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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
United States

Treaty Withdrawal Accelerates Missile Debate

September 2019
By Kingston Reif

Following the formal collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on Aug. 2, attention has turned to how the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia should proceed in a world without the treaty, in particular whether they should pursue development of new ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles to counter Russia and China.

The United States launches a cruise missile on Aug. 18, a test that would have violated the INF Treaty. (Photo: Defense Department)No sooner had the United States officially withdrawn from the agreement than newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper called for the rapid development and fielding of U.S. missiles once prohibited by it.

On Aug. 18, the Defense Department conducted its first test of such a missile, a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile. In a statement, the department said the “test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight.” The missile was launched from a MK-41 launcher affixed to a mobile trailer.

The test was not of an operational system that the Pentagon plans to field, but rather a political signal that the United States can and will pursue such systems in the absence of the INF Treaty.

The MK-41 launcher is the same launcher, albeit in a different configuration, that is currently fielded in Romania and will soon be fielded in Poland as part of NATO’s missile defense system. Russia long has claimed that this launcher was a violation of the INF Treaty.

A test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of about 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers is scheduled for later this year.

U.S. plans have raised concerns among friendly and rival nations. Several U.S. allies, for example, sought to distance themselves from Esper’s comments, triggering questions of whether the United States can persuade them to host new intermediate-range missiles. In addition, Russia and China have strongly criticized the prospect of new U.S. missile deployments, creating fears about a new, more dangerous phase of global great-power military competition.

In Congress, lawmakers are divided largely along party lines on the wisdom of withdrawing from the treaty and the case for adding the missiles to the U.S. military arsenal.

Esper told reporters on Aug. 2 that he would like to see the deployment of U.S. conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, ideally as soon as possible.

The Defense Department requested nearly $100 million in its fiscal year 2020 budget to develop three types of intermediate-range missiles. (See ACT, May 2019.) The INF Treaty required the United States and Russia to eliminate permanently all their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

Esper noted, however, that a decision to deploy such missiles would likely be years away, given that it will take time to develop new missiles and a plan for their use, as well as consult with allies in Europe and Asia about potentially basing them on their territory.

Supporters of pursuing the missiles have argued that the weapons would provide more U.S. military options against Russia and especially China, which was not a party to the treaty and has deployed large numbers of missiles with ranges that Washington and Moscow were long prohibited from deploying.

According to one recent study published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, such missiles “could arrest, if not reverse, the erosion of longstanding American military advantages, enhance warfighting, shore up the U.S. competitive position, and ultimately strengthen deterrence, the cornerstone of U.S. global strategy.”


Critics have countered that the U.S. military can deter any Russian or Chinese aggression by continuing to field ground-, air-, and sea-launched missiles that were never limited by the accord. They have also said that such intermediate-range weapons would need to be deployed on the territory of allies neighboring Russia or China to be of meaningful military value. So far, no country has said that it would be willing to host such missiles.


A Question of Basing

In Europe, several countries, including Poland, have made it clear that any deployment of new INF Treaty-range missiles would have to be approved by all NATO members. (See ACT, March 2019.)

At the June meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance is considering several potential paths in a world without the INF Treaty, including additional military exercise programs; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; air and missile defenses; and conventional capabilities. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

Stoltenberg has repeatedly stated that NATO does not intend to deploy new nuclear missiles in Europe, but has been silent on whether the alliance is considering the deployment of conventional variants.

Although countering Russia was the administration’s primary rationale for withdrawing from the treaty, proponents of developing intermediate-range missiles see the greatest utility for them in Asia. Where the Pentagon could base the missiles in East Asia, outside the U.S. territory of Guam, remains to be seen. Despite concerns about China’s growing military power and more assertive behavior in the region, allies such as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea have not appeared eager to host them.

Following Esper’s comments, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that basing intermediate-range missiles has “not been asked of us,” is “not being considered,” and has “not been put to us.” A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson said, “We have not internally reviewed the issue [of basing U.S. intermediate-range missiles] and have no plan to do so.”

Russia and China Object

Russia and China threatened to respond to any U.S. INF Treaty-range missile deployments.

“If Russia obtains reliable information whereby the United States completes the development of these systems and starts to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Aug. 5.

He added that Russia “will not deploy them in any given region until U.S.-made intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles are deployed there,” but Stoltenberg criticized this proposal, saying that “to offer a moratorium to replace an effective, legal ban is not credible.”

Putin said on Aug. 21 that the U.S. test of a ground-launched Tomahawk missile “means a new threat appearing that we must respond to.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the U.S. test of a Tomahawk missile from the MK-41 launcher vindicated Russia’s charge that those launchers fielded in Europe violated the treaty.

“We have been objecting for years that the MK-41, according to the manufacturer’s description, can launch not only anti-ballistic missiles, but also combat cruise missiles,” Lavrov told reporters on Aug. 21.

Fu Cong, director-general of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, warned China’s “neighbors to exercise prudence and not to allow the U.S. deployment of intermediate-range missiles on their territory.”

“If the U.S. deploys [intermediate-range] missiles in this part of the world, at the doorstep of China, China will be forced to take countermeasures,” he added.

Meanwhile, North Korea said on Aug. 14 that any deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles in South Korea would be “a reckless act of escalating regional tension, an act that may spark off a new Cold War and arms race in the Far Eastern region.”

The Debate in Congress

The Trump administration’s push for new intermediate-range missiles has been controversial in Congress. The Democratic-led House version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and defense appropriations bill eliminated the Pentagon’s funding request for the missiles.

The administration has yet to answer repeated congressional calls for information on its decision to withdraw from the treaty or a strategy to prevent Russia from deploying additional and new types of intermediate-range missiles in the absence of the agreement.

The House version of the NDAA would prohibit the Pentagon from spending money to develop new missiles until it meets several conditions. These include presenting a detailed arms control proposal to replace the INF Treaty, demonstrating what military requirements will be met by new intermediate-range missiles, and identifying which countries would be willing to host the missiles. The draft legislation requires that any potential European deployment have the support of NATO.

