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– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Missile Defense

Missile Defense Study Delayed

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department announced in mid-December that it would miss its planned year-end date to complete a final environmental statement designating a preferred location for a new ballistic missile interceptor site. 

Leah Garton, deputy director of public affairs at the Missile Defense Agency, told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 20 email that the agency “requires additional time to complete the study” and will release it “once we complete a thorough review.”

The In-Flight Interceptor Communications System data terminal at Fort Drum, New York, shown in a July 2016 photo, is an element in the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. The facility is designed to feed target updates to an interceptor as it seeks to destroy an incoming missile warhead. (Photo credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)The current system to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, consists of interceptor sites in Alaska and California. Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that there is no military requirement for a third site and that the estimated $3-4 billion price tag would be better spent to upgrade the existing GMD system.

In the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Defense Department to conduct a study to evaluate at least three possible new long-range interceptor sites that could augment the GMD system, including at least two on the East Coast. 

The Defense Department announced last spring that it had completed a draft environmental impact statement of three possible locations: Fort Drum in New York, Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan. (See ACT, July/August 2016.) For each site, the draft study assessed the impact of factors such as hazardous materials and hazardous waste management, health and safety, socioeconomics, water quality, and environmental justice.

The fiscal year 2016 defense authorization bill ordered the Pentagon to designate a preferred location for a third site within a month of the completion of the draft environmental impact study. (See ACT, November 2015.) The department missed that deadline and does not plan to name a preferred location until it completes the final environmental impact statement. 

The delay comes as members of the Michigan, New York, and Ohio congressional delegations continue to make the case for their respective states to host the third site. Each delegation sent a letter last summer to MDA Director Vice Adm. James Syring urging consideration of their candidate’s location. A total of 55 senators and representatives from both political parties signed the letters.

The Defense Department announced it would miss its date to choose a location for a new ballistic missile interceptor site.

New Cruise Missiles to Cost $11 Billion

September 2016

UPDATED: September 2, 2016

UPDATED: December 12, 2016

By Kingston Reif

An updated U.S. Air Force estimate, approved by the Pentagon’s top acquisition official in July, puts the cost to design and build a fleet of new nuclear-capable cruise missiles at $10.8 billion, a source familiar with the program told Arms Control Today

The service prepared the estimate, which is in fiscal year 2016 constant dollars, in the spring in preparation for the program’s milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process for the weapon, according to the source. 

(UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, Arms Control Today has learned that this acquisition estimate is in "then-year dollars," which includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program, not constant dollars as previously reported.)

An unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile maneuvers over the Utah Test and Training Range en route to its target September 22, 2014, during a simulated combat mission. [Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/U.S. Air Force]Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved that decision on July 29, the Air Force said later that day. The service declined requests from Arms Control Today to provide information on new program cost estimates.

An early draft estimate prepared by the Air Force in fiscal year 2015 projected the price to acquire the missile fleet at $8.3 billion. 

The service also announced on July 29 that it had begun soliciting proposals from the defense industry to design the new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), known as the long-range standoff weapon, and a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

These programs are part of the Defense Department’s plan to modernize and replace elements of the U.S. nuclear triad, which department officials anticipate will cost $350-450 billion over the next 20 years and will put severe pressure on the overall military budget unless Congress provides additional funding. (See ACT, May 2016.)

The Air Force’s current ALCM is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. Current Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles to replace the current missile, which has been operational since 1986. (See ACT, June 2015.

The Air Force intends to award contracts to one or two companies for the long-range standoff weapon program in the summer of 2017, according to the service press release announcing the solicitation. The contractors will spend the next four and a half years completing a preliminary design, which will be followed by the selection of a sole contractor to further develop and produce the missiles. The first new missile is slated to be produced in 2026. 

As the Pentagon proceeds with its plans to replace the AGM-86B, the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is pursuing a life extension program for its warhead. The NNSA estimates that the cost of the program will be between $7.4-9.9 billion in “then-year dollars,” which includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program. The first refurnished warhead is scheduled for production in 2025. 

Pentagon Debates New ICBM Cost

The Air Force also plans to award up to two contracts in the summer of 2017 to design the replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM system, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent. 

But Bloomberg News reported on Aug. 18 that Kendall has yet to approve the milestone A decision for the program due to a gap of billions of dollars between the cost estimate prepared by the Air Force and an independent estimate prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, which provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs.

(UPDATE: The Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release that the Defense Department approved the milestone A decision for the ground based strategic deterrent on Aug. 23.)

In an Aug. 10 press conference at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the program “is not on hold” but that the department still needs to “get on the same page” regarding how to estimate the cost of the new missile system.

