free website hit counter
Center for Strategic Decision Research, Peter Struck, Michele Alliot-Marie, General George Joulwan, SACEUR, General James L. Jones, SHAPE, NATO, EU, BDLI, ILA, EADS, Northrop Grumman, Under Secretary Michael Wynne, Assistant Secretary Linton Wells, Ambassador William Burns, NATO Military Committee Chairman General Harald Kujat, General Dynamics, Boeing, Global Security Terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rainer Hertrich, David Stafford

Center for Strategic Decision Research


U.S. National Missile Defense: Setting the Record Straight

Dr. J. David Martin
Deputy for Strategic Relations,
United States Ballistic Missile Defense Organization


Since the U.S. National Missile Defense program, or NMD, has frequently been the target of criticism in the United States and abroad, many misconceptions have grown up around it that have taken on a life of their own. I would like to discuss these misconceptions and talk about the facts as we see them from the point of view of the organization responsible for developing the National Missile Defense system.

The United States Needs National Missile Defense

For the latter half of the 20th century, the United States relied on its strategic nuclear deterrent to dissuade the Soviet Union from using its long-range bomber and missile forces against targets on U.S. territory. But now the game has changed. Given the several countries that could do us and our allies harm, and given the views of our potential adversaries concerning the use of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer rely solely on our nuclear deterrent.

In February of 2000, in his testimony before Congress, the director of the CIA announced that “over the next 15 years, our cities will face ballistic missile threats from a variety of actors.” He specifically pointed to North Korea’s ability to test its Taepo Dong II missile this year, a missile that may be capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the United States. Over 20 countries now have ballistic missiles of theater range, and there are signs that technology for longer-range missiles is spreading. Also, some two dozen countries have, or are capable of developing, weapons of mass destruction. We may have to deal with suitcase or truck bombs in the future, but the plain fact is that our potential adversaries continue to invest their limited resources in ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. And today, we have no capability to defend against that threat.

These concerns led the Congress, in the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, to the conclusion that “the policy of the United States [is] to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” President Clinton subsequently signed this legislation into law.

In spite of these facts, some critics assert that a missile attack on the United States is highly unlikely and that an NMD system is unnecessary. They see the overwhelming power of our strategic forces as a deterrent. This point of view, I believe, has validity to a point, though in today’s world it may be short-sighted and not consistent with our security environment. Our present and future security, therefore, hinges on our ability to not only deter but defeat these possible limited missile threats if they are ever used.

If Saddam Hussein had had longer-range missiles in the 1991 Gulf War, one wonders whether he would have threatened to use them or would actually have used them against the capitals of our coalition partners in Europe to persuade them not to join the coalition. One also wonders if he would have used them against the United States in order to prevent U.S. actions to support our Middle East allies or liberate Kuwait. It is clear he was very willing to use them against Israel and Saudi Arabia. Defenses are not just about providing basic protection. They are also—just as importantly—about helping preserve our freedom of action and removing a hostile state’s capability to coerce U.S. foreign policy or shape national security decisions.

The NMD System Is Technologically Feasible

Two central technological problems confront us. The first is the discrimination problem—can we find the warhead? The second is the so-called hit-a-bullet-with-a-bullet problem—once we find the warhead, can we hit it? Historically, solutions to both these problems have eluded us, especially against a massive raid involving hundreds of incoming warheads and countermeasures—decoys, radar chaff, and debris. Up to now, these countermeasures could overwhelm our capacity to sort out the armed objects from the rest, mainly because the technical immaturity of our sensors has not allowed us to see sharply or reliably the objects in a target cluster.

During the past decade, we have made significant advances in our sensor and discrimination technologies. These advances include new high-resolution radars, digital radars with sophisticated electronic counter-countermeasures, and infrared seekers. Steady improvements in computer processing power, which has been doubling every 18 months for the last 30 years, has also helped us to develop an interceptor that flies out quickly, processes the sensor data faster and with greater accuracy, and destroys the warhead.

We also have shown that we can do hit-to-kill, which creates enough kinetic energy through the high-speed collision of two masses to obliterate the target. It is important to understand that we do not need nuclear weapons to kill warheads in flight, as we once thought we did.