The bill also requires the Pentagon to conduct an analysis of alternatives that considers other ballistic or cruise missile systems, including sea- and air-launched missiles, that could meet current capability gaps due to the restrictions formerly imposed by the now-defunct INF Treaty.

Given the Republican-led Senate’s support for developing the intermediate-range missiles, the issue is likely to be a contentious one when the two chambers try to reconcile their versions of the defense authorization and appropriations bills in the coming weeks.

The United States acts quickly to test a weapon once prohibited by the INF Treaty.

Bolton Renews New START Criticism

September 2019
By Kingston Reif

National Security Advisor John Bolton has continued to disparage the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), casting further doubt on the future of the agreement as the Trump administration seeks a more comprehensive nuclear arms control deal.

National Security Advisor John Bolton (right) listens to U.S. President Donald Trump at a July 18 White House meeting. Recent Bolton comments have created doubt that the United States will seek to extend New START. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)Echoing comments he made in a June interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Bolton told the Young America Foundation’s annual National Conservative Student Conference on July 30 that “while no decision has been made,” New START is “unlikely to be extended.” (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

New START “was flawed from the beginning,” Bolton said, noting that it “did not cover short-range tactical nuclear weapons or new Russian delivery systems.”

“Why extend a flawed system just to say you have a treaty,” he added. “We need to focus on something better, and we will.”

New START caps deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads, 700 missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 missile launchers and bombers each. The treaty is slated to expire in February 2021, but can be extended for up to five years by agreement of the U.S. and Russian presidents.

Previously, Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed interest in an extension, but Russia has raised concerns about U.S. implementation of the treaty that it says must be resolved.

Other administration officials have echoed Bolton’s criticism. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Aug. 2 that New START should include the new longer-range strategic weapons Russia is developing, Russia’s larger arsenal of shorter-range nonstrategic weapons, and other nuclear powers, namely China.

Bolton’s latest denunciation of the treaty came just days before the U.S. withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on Aug. 2. New START is now the only remaining agreement constraining the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. If the treaty disappears with nothing to replace it, there will be no legally binding limits on the size of the two arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.


Despite Bolton’s criticism, U.S. military leaders continue to tout the benefits of the treaty, including Vice Admiral David Kriete, deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM).

“When it comes to…New START…from a STRATCOM perspective, we like the idea of arms control agreements, particularly with Russia, that provide us with some level of assurance that at least a portion of their nuclear forces are capped,” he told reporters July 31.

He added that New START “has a very, very robust verification regime…. If we were to lose that for any reason in the future, we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps for the things we get from those verifications.”

Trump told reporters at the White House on Aug. 2 he has “been speaking to Russia about…a pact for nuclear—so that they get rid of some, we get rid of some.”

“We’d probably have to put China in there,” he added, claiming that “China was very, very excited about talking about it, and so is Russia.”

Trump administration officials have provided few details on how they would persuade Russia to limit broader categories of weapons and China to participate in arms control talks for the first time. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Fu Cong, director-general of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Aug. 6 that “given the huge gap between the nuclear arsenals of China and that of the U.S. and the Russian Federation, I don’t think it is reasonable or even fair to expect China to participate in an arms reduction negotiation at this stage.”

Despite White House opposition, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are expressing their support for New START.

By a vote of 236–189, the House on July 11 approved an amendment to the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act offered by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) that would express the view of Congress that the United States should seek to extend New START unless Russia is determined to be violating the agreement or a better agreement is negotiated. Every Democrat, along with five Republican lawmakers, voted to approve the amendment.

The provision, which is based on a bipartisan “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” bill originally introduced in May by Engel and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), would also require several briefings and reports, including an intelligence assessment of how the expiration of New START would affect the size and posture of Russian nuclear forces and the additional intelligence capabilities the United States would need to compensate for the loss of the treaty’s extensive transparency and on-site monitoring provisions.

In addition, the provision would prohibit the use of fiscal year 2020 funds to withdraw from the treaty unless Russia is determined to be in material breach of the agreement.

The Senate version of the defense authorization bill does not include similar language, but some senators are speaking up.

On Aug. 1, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced legislation modeled after the Engel-McCaul bill that calls for an extension of the treaty.

Prospects for extending the treaty appear to be weakening under U.S. criticism.

Kim, Trump Maintain Hope for Nuclear Talks

September 2019
By Catherine Killough

A new letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to U.S. President Donald Trump could raise hopes that stalled U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations could resume in late August, Trump said Aug. 9. Both leaders apparently remain open to diplomacy, even though North Korea has conducted multiple missile launches since July and the United States and South Korea announced plans to resume joint military exercises.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Kim Jong Un meet briefly on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone on June 30. The North Korean visit was the first by a sitting U.S. president. (Photo: Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)“He really wrote a beautiful, three-page—I mean, right from top to bottom—a really beautiful letter. And maybe I’ll release the results of the letter, but it was a very positive letter,” Trump told White House reporters.

Kim is planning to stop testing missiles when U.S.-South Korean military exercises conclude at the end of August, Trump said. The ongoing exercises are a modified version of the annual large-scale Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises that Trump previously labeled “provocative” and canceled at the 2018 Singapore summit.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry initially raised objections to U.S.-South Korean plans to resume military exercises in July, asserting they would constitute “a breach of the main spirit of the June 12 DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement.” In the press conference following the Singapore summit, Trump stated, “We will be stopping the war games,” but offered few details on the suspension of future exercises.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry warned, “With the U.S. unilaterally reneging on its commitments, we are gradually losing our justifications to follow through on the commitments we made with the U.S. as well,” most likely referring to Kim’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing in April 2018.

North Korea has not technically violated that moratorium, but it has conducted six rounds of short-range ballistic missile tests in the span of a month. The increasing frequency of tests may be North Korea’s attempt to build leverage ahead of the possible resumption of nuclear negotiations with the United States.

South Korea has sought to assure Pyongyang that the joint military exercises are part of preparations for the transfer of wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to characterize joint military exercises as costly to the United States and argues that South Korea should contribute more to defense burden-sharing costs. “We get virtually nothing” for stationing U.S. forces in South Korea, Trump said on Aug. 7. South Korea currently covers about half of the overall cost to host the U.S. military, in addition to having funded the nearly $10 billion expansion of the U.S. Army base at Camp Humphreys.

