Star Wars Revisited: Still Dangerous, Costly, and Unworkable
By William D. Hartung, Foreign Policy In Focus Brief, Volume 4, Number 24 September 1999

A joint project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center and the Institute for Policy Studies

Editors: Martha Honey (IPS) and Tom Barry (IRC)

Key Points

  • Spurred on by exaggerated fears of North Korean missiles and Chinese nuclear espionage, the idea of deploying a National Missile Defense (NMD) is enjoying a political revival on Capitol Hill.
  • The $60 billion spent on missile defense projects since 1983 has produced precious little beyond a string of cost overruns and technical failures.
  • Deploying a missile defense system would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and risk sparking a new nuclear arms race.


Some dreams never die. Since March 1983, when President Reagan first introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative-Star Wars-as a way to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," the U.S. has spent nearly $60 billion attempting to develop missile defenses. Enthusiasm for deploying a full-scale shield against incoming ballistic missiles waned by the late 1980s in the face of widespread technical failures and the initiation of the first significant reductions of U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. But spurred on by the efforts of a coalition of Star Wars "true believers" and self-interested weapons contractors, missile defense programs have undergone a miraculous political revival in the 1990s. In its latest incarnation-National Missile Defense (NMD)-the program has been scaled back from Reagan's vision of a multitiered defense that could fend off thousands of Soviet nuclear delivery vehicles to the seemingly more realistic goal of intercepting a handful of missiles launched in error or by a so-called "rogue state" like Iraq or North Korea.

During its first term the Clinton administration shifted Star Wars research funding toward Theater Missile Defense (TMD) programs designed to deal with regional threats. Missile defense programs still received $3 to $4 billion per year in R&D funding, but the political momentum toward deploying defenses against long-range missiles-a move that would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, one of the cornerstones of the existing nuclear arms control regime-appeared to have been broken.

But the prospects for moving forward on attempts to construct a defense against long-range missiles increased in 1994, when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives on a platform known as the "Contract With America," which stated that it should be U.S. policy to deploy a national missile defense system. Star Wars enthusiasts such as then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) garnered enough support to force the Clinton administration to enter into the so-called "3+3" policy-three years of intensive research followed by a decision on whether to move toward deployment of a system in the next three-year period.

Missile defense advocates received another boost in the summer of 1998 when a congressionally mandated panel chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asserted that the emerging ballistic missile threat posed by "rogue states" is "broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community." Rumsfeld's findings-combined with reports of new missile tests by Iran and North Korea in late 1998 and sensational charges of Chinese nuclear espionage during the early months of 1999-transformed the climate in which missile defense issues were debated on Capitol Hill. President Clinton's January 1999 announcement that he would more than double NMD funding to $10.5 billion over the next six years set the stage for subsequent House and Senate votes declaring it U.S. government policy to deploy a national defense system "as soon as technologically feasible."

Although the political fortunes of missile defenses have changed dramatically, the technical, economic, and strategic drawbacks of deploying such a system remain. "Hit-to-kill" technologies that would allow U.S. missiles to intercept incoming missiles have failed in the vast majority of tests conducted over the past decade. Larger problems, such as dealing with hundreds or thousands of decoy warheads, have barely been addressed. Meanwhile, major components of the overall missile defense effort have experienced massive cost overruns. And U.S. pronouncements about deploying defenses have sparked bitter denunciations by officials in Beijing and Moscow, setting the stage for what could become a new nuclear arms race. Russia has threatened to stop reducing its nuclear arsenal if the U.S. withdraws from the ABM treaty and deploys an NMD system. In response, U.S. officials have suggested modifying the ABM treaty to allow the deployment of a limited national missile defense system, but so far Moscow has been cool to this offer.

The Clinton administration announced that it will decide in June 2000 whether to deploy an NMD system. However, critics like eminent physicist Richard Garwin assert that, instead of opting for deployment, "the best way to defend against possible attack is to prevent countries like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq from getting these missiles in the first place."

Problems With Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • U.S. missile defense technology has yet to prove that it can reliably protect against even a small number of ballistic missiles employing simple maneuvers.
  • The threats that an NMD system is meant to address have been greatly exaggerated.
  • The resurgence of Star Wars has been politically driven, spurred on by intensive lobbying by a network of major weapons contractors and conservative think tanks.


