The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.

National Missile Defense Program:
a porous shield inviting a renewed arms race

United States national security against hostile incoming missiles is a desirable goal, but the proposed method, the National Missile Defense (NMD) Program, fails at this goal. “Essentially what you’re trying to do is... shoot a bullet with bullet... and having success when that bullet has a closing speed of 14,000 miles per hour,” State Department Spokesperson James Rubin explains, “this is an enormously difficult challenge.”

Scientists and security experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyze Rubin’s “challenge” to be insurmoutable, both technically and policy-wise. They presented their qualified summary: “The NMD system under development by the US would be ineffective against even limited ballistic missile attacks from emerging missile states. Moreover, its deployment would increase nuclear dangers from Russia and China, and impede cooperation with these countries in international efforts to control the proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The US should reconsider its options for countering the threats posed by long-range ballistic missiles and shelve the current NMD plans as unworkable and counterproductive.”

On April 27, Peace Action sponsored a talk at MIT titled “Waste, Fraud, and False Security,” at which MA representative Barney Frank spoke of the billions of tax dollars that could be better spent on other programs, former TRW senior engineer Dr. Nira Schwarz testified how her contractor company falsified results to boost review support, and UCS Senior Staff Scientist and MIT Security Studies Program Visiting Scholar Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund explained why the program creates a false sense of security while putting America and the world in greater danger.

Simply put, the NMD system cannot achieve its stated purpose of protecting the US from attacks by a limited number of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear, biological, or chemcial warheads for two overwhelming reasons: limited security benefits and negative implications for nuclear and arms control.

Limited security benefits:

Full NMD deployment would not only fail to defend against ICBMs because of submunitions and countermeasures, but also would not address more available and more optimal means of delivery by emerging nuclear states such as short- range missiles and terrorist tactics.

Because the NMD uses one rocket to launch each kill vehicle, which would disable a warhead by smashing into it head on, ICBMs armed with chemical and biological warheads could easily overcome the NMD by dividing the warhead into submunitions. Early in its flight, the dozens of smaller warheads would disperse in space, making it impossible for the NMD to defeat the threat.

Larger nuclear warheads could also bypass the NMD system by using technologically simple and inexpensive countermeasures. One method is anti-simulation balloon decoys that use mylar balloons that inflate in space with technology similar to airbags in cars. While one balloon hides the real warhead, other balloons hide small heaters, effectively fooling both radars on the ground and infra-red sensors on satellites and the kill vehicle. Another method is cooling shrouds for the warheads, which again mask the target from sensors.

Any country that has already devoted enourmous resources to developing and/or acquiring long-range missiles and the warhead of mass destruction could easily develop countermeasures to NMD. Furthermore, any government with the capability and motivation to attack the US with ICBMs would also be motivated to deploy countermeasures with the missiles. Dr. Gronlund clarifies that the US is inconsistently “assuming a threat that is very capable on the one hand of being able to build long-range missiles, and yet, at the same time, not capable of doing simplethings to fool or defeat the U.S. missile defense.”

In addition, scientists at UCS point out: “Long-range ballistic missiles may be the new international status symbol but they have a serious drawback for the attacker: it is clear who launched them. The US has made it abundantly clear that if it can identify the attacker, it would retaliate with overwhelming force.” ICBMs would not be the delivery weapon of choice for countries or groups to attack the US.

Althernative means, such as short-ranged missiles launched from ships and jets, are much less expensive and less complicated to operate. Also, a Russian physicist who attended the MIT talk, and who used to work on the Russian counterpart of NMD before the program was scrapped for its unachievable objective, described in detail what he would imagine a much more effective terrorist plan could be. The plan makes NMD seem like a deadbolt on a steel door while the assailant is breaking a window and entering.

And while the planned NMD system is unlikely to defend against real-world threats, the security penalties are both real and far reaching.

Implications for nuclear and arms control:

The Clinton administration has stated that it will not allow global objections to block NMD deployment and that it would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty if needed, even though the administration continues to describe the ABM Treaty as “central to US security objectives.” French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin warned that “the global strategic equilibium could be threatened” by US efforts “to free itself from international discipline in the field of strategic weapons.”

Violation of or withdrawal from the ABM Treaty to deploy the US NMD would not only diminish any remaining US credibility with other states, but also set off a renewed arms race and threaten US national security.


“Russia is firmly against any violation of the ABM Treaty, which has prevented large-scale nuclear tragedies since 1972,” stated Russain Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. NMD is incompatible with deep nuclear arsenal reductions to a few hundred missiles on each side. Russia would also continue to rely on the elevated state of readiness for its nuclear forces, thereby maintaining the catestrophic risk of accidental or unauthorized launches. Together, any error in Russia’s launch-on-warning system would result in thousands of missile heading for the US, the greatest threat to US security which already exists today.

Additionally, Russia would reject the START II treaty and deploy missiles with multiple warheads and other NMD countermeasures, while increasing emphasis on short-range tacticle nuclear weapons, reversing all progress made over the last decade. These plans would nullify the NMD while encouraging Russia to expand its arsenal.


While China is not a part of the ABM Treaty, it is threatened by NMD because of its limited deterrent force. NMD deployment, scheduled for 2005 if approved, would strongly affect Chinese strategic planning, and will influence both the pace and scale of China’s missile force modernization program, leading to more nuclear weapons aimed at the US and further undermining US security.

Secondary Effects

A Chinese nuclear buildup to overcome NMD could lead to an Indian, then Pakistani buildup, increasing tensions in Asia and around the world. And in the face of ABM Treaty violation and US NMD deployment, Russia and China will be unconvinced to participate in future negotiations and treaties controling arms or halting production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, thus shattering US nonproliferation goals and increasing the likelihood of rogue groups acquring dangerous weapons, while eroding US-Russia and US-China relationships.

On November 5, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution, sponsored by Russia, China, and Belarus, calling for strict compliance with the ABM Treaty. Only three countries (Israel, Latvia, and Micronesia) joined the US in opposing the resolution.

Aside from the billions of dollars diverted form other programs just for the first stage, the ultimate price of a US NMD system may well be a world with more missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Expert Conclusion (in a letter to President Clinton from the scientists and secuity experts at UCS):

Rather than devoting resources to national missile defenses, the United States should instead focus on programs to combat existing, more pressing threats. For example, a higher priority should be placed on bringing military and civil weapon-usable fissile material in the former Soviet republics under better control and accelerating safe, verified dismantlement of Russian nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.

In sum, proposals to deploy NMD are misguided and irresponsible. National missile defenses do not address the existing and most likely future threats to the US homeland and are diverting valuable resources. Instead, NMD will destroy much of one of the United States’ primary tools for maintaining and increasing national security: arms control. We urge you to weigh carefully the negligible benefits and substantial costs of deploying NMD.

For technical summaries and expert analysis about NMD, including a video presentation on countermeasures, details about the ABM treaty, and implications on NMD by the sea-based Navy Theater Wide interceptors, please visit the UCS website at The Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Brattle Square, Cambridge, was founded in 1969 by MIT faculty members and students concerned about the misuse of science and technology in society.


The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.