This month, Washington and Seoul restarted negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement, a U.S.-South Korean military spending pact, which expires on Dec. 31. The financial dispute could pose a strain on the alliance and further complicate diplomatic efforts with North Korea as Kim has also set a deadline “for a bold decision” from the United States by the end of the year.

Possibly in the hopes of holding a fourth summit, Trump and Kim have avoided trading direct insults and even held a brief meeting on June 30 at the Demilitarized Zone, where Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea. The two leaders praised the strength of their relationship and agreed to restart working-level talks, but there were few official remarks regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or the prospects for advancing denuclearization and peace.

In a recent sign that preparations for working-level talks are underway, Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative for North Korea, visited Seoul in late August to meet with Japanese and South Korean officials “to further strengthen coordination on the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, according to the State Department.

The announcement came as reports have emerged that Biegun is under consideration to succeed the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Russia. If confirmed, it is not clear who would take the U.S. lead on working-level negotiations with North Korea.

As U.S. and North Korean leaders make nice, a next round of nuclear negotiations remains unscheduled.

Boeing Bows Out of New ICBM Competition

September 2019
By Kingston Reif

The Boeing Co. announced in July that it would not bid on the contract to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system amid controversy in Congress about the project’s rationale and viability.

A Minuteman III missile stands ready in its silo in North Dakota. Plans to replace the land-based component of U.S. nuclear weapons were disrupted in July, when Boeing Co. announced it would not bid on the program. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Getty)“After numerous attempts to resolve concerns within the procurement process, Boeing has informed the Air Force that it will not bid [on] Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) under the current acquisition approach,” said Todd Blecher, a company spokesman.

First reported by Inside Defense on July 24, the company’s exit leaves Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. as the only company left competing for the contract.

In August 2017, the Air Force selected Boeing and Northrop to proceed with development of the Minuteman III ICBM replacement. (See ACT, October 2017.) On July 16, the Air Force issued a request for proposals for the EMD contract to produce and deploy the system. The service planned to award the contract in the summer of 2020.

Boeing complained, however, that Northrop had “unfair advantage” in the competition after acquiring last year the firm Orbital ATK, one of the nation’s two producers of solid rocket motors. Boeing has asked the Pentagon to adjust the bid acquisition parameters, but it remains to be seen how the Defense Department will respond.

If the department stays the course and moves ahead without competition, it would have less leverage to control costs. There is no precedent for the absence of competition for a development contract the size of the GBSD program.

The Defense Department is planning to replace the Minuteman III missile, its supporting launch control facilities, and command-and-control infrastructure. The plan is to purchase 666 new missiles, 400 of which would be operationally deployed through 2070.

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request included $570 million for research and development for the GBSD program and $112 million to continue the design of the W87-1 warhead to replace the W78 warhead currently carried by the Minuteman III. (See ACT, April 2019.)

The Air Force initially estimated the cost of the GBSD program at $62 billion after inflation, but the Pentagon in August 2016 set the estimated acquisition cost of the program at $85 billion. The $85 billion estimate is at the lower end of an independent Pentagon cost estimate that put the acquisition price tag as high as $150 billion. (See ACT, March 2017.)


The Defense Department completed another independent cost estimate of the program in June, but has yet to disclose whether the projected cost of the program has changed.

The Air Force argues that a new ICBM is necessary because the fleet of 400 deployed Minuteman III missiles is aging into obsolescence and losing its capability to penetrate adversary missile defenses. According to the report of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the life of the Minuteman III “cannot be extended further.”

A 2014 Air Force analysis, however, did not determine that extending the life of the Minuteman III is infeasible. Instead, the study found that the price to build a new missile system would be roughly the same as the cost to maintain the Minuteman III.

The service arrived at this conclusion by comparing the total life-cycle cost of the two options through 2075 and assuming a need to deploy 450 missiles for the entire 50-year service life of the new missile system.

Critics of the GBSD program claim that if the requirements for 450 missiles, a 50-year service life, and new capabilities are relaxed, then it is possible to extend the life of the Minuteman III for a period of time beyond 2030 and at less cost than the current approach.

The Congressional Budget Office projected in 2017 that $17.5 billion in fiscal year 2017 dollars could be saved through 2046 by delaying development of a new ICBM by 20 years and instead extending the life of the Minuteman III by buying new engines and new guidance systems for the missiles. (See ACT, December 2017.)

Citing concerns about the need for and ability to execute the GBSD program as planned, the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and defense appropriations bill passed by the Democratic-led House this summer eliminated the Pentagon’s funding request to proceed to the main development phase of the GBSD program.

Both bills also halved the funding request for the W87-1 warhead and cut $241 million from the Energy Department’s request of $712 million to expand the production of plutonium pits to at least 80 per year in support of the W87-1 life extension program.

A draft version of the House NDAA also would have required an independent study on the benefits, risks, and estimated cost savings of extending the life of the Minuteman III through 2050 and delaying the GBSD program. The provision was stripped out during the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the bill in June.

An amendment to restore the provision on the House floor failed by a vote of 164–264.

The Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee fully funded the administration’s request for the GBSD program, W87-1 warhead, and plutonium-pit production.

Pentagon plans to replace U.S. ICBMs are disrupted by contractor difficulties.

Trump Vetoes Challenge to Arab Arms Sales

September 2019
By Ethan Kessler

Some congressional efforts to curb U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates met an end on July 29, when three Senate votes failed to override President Donald Trump’s vetoes of bipartisan resolutions blocking portions of “emergency” arms exports to the two Arab powers. None of the votes achieved the needed two-thirds majority, with the largest override support garnering 46 of 87 senators voting.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears at a May hearing in Washington. He authored three resolutions on Middle East arms sales that President Donald Trump vetoed on July 29. (Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images)On May 24, the Trump administration originally announced more than $8 billion in potential exports to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, citing a rarely used emergency provision of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) to skirt congressional review. The Senate approved resolutions to block the issuance of licenses on all 22 agreements related to the exports, and the House concurred on July 17 on three of the most controversial, addressing the provision of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and their coproduction in Saudi Arabia. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

All Democratic and independent senators present voted on July 29 to override Trump’s veto, joined by Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Todd Young (Ind.). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voted to override on the last vote after missing the first two. All Republicans voting to override also voted on June 20 to pass at least two of the three resolutions.

