Ever since the Soviet Union began launching satellites (and dogs) into orbit in 1957, thus kicking off the Space Race, successive American administrations have been vigorously pursuing the “Holy Grail” of BMD, or ballistic missile defence. From Eisenhower Project Safeguard to Trump’s Space Marines, successive administrations have devoted decades of intellect and treasure to pursuing a return to the geographical invulnerability that was lost with the dawn of the missile age. From the beginning, the end goal has been to end the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) via a layered defence starting with a space-based network of sensors, satellites, interceptors, and even lasers. Only once a mighty shield envelopes the North American continent, it is assumed, will Americans once again be free to continue unapologetically exporting liberty, democracy, and happiness around the world.

The newest chapter in this space-saga began with the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2018, which was signed by Trump in December 2017.  The NDAA requires the development of a space-based sensor architecture, a space-based ballistic missile intercept layer, and a space-based test bed for weapons research and development.[1]Worsening diplomatic relations with North Korea in latter 2017, as well as the rogue state’s test of thermonuclear weapon in September, resulted in significant increases on missile defence spending in the 2018 NDAA,[2]as well as a focus upon the development of hypersonic offensive and defensive capabilities.[3]Once again, the Americans are accelerating their development of BMD capabilities in response to the alleged threats of North Korea and Iran, yet in ways that risk destabilizing the success of the 2010 New Start Treaty and further militarizing outer space, while squandering billions of dollars in the process.

Space-based missile defences have been, and continue to be, a very bad idea. Not only are they prohibitively expensive, and politically destabilizing, but they also don’t work. The cost of employing countermeasures to foil either ground-based or space-based missile defence systems is peanuts compared to the costs of employing such systems in the first place, and the ability of such systems to counter multiple simultaneous launches is minimal. Yet the idea of BMD defence is both politically powerful and ideologically seductive, which perhaps explains its longevity since the mid-20thcentury.

How to Cancel the Apocalypse

American interest in missile defence began in the 1940s as a result of the WWII German V-2 program, and the 1946 Stilwell Report, which concluded that high-speed, long-range missiles were inevitable in the near future. To meet this threat, the Report advocated for missile interceptors, which the Department of Defence (DoD) promptly began trying to develop through a series of research programs with monikers like “Project Wizard” and “Thumper.”[4]Because of the difficulties of hitting a bullet with a bullet (as Eisenhower once characterized BMD operations in 1946), early interceptors such as the Nike-II were tipped with nuclear weapons, and relied upon destroying the target with close-proximity detonation rather than attempting a more difficult “kinetic-kill.”

BMD projects generally attempt to target missiles during one of three phases in its flight. Boost phase provides the best opportunity for interception as the missile is still on one piece, is moving relatively slowly, and is easily visible on radar because of its size and exhaust pattern. Yet the short duration of the boost-phase means that an interceptor must be launched quickly and from relatively close proximity. The mid-phase, after the missile exits the atmosphere, is the longest of the three phases and provides the best chance of interception by non-theatre defences, yet also allows the deployment of countermeasures. The terminal phase, once the missile warhead(s) re-enters the atmosphere, is the shortest of the three-phases with an extremely narrow window for interception.

As usual, the history of BMD is a litany of terrifying ideas taken far too seriously. In 1960, under the umbrella of Project Defender, and in the pursuit of weirdly-named BAMBI (Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept), American researchers began theorizing space station-based interceptors capable of launching wire nets at incoming missiles to entangle and damage them. Naturally, this led to work on space-based lasers, most famously in a Reagan-era bid to destroy incoming ballistic missiles with X-ray lasers powered by controlled nuclear detonations (Project Excalibur).[5]By comparison, the concurrent attempt to blast missiles out of the sky with pellets fired from a nuclear shotgun (Project Prometheus) seems almost blasé.[6]

The only BMD schemes that have been both tested and implemented have involved ground-based missiles designed for mid-phase interceptions. In the mid-1960s, American Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara began planning “Sentinel,” a system of 17 missile-defence sites spread around the US with both mid-phase and terminal-phase nuclear-tipped interceptors for layered defence.[7]In 1969, the new Nixon administration revised “Sentinel” into “Safeguard,” reducing the number of interceptor sites and moving them away from large cities.[8]Safeguard was eventually reduced to two sites by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, and further reduced to one side by a Treaty amendment in 1974. This single site was built in North Dakota to protect a field of intercontinental “Minuteman” missiles, but was closed only a year later after Congress decided that imminent Soviet deployment of multiple-warhead ICBMs made such defences irrelevant. The loss on the program was more than $5 billion.[9]

BMD was revived by Reagan in 1983 as a means to preventing the nuclear apocalypse that Reagan both deeply feared and believed was imminent.[10]In a March 23 address, during one of the most tense periods of Soviet-American relations, Reagan announced a space-based solution to mutually assured destruction (MAD):

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?