Can we hit another object in space, something like a five-foot ice cream cone, at closing speeds greater than 7 to 8 km per second? Yes, we can. In October of ‘99, we demonstrated the ability of the kill vehicle to travel thousands of miles to a very specific location in space—one ultimately defined by centimeters and microseconds—discriminate among several objects, identify the right target, divert toward it, and collide with it. This success speaks for itself. We are now testing the concept of hit-to-kill rigorously. In 1999, our flight tests went a long way to convincing me that we had the right kill vehicle designs. We had six successful intercepts using hit-to-kill technology, one in our NMD program and five more in our theater ballistic missile defense programs.

Do we still have work to do? Yes, we do. But I am increasingly optimistic that we will not have to revisit the basic science and designs associated with hit-to-kill.

Newly Armed States Cannot Easily Defeat Any Defense System With Countermeasures

The critics of NMD tend to magnify the capabilities of states such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. But just because such states can build missiles does not mean they can or will develop sophisticated countermeasures. And even if they do demonstrate a capability to build them, it is not automatically true that they will be able to use them effectively. These countries can invent on a blackboard almost any kind of countermeasure. But can they be certain that they can make it work effectively? To be confident that they can, these states will have to test their missiles. And the limited amount of ballistic missile and countermeasure testing done by our adversaries amplifies the uncertainties that they must be facing concerning using their weapons successfully.

The NMD System Provides No Space-based Interceptors and No Protective “Shield” Against a Massive Ballistic Missile Attack Against U.S. Territory

The threat we must counter today is very different from the old Cold War threat involving thousands of warheads. The U.S. NMD system that we will deploy in 2005, if directed, is tailored to counter a very limited threat of a few or a few tens of warheads and simple countermeasures. It is not a large-in-scale, “thick” defense system (or even the basis for such a defense), as some have suggested.

The initial NMD capability we are planning for 2005 will consist of 20 ground-based interceptors. But because we expect some states to develop a capability to launch more missiles in that time frame, we plan to expand our system by 2007 with 80 more interceptors, for a total of 100.

We still have major challenges as we try to meet our deadline of 2005. Our greatest challenge with this system is to make sure all NMD elements work together as an integrated whole. The technological and managerial complexity of what we are trying to accomplish is on par with some of our country’s highly challenging programs from the past, such as the Apollo program, the initial program to deploy our first ICBM forces, and the space shuttle program.

The Summer of 2000’s Deployment Readiness Review Is Not a Decision Whether to Deploy an NMD System

The decision will follow the Deployment Readiness Review (DRR). The decision to proceed with deploying missile defenses lies squarely with the President. But before the President can formulate an informed answer2 to the question of whether to deploy, he must have before him some critical pieces of information concerning four primary criteria: the threat, the technological readiness of the system, the cost of that system, and our national security and arms control objectives. The DRR is actually an ongoing internal evaluation by the Secretary of Defense that focuses only on two of the criteria—technological readiness and the cost of the system.

As part of the DRR process, we will examine the NMD system’s design to see if we have adequately demonstrated that the elements not only work well individually, but that they also work well together. There are key performance parameters we have to meet, one of the most important of which is the ability of the system to protect all 50 states by the projected date of 2005. We are immersing ourselves in very detailed evaluations ranging from software development to construction specifications for this highly complex system. Again, the decision allowing us to proceed towards deployment lies with the President. If our current schedule holds and our progress continues, the President will be ready to discuss it later in the summer of 2000. One of our goals in the material development community is to make sure that the Secretary of Defense and the President have the best data possible regarding whether or not we are technologically ready to proceed.

The United States Should Not Delay Its Deployment Readiness Decision

We are frequently asked why the DRR has been scheduled for this summer. The answer is that the threat is emerging faster than we thought it would just five years ago. Just look at the plethora of testing of new medium- and intermediate-range systems in the last two years. It is essential that we protect an option for a presidential decision to deploy a system as soon as possible.

If the President decides that we need an operational capability by 2005, and you examine all the things we need to do to meet that commitment, the starting date for constructing the system’s radar must be early in the process. If this radar is to be built in Alaska, which we expect, work must begin in the spring of 2001 because of the lengthy construction process and the short construction season. If work is to begin roughly a year from now, we have to sign construction contracts this fall. If we wait another year to begin building that radar, we will not have the initial system up and running by 2005.

We Have Enough Test Data to Make a Deployment Decision and We Are Doing Adequate Testing

An important part of understanding this fact is understanding the way we have developed and acquired weapon systems in the past, and how we have changed our approach to meet an urgent schedule. The standard approach to weapon-system acquisition has been simply too risk averse to allow us to develop new system concepts rapidly, especially when the threat drives the urgency for development. With average cycle times for major acquisition programs over the past decades averaging eight to nine years—and that is eight to nine years from the time the decision is made to build—it is clear that the traditional way of doing business in defense procurement will not handle many of our future demands.