In a speech on the Senate floor before the votes, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee and author of all three resolutions, said the Trump administration’s “willingness to turn a blind eye to the wholesale slaughter of civilians [in Yemen] and the murder of journalists and move forward with the sale of these weapons will have lasting implications for America’s moral leadership on the world stage.”

The resolutions were vetoed by Trump five days previously, marking only the third veto of his presidential term and the second regarding U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict, now in its fifth year. White House statements accompanying the veto called the joint resolutions “ ill-conceived and time-consuming” and said they “directly conflict with the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States” and continued claims that the weapons were needed as a “bulwark against the malign activities of Iran and its proxies in the region.”

In other efforts to restrain the administration, the House-approved version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act contains language to prohibit exports of air-to-ground weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Pending negotiations with Senate leaders will determine if the prohibition will continue to stand.

A majority of U.S. senators backed a Congressional effort to limit U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but President Trump’s veto holds.

U.S. Nuclear Warhead Costs Still Rising

September 2019
By Kingston Reif

The estimated cost of sustaining U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure continues to rise, according to the Energy Department’s latest annual report on the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan. Prepared by the department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the July report illustrates the rising cost of the government’s nuclear mission as the Trump administration implements the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which calls for expanding U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities. (See ACT, March 2018.)

The fiscal year 2020 iteration projects more than $392 billion in spending, after inflation, on agency efforts related to sustaining and modernizing the nuclear weapons stockpile over the next 25 years. This is an increase of $13 billion from the 2019 version of the plan. (See ACT, December 2018.)

The NNSA states that the projected growth in spending is “affordable and executable,” but the projected cost of the plan falls at the low end of an estimated range of $386 billion to $423 billion. The agency has historically struggled to complete large infrastructure and facility recapitalization projects on time and on budget.

Overall, the Trump administration is requesting $37.3 billion in fiscal year 2020 for the Defense and Energy departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure, an increase of about $2 billion from the fiscal year 2019 appropriation. (See ACT, April 2019.)

Of that amount, the NNSA is requesting $12.4 billion for its weapons program, an increase of $1.3 billion from the fiscal year 2019 appropriation and $530 million from the projection for fiscal year 2020 in the fiscal year 2019 budget request.

A major source of projected growth in the new stockpile plan is in the area of nuclear warhead life-extension programs. The total cumulative costs over 25 years for these programs increased by approximately $4 billion from the 2019 estimate.

The plan attributes the higher projected costs to “2018 Nuclear Posture Review implementation, refined requirements that increase scope complexity, accelerated production schedule milestones, updated assumptions for future warheads, and the escalation costs of a future year replacing a lower-cost early year.”

The estimated cost under the plan to upgrade the warhead for the existing air-launched cruise missile rose to $11.2 billion, an increase of $1.2 billion from the estimated cost as of last year’s plan.


The estimated cost of the B61 life extension program held steady at $7.6 billion, but the department reported that the program “is experiencing an unresolved technical issue related to the qualification of electrical components used in non-nuclear assemblies,” which is expected to delay the previously planned first production-unit date of March 2020. (See ACT, June 2019.) The plan states that additional “testing is required to ascertain the impacts and whether a change in initial operational capability dates are necessary.”

The NNSA Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation projected in 2017 a total program cost of approximately $10 billion and a two-year delay to the agency’s first production-unit date. (See ACT, June 2017.)

The stockpile plan notes that the NNSA’s goal remains to produce at least 80 plutonium pits per year as directed in the Nuclear Posture Review. (See ACT, June 2018.)

That goal may be difficult to reach. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research organization, reported in April that the agency’s 80-pit goal by 2030 cannot be met. The institute’s study found “no historical precedent to support” achieving such a capability by 2030.

In addition, the stockpile plan reveals that the NNSA and Pentagon have established a “Deeply Buried Target Defeat Team…to determine future options for defeating such targets.” This suggests the administration could consider the development of a new earth-penetrating nuclear weapon. (See ACT, December 2005.)

The Trump administration forecasts spending $392 billion next year to maintain U.S. warheads.

U.S. University to Speed Hypersonic Development

September 2019
By Michael T. Klare

Texas A&M University will build one of the world’s largest wind tunnels on behalf of the U.S. Army Futures Command as part of an accelerating U.S. effort to develop hypersonic weapons, according to an August announcement. The unusual partnership of the university, the Army, and the state of Texas represents a throwback to the Cold War, when prominent educational institutions built and managed major military research facilities, such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, established by the University of California, Berkeley, in 1952.

Texas A&M University plans to augment its existing wind tunnel facilities, such as the Oran W. Nicks Low Speed Wind Tunnel shown here, with a long wind tunnel to test hypersonic aircraft. (Photo: Texas A&M University) In its announcement, University officials described plans to construct a “ballistic aero-optics and materials” (BAM) test facility for $130 million on a 2,000-acre campus near the small city of Bryan, about 100 miles east of Austin.

“Texas A&M will be the hypersonics research capital of the country with the planned construction of [the BAM] facility,” said Katherine Banks, the school’s vice chancellor and dean of engineering. The facility will consist of an above-ground tunnel 1 kilometer long and 2 meters in diameter, making it one of the largest such installations in the world. According to Defense One, the university will contribute $80 million toward construction costs with $50 million more provided by the state; additional sums will come from the Futures Command, which will operate the facility.

As U.S. military leaders appear determined to outpace China and Russia in the exploitation of advanced military technologies, and now unfettered by the defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Defense Department is accelerating its drive to develop and deploy hypersonic weapons, projectiles that can fly at five times the speed of sound or faster, evading most air defenses. (See ACT, June 2019.) Many such projectiles, some of which with ranges that would have been limited by the INF Treaty, are being rushed into development, and the Pentagon is planning to procure vast numbers of these munitions as soon as they are deemed ready for combat.