I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of the century… And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.”[11]

Reagan was made aware of the potential for a space-based BMD solution in 1967 during a visit to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, run by Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb.[12]Teller, who was also a potential model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, had been peddling the possibility of space-based X-ray lasers for years, and found an ally in Reagan and other more hawkish members of Reagan’s cabinet.  In the midst of the Euromissile Crisis, and fighting against defence spending cuts from a hostile Congress, Reagan understood the resulting Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) as a silver bullet against both communist aggression and American vulnerability.

Although SDI was never feasible with 1980s technology, it did play a significant role in the final years of the Cold War. Many American triumphalists have argued that Reagan’s massive military spending on project including SDI hastened the end of the conflict by breaking the Soviet economy, but this is rather blatantly untrue. The Soviets, by all accounts, were not afraid of SDI, since they understood that it most likely wouldn’t work, and, even if it did, appropriate countermeasures were both cheap and easy to implement.[13]Instead, they were afraid that the program was part of a secret US attempt to improve American survivability following a nuclear exchange – in which the US would attempt to destroy the majority of the Soviet missile capacity in a surprise attack, and use SDI assets to mop up the counterstrike.[14]

SDI thus became a political tool, rather than a tangible American asset. Even as Teller’s experiments to produce a working laser faltered, the spectre of SDI overshadowed American-Soviet relations. George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989, once argued that “the Strategic Defense Initiative in fact proved to be the ultimate bargaining chip,”[15]yet this is once again misleading. The announcement of SDI in 1983 coincided with the most fraught period of Soviet-American relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the conflict very nearly escalated to a nuclear exchange.[16]In 1984, bipolar relations between Reagan and Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko remained frozen. Only with the ascendance of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 did the possibility of Soviet-American rapprochement appear, and in this process SDI became more of a hindrance than an asset.

After all, Reagan’s fixation with SDI was critical in the failure of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, sinking one of the more promising chances to accomplish nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev asked Reagan to give up SDI testing for 10 years in exchange for dismantling all intermediate and strategic nuclear weapons. Reagan claimed during the Summit that he wished to collaborate with Soviet scientists on a space-based ballistic missile shield, then freely share the results with the world, yet few (even among Reagan’s own Cabinet) believed this offer. In Gorbachev’s words at Reykjavik: “Excuse me Mr. President…but I cannot take your idea of sharing SDI seriously. You are not willing to share with us oil well equipment, digitally guided machine tools, or even milking machines. Sharing SDI would provoke a second American revolution!”[17]

By 1987, following Iran-Contra, the Republican’s loss of both houses, and a one-third reduction in the SDI budget, the project was on its way to the historical trash heap. Gorbachev decided to decouple arms control and SDI, signing the INF Treaty late in the year, and focus upon the internal economic and political issues slowly tearing the Soviet Union apart. Furthermore, the American Physical Society published a report evaluating progress towards Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), and concluded that another decade of research would be required simply to evaluate the “potential effectiveness and survivability” of directed energy systems.[18]Major questions remained to be answered, including how the Soviets would react to the deployment of a space-based laser defence system, how the US would counter weapons which could evade the shield by remaining in atmosphere (cruise missiles and low-trajectory submarine-launched missiles), the system’s vulnerability to anti-satellite weapons, and the final cost.[19]

In response to these criticisms, Dr. Lowell Wood, also of Livermore Laboratories, proposed a more conventional solution. As early as 1984 the Strategic Defence Initiative Organization (SDIO) which oversaw the constellation of projects known as SDI had begun experimenting with kinetic-kill homing interceptors. In 1987, these interceptors had replaced DEWs at the core of the SDI project, although the original plans to station interceptors in space on large garage-like satellites made them highly vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons. Instead, Wood proposed a constellation of free-floating autonomous interceptors that would activate in the event of a ballistic missile launch, envisioning thousands of “Brilliant Pebbles” spread throughout Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).[20]These small, cheap, and mass-produced interceptors would greatly lower the cost of effective BMD, and could be assembled mostly through existing technology.

