate with The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.


1 Frank Bruni, “Pushing His Missile Plan in Spain, Bush Calls Arms Treaty a Relic,” New York Times, June 13, 2001.
2 House Policy Committee Statement Policy Statement, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, June 14, 2001.
3 Mitchell Bard, “The Gulf War,” Jewish Virtual Library, Chevy Chase, Maryland, downloaded from http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/History/Gulf_War.html on June 20, 2001.
4 John Pike, “FAS Space Policy Project Special Weapons Report: Arrow TMD,” Federation of American Scientists, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/program/arrow.htm on June 20, 2001.
5 James Dao, “Pentagon Officials Report Hit in Latest Missile Defense Test,” New York Times, July 15, 2001.
6 General Ronald T. Kadish (USAF), speech to National Defense University, Washington D.C. February 2, 2001.
7 Steven Lee Myers, “Chinese General’s Visit Raises Only Limited Hopes,” New York Times, January 26, 2000.

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