The United States needs “many dozens, many hundreds, maybe thousands of assets,” said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, on Aug. 7. “This takes us back to the Cold War where at one point we had 30,000 nuclear warheads and missiles to launch them. We haven’t produced on that kind of scale since the [Berlin] Wall came down.”

To satisfy this requirement, analysts say the arms industry will have to overcome numerous technical issues involving the design and production of hypersonic weapons. Projectiles flying at hypersonic speeds encounter immense pressures and temperatures in the Earth’s atmosphere, deforming even specialized materials and distorting electronic and communications links. Long before such weapons can be deployed, therefore, they must be rigorously tested under realistic conditions. This is normally done in wind tunnels, but hypersonic weapons fly so fast that few such facilities are capable of providing the necessary test environment. The BAM facility is planned to supplement hypersonics testing at NASA’s Ames Research Center, located at Moffett Field, Calif., where the Pentagon currently conducts the bulk of its hypersonic testing.

Texas A&M University expands its aerospace engineering capacity to support U.S. military goals.

U.S. Hosts Nuclear Disarmament Working Group

September 2019
By Shannon Bugos

Aiming to break loose stagnant progress toward nuclear disarmament, officials from more than 40 nations agreed to an initial framework of a U.S. initiative during a two-day meeting in Washington ending July 3. The U.S. State Department hosted the plenary meeting for participants of its Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative.

The officials discussed “ways to improve the international security environment in order to overcome obstacles to further progress on nuclear disarmament,” according to the State Department’s media note released on the first day. As stated in a summary report of the working group obtained by Arms Control Today, three particular topic areas were identified: the reduction of the perceived incentives for states to acquire or increase their nuclear stockpiles, the involvement of multilateral institutions in nuclear disarmament, and potential interim measures to reduce risks related to nuclear weapons.

Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, opened the session saying he wanted the process “to be as free and open an engagement as possible…. While no one should be asked to abandon strongly held policy views, I would encourage you to focus more upon how we can build a better world together than upon trading recriminations about the present.”

The United States first proposed the CEND initiative at the May 2018 meeting of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee, held in advance of the NPT’s 2020 review conference. (See ACT, July/August 2019.) U.S. officials characterized the initiative as an effort to hold a dialogue on the “discrete tasks” necessary in order “to create the conditions conducive to further nuclear disarmament.”

The recent meeting, consisting of about 100 representatives from nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states, as well as non-NPT nations, was randomly divided into three groups and rotated through each of the three topic areas. Afterward, a subject matter expert in each group summarized the areas of convergence that emerged from each session.

On the issue of reducing incentives to acquire or retain nuclear weapons, the participants agreed to future discussion of the need for states to clearly articulate the full scope of threats they perceive from others, according to the summary report. Additionally, the officials agreed on their desire to buttress existing arms control, nonproliferation, and security mechanisms, as well as compliance with them. Some participants, for example, expressed support for two existing agreements: the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program, and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which they encouraged the United States and Russia to extend.

The summary reported that the discussion of the role of multilateral and other types of institutions found general agreement that the CEND initiative could provide “an innovative format for strengthening existing forums.” Other areas of convergence included the need to reaffirm the importance of the NPT as the “cornerstone” of the global nonproliferation and disarmament architecture and to develop a list of practical measures, such as negotiating and implementing confidence-building measures, to improve the security environment.

Lastly, the risk reduction discussion identified the need to manage and prevent conflict from escalating to nuclear war, according to the summary report. Increased dialogue and communication were noted as potential areas for future work, particularly in respect to having nuclear-armed states provide greater detail on what is feasible for nuclear risk reduction. The most discussed options among participants for specific risk-reduction measures included improving crisis communication channels, standardizing pre-launch notifications to prevent misunderstandings, and eliminating certain categories of nuclear weapons or launch systems.

The next meeting of the CEND initiative has not been announced, but some reports have indicated it will take place later this year in Europe. Finland, the Netherlands, and South Korea will serve as co-chairs of the three discussion subgroups, and three additional co-chairs are expected to be named.

A new survey finds that some global tech firms have no policies to ensure their applications are not used for lethal autonomous weapons.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Resigns

Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Russia, has announced his resignation effective Oct. 3. He stated in his Aug. 5 resignation letter that his time in Moscow had been a “historically difficult period in bilateral relations.” His service, beginning March 2017, was marked by infighting within the U.S. government over the correct approach to diplomacy with Russia. It also coincided with the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a decision he described in December 2018 as necessary “to preserve the viability and integrity of arms control agreements more broadly.”

“We must continue to hold Russia accountable,” he said in his resignation letter.

Huntsman previously served as U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011 and to Singapore from 1992 to 1993. Political observers have speculated that he may seek to become the governor of Utah, a post he has already won twice. The White House has not yet nominated Huntsman’s replacement.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Resigns

Missile Defense Systems at a Glance

An overview of the basics of missile defense systems, as well as a brief history of U.S. missile defense systems. 

Contact: Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, 202-463-8270 x104


For nearly as long as there have been offensive weapons systems, there have also been anti-weapons systems. For years, one of the most dangerous threats to a state was ballistic missiles given the blinding speed with which they could deliver some of the world’s most dangerous weapons: nuclear-armed warheads. As such, some states have made a concentrated effort to build defenses against such weapons, known as ballistic missile defenses. However, during the Cold War, as the United States and Soviet Union experimented with and fielded missile defenses, both sides worried such defenses could prompt an uncontrollable arms race.

These concerns led to the conclusion of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited each side to 100 strategic missile defense interceptors at one site. The agreement helped to stabilize relations between the two nuclear superpowers and provided a foundation for further agreements limiting strategic offensive forces. However, the abrogation of the ABM treaty in 2002 by the George W. Bush administration—and the development of more advanced cruise and hypersonic missiles—have led to an uptick in funding to attempt to defend against missiles beyond just ballistic missiles and from countries beyond just Russia.

What are missile defense systems specifically trying to defend against?

The main missile threats that missile defense systems have aimed to defend against have been ballistic missiles, but more recently, greater emphasis has been placed on defending against other types of missiles as well.