Despite the fact that U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts have yet to produce a single workable device, they are the most expensive weapons program in the Pentagon budget, at over $4 billion per year. Star Wars research is divided into two major components: 1) National Missile Defense (NMD), designed to defend U.S. territory against long-range ballistic missiles, which is slated to receive $1.3 billion in the FY 2000 budget; and 2) Theater Missile Defense (TMD), aimed at protecting against medium-range ballistic missiles and scheduled to get more than $2.9 billion in FY 2000.

Lockheed Martin's Theater High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD)-a troubled $15.4 billion project that is part of the TMD program-offers a case study of the kind of wishful thinking that has helped sustain missile defense budgets at multibillion dollar levels. THAAD has succeeded in only two of its eight tests, an achievement that David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists says falls far short of demonstrating "that THAAD will be operationally effective against real-world missiles." Yet on the basis of just two successful target intercepts, THAAD boosters are pressing to accelerate the planned deployment date. By contrast, the Patriot missile system, which performed far worse than advertised in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and has a far less demanding mission than THAAD, succeeded in 17 of 17 tests before being deployed. And the Center for Defense Information has noted that the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile defense system, which was fully operational for only four months in the mid-1970s before Congress pulled the plug, underwent 111 tests, including 58 successful target intercepts in 70 attempts.

The THAAD program epitomizes the "rush to failure" approach to missile defense research that was described in a February 1998 report by a Pentagon-appointed panel chaired by former Air Force Secretary Larry Welch. The Welch report argued that the failures of THAAD and other missile defense programs were not the result of "random" malfunctions but an indication of systematic flaws in design, planning, and management.

Yet even if they were managed with unparalleled efficiency, U.S. missile defense programs face more fundamental problems: the element of speed and surprise enjoyed by an attacker, the sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons, and the ability to create relatively cheap decoys that can confuse and overwhelm even the most sophisticated defensive system all combine to make the prospects for an effective technological defense against even a limited nuclear attack extremely daunting. The challenges faced by THAAD pale in comparison with the requirements for an NMD system, which is supposed to use ground-based interceptors to attack incoming missiles outside the atmosphere, long before they reach U.S. soil. As Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)-a trained physicist and the lone House Republican to vote against NMD deployment-has put it, "I really don't think it can be made to work without a fairly high probability of failing."

Strangely, NMD advocates want to spend billions on one of the least likely threats to U.S. security, attack by a long-range ballistic missile. Despite all the heat generated by the investigation of alleged Chinese nuclear espionage, headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA), China still has what investigative journalist Bill Mesler has aptly described as an "aging arsenal of some two dozen single-warhead, liquid-fueled ICBMs" that "more closely resembles U.S. warhead technology from the 1950s than anything designed in recent decades." Even if China has made strides toward developing more capable missiles with multiple warheads, Washington's insistence on deploying an NMD system is highly counterproductive, as it is the one sure way to prod Beijing into building new ballistic missiles in large numbers. And North Korea is years away from developing a reliable ballistic missile system that could deliver a nuclear warhead to U.S. territory.

No U.S. adversary would be foolish enough to launch a first strike on the U.S. with a small number of nuclear missiles-whose point of origin can be easily tracked-when the likely result would be a devastating counterattack by thousands of U.S. nuclear warheads. The most likely scenario for an attack on the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction-in a suitcase or other low-tech "delivery vehicle"-is the method least effectively deterred by the deployment of a high-tech NMD system.

A change in the direction of U.S. policy will require doing battle with the Star Wars lobby, spearheaded by companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and TRW, who have been divvying up billions of dollars in missile defense contracts. These four Star Wars contractors spent $23 million on lobbying and $4 million in campaign contributions in 1997/98 and have been major contributors to Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy (CSP), a pro-Star Wars think tank that has worked closely with missile defense advocates on Capitol Hill. Gaffney's organization has singled out former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld-whose 1998 report on missile threats to the U.S. has been used to promote Star Wars deployment-as a "special friend" and the winner of CSP's coveted "Keeper of the Flame" award for 1998.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • Instead of pursuing a costly, unworkable missile defense program, the U.S. government should support preventive measures like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
  • The U.S. should redouble its diplomatic efforts to bargain away nascent nuclear weapons programs in North Korea, Pakistan, and India.
  • The ultimate goal of U.S. nuclear strategy should be the abolition of nuclear weapons.