There is only one reason why the NMD program is on a compressed, high-risk schedule to deploy a system by 2005—the threat. And because we are moving on such a fast track, the program we are executing is high risk, which means that a significant setback in any one element can delay the entire program. Taking such risks is inconsistent with today’s acquisition culture. For this reason, we are being accused by some of rushing, or of pushing a system forward that, once fielded, will not be operationally effective. Such accusations fail to take into account certain realities.

High risk does not mean reckless. There is a difference between rushing and moving as fast as is prudent. We have every incentive to get a capability into the field as quickly as possible. We also have every incentive to get it right.

A prudent testing program, therefore, will first address the basics of the system. We will do a lot of testing of components on the ground and a lot of system testing in sophisticated end-to-end simulations. We have scheduled four flight tests to get two demonstrations of hit-to-kill. The first was successful. The second was partially successful. The third is planned for early July of 2000. Some suggest that we are not testing the NMD system against realistic targets. But they ignore our decades-long practice for testing other complex systems, such as new aircraft. The first test planned for each new aircraft has always been a high-speed taxi test. After all, there is an understandable interest in making sure the basic mechanics, avionics, and computers work as they should before taking the far more risky step of lifting off the ground. This is the evolutionary testing approach we must use with all highly complex machines—we do not test to the maximum every component of the system the first few times we test.

A point to remember here is that we have been asked to develop an NMD system to meet the threat that is expected—that is, a limited threat comprising simple countermeasures. This is the threat we expect in 2005. We have not yet been asked to deploy a system capable of handling dozens of warheads with sophisticated countermeasures. Our test program is planned accordingly. This is not ignoring the problem. We believe that we understand countermeasures and counter-countermeasures; we have been working in this area for more than 30 years. Our test program will take a prudent path and progressively include more sophisticated countermeasures in the target complex.

There are some who are proposing that, in order to reduce our risks, we wait until we get the results of “real-world” tests against real-world countermeasures before we make our decision to deploy. In other words, delay the decision to proceed with deployment to sometime in the middle of the coming decade before we begin the multiyear process of constructing the system. A decision to delay on these grounds, of course, will not allow us to achieve initial operational capability until well after the 2005 date. This risk-averse acquisition approach is not one that is tailored very well to our current national security requirements. It ignores the one factor that is driving us to consider a decision to proceed this year—the threat. As I said earlier, North Korea is capable of testing its Taepo Dong II missile at any time. So the more relevant question is, Can the United States afford to wait?

Our flight test that was held in January of 2000, when we missed the target warhead, has received a great deal of attention. But that test was a failure only in part, because hitting the warhead was only one of our objectives. In the context of testing, it was a successful developmental test that proved we could integrate far-flung and separate major elements and make them work together as one system. The interception phase of the NMD mission is clearly the most visible phase and key to our success. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the successful integration of the highly interdependent system elements is no less critical. The integration and support aspects of our testing events are transparent to most people, but I assure you that we could not do the job without them.

In the final six seconds of the January 2000 test, we had a malfunction in our interceptor sensor system that prevented the missile from colliding with the target. We have since taken the necessary corrective actions, both on the equipment and in our processes, to mitigate against a recurrence. But we should remember that the one thing that failed in January’s test worked in October of ‘99. So at this point, we have no reason to conclude that the overall design of the NMD system is flawed.

By the time of the DRR this summer, we will have tested some 45% to 50% of the functionality of the system and almost 90% of the elements. We will also have gained enough data to make a solid judgment regarding technical feasibility of the system to support a decision by the President.


I do not want to leave you with the impression that we have solved all our problems. We have not. Yet we are confident that we are doing the right things. I would like to leave you with these three thoughts:

  • First, we believe the threat is real, and that it is growing.
  • Second, technological advances are now making a limited missile defense of the United States possible—we can hit a bullet with a bullet.
  • Third, the debate over the U.S. NMD program is an important national security discussion because it points out how different today’s security concerns are from those we faced two decades ago.

I hope my remarks have helped to set the record straight on NMD. As we move forward, and as the United States and our Alliance partners continue our dialogue on this subject, it is important to keep misconceptions about the U.S. NMD program from clouding our discussions. We come at this issue from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives, so I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to you about our program.


Top of page | Home | ©2003 Center for Strategic Decision Research