Ballistic Missile Basics
(Adapted from “Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories”)

Ballistic missiles are powered by rockets initially but then follow an unpowered, parabolic, free-falling trajectory toward their targets. They are classified by the maximum distance that they can travel, which is a function of how powerful the missile’s engines (rockets) are and the weight of the missile’s payload, or warhead. To add more distance to a missile’s range, rockets are stacked on top of each other in a configuration referred to as staging.

There are four general classifications of ballistic missiles:

  • Short-range ballistic missiles, traveling less than 1,000 kilometers (approximately 620 miles);
  • Medium-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 1,000–3,000 kilometers (approximately 620-1,860 miles);
  • Intermediate-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 3,000–5,500 kilometers (approximately 1,860-3,410 miles); and
  • Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), traveling more than 5,500 kilometers.

Short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are referred to as “theatre” ballistic missiles, whereas ICBMs or long-range ballistic missiles are described as “strategic” ballistic missiles.

Missiles are often classified by fuel-type: liquid or solid propellants. Missiles with solid fuel require less maintenance and preparation time than missiles with liquid fuel because solid-propellants have the fuel and oxidizer together, whereas liquid-fueled missiles must keep the two separated until right before deployment.

Thirty-one countries possess ballistic missiles. Of those, only 9 (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are known to possess or suspected of possessing nuclear weapons. These 9 states plus Iran have produced or flight-tested missiles with ranges exceeding 1,000 kilometers. China and Russia are the only two states that are not U.S. allies that have a proven capability to launch ballistic missiles from their territories that can strike the continental United States.

Three stages of flight for a ballistic missile:

  1. Boost phase:
    • The boost phase begins at launch and lasts until the rocket engines stop firing and pushing the missile away from Earth.
    • Depending on the missile, it lasts between three and five minutes.
    • Generally, the missile is traveling relatively slowly, although towards the end of this stage, an ICBM can reach speeds of more than 24,000 kilometers per hour. Most of this phase takes place in the atmosphere (endoatmospheric).
  2. Midcourse phase:
    • The midcourse phase begins after the rockets finish firing and when the missile is on a ballistic course toward its target.
    • This is the longest stage of a missile’s flight, lasting up to 20 minutes for ICBMs.
    • During the early part of the midcourse stage, the missile is still ascending toward its apogee, while during the latter part, it is descending toward Earth.
    • During this stage, the missile’s warhead(s), as well as any decoys, separate from the delivery platform, or “bus.” This phase takes place in space (exoatmospheric). The warhead is now called/is on a reentry vehicle (RV).
  3. Terminal phase:
    • The terminal phase begins when the missile’s warhead, or RV, reenters the Earth’s atmosphere (endoatmospheric), and it continues until impact or detonation.
    • This stage takes less than a minute for a strategic warhead, which can be traveling at speeds greater than 3,200 kilometers per hour.

Other Types of Missiles

Generally, U.S. missile defense systems have been designed to defend against ballistic missiles. However, the Trump administration’s 2019 Missile Defense Review most clearly noted that the United States will be looking for ways to defend against non-ballistic missiles.

Cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles are two additional categories of missiles. Unlike ballistic missiles, cruise missiles remain within the atmosphere for the duration of their flight. Cruise missiles are propelled by jet engines and can be launched from land-, air-, or sea-based platforms. Due to their constant propellants, they are more maneuverable than ballistic missiles, though they are also slower than their ballistic counterparts.

Two types of hypersonic missiles are currently under development. A hypersonic boost-glide vehicle (HGV) is fired by rockets into space and then released to fly to its target along the upper atmosphere. Unlike ballistic missiles, a boost-glide vehicle flies at a lower altitude and can change its intended target and trajectory repeatedly during its flight. The second type, a hypersonic cruise missile, is powered through its entire flight by advanced rockets or high-speed jet engines. It is a faster version of existing cruise missiles.

What makes up a missile defense system?

Satellite Sensors and Ground- or Sea-based Radars

Together, space-based satellites and ground- or sea-based radars create a monitoring system that contribute to offensive missile detection (detecting a missile after it has been launched), discrimination (what is a threat versus a decoy or other countermeasures), and tracking (keeping the missile “in sight” so that an interceptor can find it and eliminate the threat).


Interceptors are the missiles used once a threat has been detected. Missiles carry “kill vehicles,” which detach from the missile (also called the boosters or rockets) and then go to try to eliminate the threat. Today’s kill vehicles are “hit-to-kill,” meaning that they aim to eliminate the threat by actually running into it, or “kinetically” (also called a “kinetic kill”). Due to the speed at which the incoming rival missile and interceptors and kill vehicles are traveling, this has metaphorically been compared to “a bullet hitting another bullet.”

Some interceptors are single pieces (which means that they do not separate from their kill vehicles), such as the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3).

In addition, interceptors need launchers. Some interceptors are launched from in-ground silos, road-mobile trucks, or ships. There currently exist no interceptors in space, though the idea has been proposed. These launchers and interceptors can be carried in a “battery,” which can carry up to a cluster of launchers, interceptors with their kill vehicles, radars, and fire control.

Command and Control

All the data that is being processed by the sensors and radars and then sent to the interceptors and kill vehicles are linked through another network of command and control centers. The centers are located around the entire world and involve several different U.S. military branches and commands working together. Command and control centers also tend to utilize “fire control.”

Working Together

The information from the sensors and interceptors routed through command and control work together similar to the image below, laid out by the Union of Concerned Scientists in order to demonstrate the workings of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.

Other FAQs

Are all missile defense systems currently only for ballistic missile defense?

Not exclusively. While most missile defense systems are developed to focus on the blindingly fast speed and specific trajectory of ballistic missiles, some systems could conceivably counter cruise missiles or other shorter-range targets.

Can a missile defense system intercept a threat on any part of the trajectory?

Not yet. Currently, missile defense systems are only developed and designed to carry out an interception at the mid-course (middle) or terminal (final) stage of a missile’s trajectory, even though a missile is slowest during its boost (beginning) phase. The 2019 Missile Defense Review and Congress have both called for further study of “boost-phase intercept” capabilities, proposing the controversial development of interceptors in space or other emerging capabilities, such as drones or lasers. “Left of launch” capabilities have also been proposed, which would aim to counter a missile threat before it is even launched.

What is the difference between a missile defense system (anti-missile system) and other forms of air defense systems?