While Congress and the White House bicker about how quickly to move on an ill-conceived, costly, and unreliable missile defense program, the Clinton administration is squandering valuable time that could be used to promote cooperative measures for the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, the only truly reliable "defense" against this threat of mass destruction. A series of provocative actions toward Russia-from the expansion of NATO, to the bombing of Kosovo without UN authorization, to persistent statements by key U.S. officials about promoting missile defenses and withdrawing from the ABM treaty-have stalled momentum toward U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons reductions and strengthened hardliners in Moscow who want to increase Russia's reliance on such weapons.

Repairing relations with Russia and taking innovative steps to get U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions back on track should be the top priority of U.S. policymakers. This new approach should include increased funding for the Nunn-Lugar program, which has helped finance the destruction of Russian nuclear warheads and weapons facilities; initiation of a series of reciprocal reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces that can be pursued outside the START II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) process, which has been stalled in the Russian Duma; and establishment of a joint U.S.-Russian commission on security issues, which could address broader Russian concerns such as NATO expansion and the resolution of ethnic conflicts in and around Russia's borders.

Within the realm of existing agreements, members of the Senate should be urged to support the Clinton administration's effort to achieve U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has been held up by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC). U.S. ratification of the CTBT should be pursued concurrently with efforts to cut the Department of Energy's 10-year, $40 billion subcritical testing program, which would undercut the spirit of the CTBT by giving the U.S. the capability to create new nuclear weapons designs without conducting underground tests. The Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement designed to limit the flow of technology needed to build long-range ballistic missiles, should be revised to provide stronger enforcement incentives and should be expanded to include more nations.

Ultimately the U.S. should strive for a nuclear weapons-free world by joining the New Agenda Coalition, an effort originally launched by "middle powers" like Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden and currently enjoying the support of over 40 nations. Promoting a no-first-use NATO policy regarding nuclear arms would mark another important step forward for efforts to delegitimize weapons of mass destruction as instruments of government policy.

At the regional level, the Clinton administration should build on the nuclear framework agreement with North Korea, which holds out hope of scaling back and eventually eliminating that nation's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs if incorporated into an overall improvement in U.S.-North Korean economic and political relations. Getting U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions back on track and supporting multilateral efforts toward nuclear abolition would also give the U.S. much greater credibility in promoting wide-ranging security discussions between India and Pakistan aimed at capping and eventually eliminating their nascent nuclear programs. The unwillingness of the U.S. and Russia to meet their commitments under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968-to reduce and eventually eliminate their vast arsenals of nuclear weaponry-has been a major political obstacle to efforts to prevent regional powers like India and Pakistan from pursuing the development of their own nuclear capabilities.

As for missile defense, a modest program of research-in the range of a few hundred million dollars per year and focused primarily on improving the performance of a medium-range defensive shield to replace the current Patriot system-is justified as a way to limit the potential damage posed by the use (or threat of use) of medium-range missiles. But the main focus of the U.S. government's energy and resources should be on preventive measures, not pie-in-the-sky defensive schemes that may do more harm than good.

William D. Hartung is a Senior Research Fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research. He also serves as the Director of the Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center, where Michelle Ciarrocca is a Research Associate.

Sources for More Information


Council for a Livable World
110 Maryland Avenue NE, Suite 409
Washington, DC 20002
Voice: (202) 543-4100
Fax: (202) 546-6297

Disarmament Clearinghouse
1101 14th Street NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20005
Voice: (202) 898-0150
Fax: (202) 898-0172

Fourth Freedom Forum and Project Abolition
803 North Main Street
Goshen, IN 46528-2632
Voice: (800) 233-6786
Fax: (219) 534-4937

Union of Concerned Scientists
1616 P Street NW, Suite 310
Washington, DC 20036
Voice: (202) 332-0900
Fax: (202) 332-0905


Acronym Institute

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers


George Bunn, et al., Accelerating the Entry into Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: The Article XIV Special Conference (Washington: Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, May 1999). Available online at:

Joseph Cirincione and Frank von Hippel, eds., The Last Fifteen Minutes: Ballistic Missile Defense in Perspective (Washington: Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, May 1996). Available online at:

Jump-START: Retaking the Initiative to Reduce Post-cold war Nuclear Dangers (Washington: Committee on Nuclear Policy, February 1999). Available online at:

The Report of the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (Japan Institute of International Affairs and Hiroshima Peace Institute, July 1999). Available online at:

The Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (Commonwealth of Australia, August 1996). Available online at:

U.N. Draft Resolution on a New Nuclear Agenda, formulated by the Eight Nation New Agenda Coalition, October 27, 1998. Available online at:

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