Yet the Brilliant Pebbles project, like many initiatives before it, was not to survive the fickle hearts of American senators. Under President George H.W. Bush, partially as a result of the Gulf War, American interest began to turn towards theatre missiles or providing protection against limited missile strikes (PALS). This required ground-based systems, which, along with Brilliant Pebbles were incorporated into a Global PALS (GPALS) architecture. Yet the ground-based systems were consistently prioritized over their space-based counterparts, and a mixture of Congressional hostility and funding shortfalls forced the termination of Brilliant Pebbles in 1993.[21]

Part of the impetus for ending Brilliant Pebbles was a renewed interest from the Clinton Regime in the 1972 ABM Treaty, which space-based BMD, whether lasers or interceptors, were technically violating.[22] The Clinton administration was more interested than its Republican predecessors on engaging the Russians on BMD issues, especially clarifying the difference between Treaty-prohibited strategic missile defence and Treaty-compliant regional missile defence on the basis of interceptor speed.[23]Yet after Republicans seized control of both Houses in 1994, Clinton came under increasing pressure to continue pursuit of strategic BMD. In 1998, a dire report spearheaded by future attack dog Donald Rumsfield on the potential ICBM threats of Iran and North Korea roughly coincided with a North Korean satellite launch test, forcing Clinton into a corner.[24]Less than a year later he would sign the controversial National Missile Defence Act, recommitting the US to developing an effective BMD shield over all US territory.[25]

BMD, like many aspects of American policy, was forever altered by 9/11. The possibility of American vulnerability to ballistic missiles, whether launched by rogue states or terrorist groups, supercharged the pursuit of an interceptor defense network. In late 2002, President Bush Jr. withdrew the US from the ABM Treaty, giving Rumsfield (now Secretary of Defense) free reign to develop and deploy ground-based midcourse defence (GMD) interceptors at sites in Alaska and California. By the end of Bush’s second term in 2008, 20 interceptors had been deployed at the two sites, with plans for another 24 in the works.[26]

Yet the GMD interceptors were plagued with problems.  Rumsfield’s rushed development and implementation schedule had created both mechanical and logistical problems that inflated the program’s cost and greatly reduced its potential efficacy. The interceptors were not successfully intercept-tested before deployment, have only a 50 percent success rate in subsequent tests, and have not been tested against tumbling warheads, realistic countermeasures, or missiles travelling at similar speeds and distances to a potential Iranian and North Korean-launched ICBM. Altogether, the program had cost in excess of $40 billion dollars by 2017, nearly one billion per deployed interceptor.[27]

While President Trump has famously remarked that the GMD system has a 97 percent kill rate, this assumes the firing of four interceptors at one threat under ideal operating conditions. If a determined assailant (say North Korea) were to fire multiple missiles, especially ones with effective countermeasures, the odds of success quickly fall to terrifying lows. And, of course, if an assailant were to fire more than a few missiles simultaneously, the existing GMD would be quickly overwhelmed.[28]

Yet the spectre of American BMD, ineffective as it may currently be, has motivated states like Russia and China to increase production both of warheads and of missile delivery vehicles. In fact, attempts to defeat conventional BMD has sparked a small arms race in pursuit of BMD-proof systems travelling at hypersonic speeds…

Don Quixote famously charged Spanish windmills he mistook for enemy knights. The American BMD development programs have squandered billions on defensive systems that, if built, will force their competitors into another arms race. Such an arms race will necessitate the militarization of space, the significant expansions of nuclear arsenals, and an increasing variety of nuclear-capable delivery systems. In tilting at windmills, the Americans are forcing the world into another nuclear confrontation.

President Merkin Muffley: I will not go down in history as the greatest mass-murderer since Adolf Hitler.

General “Buck” Turgidson: Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American People than with your image in the history books.

[1]Sections 1683, 1685, and 1688.https://docs.house.gov/billsthisweek/20171113/HRPT-115-HR2810.pdf




[5]Smith, R. Jeffrey. “Experts Cast Doubts on X-Ray Laser.” Science230, no. 4726 (1985): 646-48. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.wlu.ca/stable/1695921.

[6]https://www-tandfonline-com.libproxy.wlu.ca/doi/pdf/10.1080/08929889008426332?needAccess=true, 203.


[8]Fergusson, James. Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence, 1954-2009. Studies in Canadian Military History. Edited by Dean F. Oliver Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. 58.


[10]Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.  New York: Random House, 2005.



[13]Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.


[15]Shultz, George P. Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993. 264.


[17]Matlock Jr., Jack F. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.  New York: Random House, 2004. 222.




[21]http://highfrontier.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/The-Rise-and-Fall-of-Brilliant-Pebbles-Baucom.pdf  184.




[25]It is the policy of the United States 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 (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate).”https://www.congress.gov/106/bills/s269/BILLS-106s269pcs.pdf




I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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