Generally, missile defense systems are specifically designed to target very fast and very specific threats. However, some forward-based missile defense systems may be able to carry out missions against air-launched cruise missiles and rival aircraft. However, because other forms of air defense systems, mainly anti-aircraft systems, have such smaller areas of defense, they would be unlikely to counter a threat with the speed of a hypersonic or ballistic missile.

What are some criticisms of missile defense systems?

The U.S. pursuit of effective missile defenses has been accompanied by intense debate about the technical capabilities of the system and realism of testing, the scope of the ballistic missile threat, the deterrence and assurance benefits of the defenses, the cost-effectiveness of shooting down relatively inexpensive offensive missiles with expensive defensive ones, and the repercussions for U.S. strategic stability with Russia and China.

According to the Defense Department’s independent testing office, existing U.S. missile defenses have “demonstrated capability” to defend the U.S. homeland against a small number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats that employ “simple countermeasures.” The testing office assesses that defenses to protect allies and U.S. troops abroad possess only a “limited capability” to defend against small numbers of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). The capability of defenses against short-range ballistic missiles is labeled as “fair.” Apart from the point-defense Patriot system, no systems in the U.S. BMD arsenal have been used in combat.

Leaders of the U.S. missile defense enterprise have increasingly voiced concerns that the current U.S. approach to national and regional missile defense is unsustainable and that existing defenses must be augmented with emerging capabilities to reduce the cost of missile defense and keep pace with advancing adversary missile threats.

Current and Under Development U.S. Missile Defense Components and Equipment

Homeland “Strategic” Defense Systems

  • Ground-based Midcourse Defense System

Regional “Theater/Tactical” Defense Systems

  • Aegis BMD system
    • Aegis BMD System (Part of the Aegis Combat System, aka Aegis Afloat; Sea-Based BMD)
    • Aegis Ashore (Land-based variant of Afloat)
  • Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)
    • (Emerging) THAAD Extended Range
  • PAC-3

For more detail on current day programs and next generation efforts, visit: “Current U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance.”

Each system has a combination of the previously mentioned sensors, radars, interceptors, kill vehicles, and largely use the networked command and control. The above systems rely on the below equipment and components:


Air- and Space-Based Sensors Used:

  • Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) and Space Tracking and Surveillance System-Demonstrators (STSS-D) constellation operated by the Missile Defense Agency
  • Space-based Kill Assessment (SKA) hosted on commercial satellites
  • Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) technology project, operated by the Missile Defense Agency
  • Defense Support Program (DSP), constellation of satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force Space Command
  • (Under Development) Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS), constellation of integrated satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force Space Command
    • SBIRS-LEO (Low Earth Orbit), incorporated into the STSS program in 2001 with the Missile Defense Agency
    • (Under Development) SBIRS-GEO (Geosynchronous orbit), intended to replace Defense Support Program (DSP)
    • (Under Development) SBIRS-HEO (High Elliptical orbit), intended to replace DSP


  • Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI), for the GMD System
  • SM-2
  • SM-3 (RIM-161 Standard Missile-3)
    • 3 variations: Block IA, Block IB, Block IIA
  • SM-6 (RIM 174 Standard Missile-6)
  • (Under Development) Boost Phase Laser Defenses
  • Evolved Seasparrow Missile (ESSM), NATO Interceptor
  • Space-Based Intercept (SBI) Layer

Kill Vehicles:

  • Exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV)
  • (Terminated August 2019) Redesigned kill vehicle (RKV)
  • (Under Development) Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV)

Command and Control Centers:

For more detail on how the above components fit together in each separate missile defense program and next generation efforts, visit: “Current U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance.”

History of U.S. Missile Defense Systems

Brief History of U.S. Missile Defense Systems

After the end of World War II, U.S. military planners began to weigh the need to be able counter ballistic missile threats before they reached their targets. During the war, German V-2s were particularly concerning, and in 1946, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) embarked on the Projects Wizard and Thumper study programs to develop an anti-ballistic missile (ABM).

Recognizing the complexities of what would be a multi-year study, the Air Force focused on Project Wizard as a long-term study. In 1949, the Army began to develop its own Project Plato, the services’ first effort to develop a theatre ABM system. As the Cold War began to ramp up during the 1950s and the Soviet Union continued their ICBM development, the Army and Air Force began to compete for a role in strategic missile defense, which led to the 1957 initiation of the Army’s nuclear-capable Nike Zeus ABM interceptor. The program's high costs and shortcomings spurred criticism of the ABM system concept. Meanwhile, to settle the Air Force and Army dispute over who should pursue the strategic missile defense initiative, then Defense Secretary Neil H. McElroy assigned the mission to the Army and established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, using the justification that the crisis caused the Soviets to aggressively ramp up their ICBM program, the U.S. military also reoriented its ABM efforts to create an improved system called Nike-X. News also reached the U.S. military that the Soviets were developing their own ABM capabilities. U.S. leaders felt that in order to overcome the Soviet ABM system, they would either need an overwhelming offensive force or arms control agreements—so they resisted calls to deploy the Nike-X ABM system until China conducted its first nuclear test. The Chinese test meant that proponents of the Nike-X ABM system could now argue that a limited ABM deployment which could counter China would be better than a heavy ABM deployment to counter the Soviets. The United States deployed the Nike-X ABM in 1967 and renamed the ABM system the Sentinel. The Navy and Air Force also began to develop their own ABM system concepts.

In 1968, the Johnson administration began to shift the limited mission of the Sentinel system from against China towards a heavier defense mission against a large-scale Soviet attack. Though this may have been done in part to use the system as a “bargaining chip” as the Soviets had just agreed to begin long-sought arms control negotiations, the shift caused debate, confusion, and criticism over the purpose of the controversial Sentinel system.

In 1969, the Nixon administration re-oriented the U.S. ABM system again so that instead of protecting urban areas, it would now be used to protect the nation’s strategic deterrent: the silo-based Minuteman ICBMs. President Nixon renamed the system “Safeguard.” The system was still used as a bargaining chip as the United States and Russia continued with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, which eventually led to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The ABM Treaty initially limited each side’s ABM deployments to only two locations with no more than 100 interceptors total. After a 1974 protocol was negotiated, each side was allowed only one site. The Safeguard site was closed in 1976 because it could be easily overwhelmed by a Soviet attack and because detonation of its nuclear-armed warheads would blind its own radars.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to revisit the issue of the feasibility of missile defense. The day after his announcement, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) called the president’s speech “reckless Star Wars Schemes”—a phrase that had previously been used to also reference exotic Pentagon space weaponry projects, but now was the new nickname of SDI. Around this time, the Army had begun working on developing a nonnuclear hit-to-kill interceptor and, in 1984, was able to intercept a dummy warhead outside of the atmosphere in space.

Meanwhile, ARPA’s successor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), began developing laser and particle beam technologies for application that included ballistic missile defense and space defense. The Reagan administration highlighted that SDI would not jeopardize U.S. compliance with the ABM Treaty because of SDI’s focus at the time was as a research- and development-based project, not deployment. The Department of Defense then chartered the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) in 1984.

Toward the end of the 1980s, SDI—which had developed a broad and costly space- and ground-based defense concept—reoriented its focus to the “Brilliant Pebbles” (BP) program, which used autonomous, small-scale, space-launched interceptors. In 1990, BP was introduced as an affordable hit-to-kill system that skirted concerns about the exposure of large-scale space systems. However, in light of the fall of the Soviet Union, under the directive of the George H. W. Bush administration, SDI was overhauled to address limited nuclear strikes in 1991. Bush announced a new system, the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS).

When President Bill Clinton entered office, he shifted focus on theatre missile defense instead of national missile defense. To reflect this, he canceled the BP program and changed the name of SDIO to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). He also broke up the Bush GPALS program into several Army, Navy, and Air Force programs, introducing what is now the PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) program, the Theatre High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, the ship-borne Aegis air defense system and Standard Missile (SM) interceptor, and the Air Force’s Airborne Laser Project. However, during his administration, President Clinton was pressured by Congress to pursue national missile defense that would have consequences for U.S. obligations towards the ABM Treaty. President Clinton signed the 1999 National Missile Defense Act, which made it “the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense (NMD) system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” However, in 2000, President Clinton announced that he would leave the final decision of pursing a national missile defense system to his successor.

In 2001, the new George W. Bush administration announced that it was giving its six-month notice of its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which took effect in 2002. Also in 2002, President Bush changed the name of BMDO to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The military began to reorient the missile defense program to be an integrated, layered, and nationwide defense system.

The Obama Administration

Upon taking office in 2009, the Obama administration took steps to curtail the Bush administration’s rush to expand the U.S. homeland missile defense footprint and instead place greater emphasis on regional defense, particularly in Europe. The Obama administration decided to alter its predecessor’s plans for missile defense in Europe, announcing Sept. 17, 2009, that the United States would adopt a European “Phased Adaptive Approach” (EPAA) to missile defense. This approach primarily uses the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system to address the threat posed by short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Iran. The Aegis system uses the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors, which are deployed on Arleigh-Burke class destroyers in the Baltic Sea (Aegis Afloat), as well as on land in Romania and Poland (Aegis Ashore).

President Obama's first Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, also canceled a number of next generation programs, including two designed to intercept missiles during their boost phase, due to “escalating costs, operational problems, and technical challenges.”

However, while continuing to invest in regional defense, the Obama administration also made substantial investments in homeland defense largely in response to North Korea. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system comprises missile fields in Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and is designed to protect the United States against limited, long-range missile strikes from North Korea and Iran. Despite concerns about the system’s technical viability, from 2013 to 2017, the Obama administration expanded the number of ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in these fields from 30 to 44.

The Obama administration also oversaw the deployment of additional regional missile interceptor and sensor capabilities to allies in Northeast Asia in response to North Korea, including the deployment of the THAAD system to Guam and South Korea and two advanced radars to Japan.

To view the history in a timeline form, visit the Union of Concerned Scientists.

For current day programs since the beginning of the Trump administration, visit: “Current U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance.”

Recently Canceled Programs

A number of high-profile missile defense efforts that began during the George W. Bush administration were canceled by President Bush’s last Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, under President Barack Obama. Below is a summary of some of these programs, the reason they were canceled, and the amount of money that was spent to develop them.

[Previously known as Space-based Infrared System-low (SBIRS-low)]

Program Elements

The program was a planned network of 9-12 satellites which were expected to support U.S. missile defense systems by providing tracking data from space on missiles during their entire flight.

Dates of Program

October 2009 – April 2013

Money Spent

More than $230 million

Major Issues

As reported by the LA Times, outside experts found that the satellites would not have been able to detect warheads flying over the arctic. In order to provide continuous tracking of the missiles, MDA would have actually needed at least 24 satellites. An independent cost assessment projected the total cost of the system to be $24 billion over 20 years instead of the $10 billion MDA projected.


Program Elements

The original program included a modified Boeing 747 plane equipped with a chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL) and two tracking lasers. The laser beam would be produced by a chemical reaction. The objective was to shoot down ballistic missiles during their boost phase right after launch, but the system could also be used for other missions.

Dates of Program

November 1996 – February 2012

Money Spent

$5.3 billion

Major Issues

The laser would have had a limited range, which meant the 747 would have been vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. To increase the range, the laser would have needed to be 20-30 times more powerful than planned.


Program Elements

KEI was to be comprised of three powerful boosters and a separating kill vehicle. The booster was expected to travel at least six kilometers per second, which is comparable to an ICBM. The kill vehicle was not designed to carry an explosive warhead but to destroy its target through the force of a collision.

Dates of Program

March 2003 – June 2009

Money Spent

$1.7 billion

Major Issues

In order to carry the KEI, Navy ships would have needed to be retrofitted. The range was not great enough to be land-based.


Program Elements

The program was designed to launch multiple kill vehicles from a single booster in order to increase the odds of destroying an incoming missile. It was designed to destroy both missiles and decoys.

Dates of Program

January 2004 – April 2009

Money Spent

~$700 million

Major Issues

The program was canceled by the Obama administration in order to focus on “proven, near-term missile defense programs that can provide more immediate defenses of the United States.”

Missile Defense

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