An early estimate prepared by the Air Force in February 2015 projected the cost to acquire 642 missiles and rebuild the existing Minuteman III infrastructure, including command and control systems, at $62.3 billion over the next 30 years in then-year dollars. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

In 2014 the Air Force projected the total life-cycle cost of the ground-based strategic deterrent at $159 billion (in fiscal year 2014 constant dollars) between fiscal years 2016 and 2075. (See ACT, April 2016.)

Navy Names New Sub Program 

On July 28, U.S. Naval Institute News reported that the first submarine in the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program will be called the Columbia and that the program will now be called the Columbia-class program. 

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Alabama returns to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Washington, on May 14, following a patrol mission. The Navy plans to replace its 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new Columbia-class subs. [Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy]The Navy plans to replace its fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new subs. In 2014 the service estimated that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035, will cost approximately $140 billion (in then-year dollars) to develop and build.

According to an informed source, the Navy in December 2010 projected the total life-cycle cost of the Columbia-class program to be $342 billion in then-year dollars through the 2080s. The source said the Navy prepared a second life-cycle estimate in 2014 that put the cost at $282 billion. The reduction in the life-cycle cost is attributable to such factors as a reduction in the average cost to buy the submarines, updated operations and maintenance costs, and revised inflation assumptions, according to the source. 

In a May 27 email to Arms Control Today, Lt. Kara Yingling, a Navy spokesperson, did not confirm the life-cycle estimates, but said the service is preparing updated cost estimates in preparation for the Columbia-class program’s milestone B acquisition decision, which is considered the formal start of a Pentagon acquisition program. That decision is scheduled to take place later this year, she said.

The Pentagon has raised the estimated cost for the new missiles slated to be produced in 2026.

The Complex and Increasingly Dangerous Nuclear Weapons Geometry of Asia


By Greg Thielmann
July 2016

Download PDF

While much of the world’s attention is focused on efforts to halt the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea, the nuclear arsenals and ambitions of India, Pakistan, and China also pose significant dangers and deserve more attention.

The complicated nuclear weapons geometry of Asia extends from the subcontinent to the other side of the world. While Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is designed to counter India’s conventional and nuclear forces, New Delhi measures its own nuclear weapons program against that of China. Beijing, in turn, judges the adequacy of its nuclear arsenal against the threat it perceives from the United States’ strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. And in its efforts to mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, the United States and its allies in the region are expanding their strategic and theater missile defense capabilities.

In order to fully understand how the pace and direction of nuclear proliferation can be influenced, the interconnections of these countries must be considered, along with the kinds of nuclear weapons they have at their disposal.


Asian states Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea comprise four of the world's nine nuclear-armed states. The interconnections of these countries must be considered to fully understand how nuclear nonproliferation can be influenced.

Progress on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Inadequate to Meet Threats, New Study Finds



For Immediate Release: July 15, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—President Barack Obama failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas over the course of his second term, but did achieve important steps to improve nuclear materials security and strengthen nonproliferation norms, namely the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, according to a new study released by the Arms Control Association, which evaluates the recent records of all the world’s nuclear-armed states.

The report, "Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 2013-2016," is the third in a series that measures the performance of 11 key states in 10 universally-recognized nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear security categories over the past three years. The study evaluated the records of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea—each of which possess nuclear weapons—as well as Iran and Syria, which are states of proliferation concern.

“The United States is investing enormous resources to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons delivery systems and warheads and is keeping its deployed nuclear weapons on ‘launch-under-attack’ readiness posture. The lack of U.S. leadership in these areas contributes to the moribund pace of disarmament,” said Elizabeth Philipp, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association, and a co-author of the report.

“Obama should use his remaining months in office to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategies and mitigate the risks of inadvertent use. Obama could consider declaring that Washington will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and co-author of the report.

“U.S. leadership could spur China and Russia to take positive actions and improve the prospects for further disarmament. Russia’s decision to develop a new missile in violation of its treaty commitments and Moscow’s rebuff of attempts by the United States to negotiate further nuclear reductions is very troublesome, as is the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal and Beijing’s steps toward increasing the alert levels of its forces,” Philipp added.

“Several states did take significant steps over the past three years to strengthen nuclear security, including action by the United States and Pakistan to ratify key nuclear security treaties,” said Davenport.

“The July 2015 nuclear deal struck between six global powers and Iran was also a significant nonproliferation breakthrough that has significantly reduced Tehran’s nuclear capacity and subjected its activities to more intrusive international monitoring and verification. While the international community must remain vigilant in ensuring that the deal is fully implemented, blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons negates a serious nonproliferation concern and demonstrates the consequences of flouting the international norms and obligations,” Davenport said.

“For the third time, the United Kingdom received the highest grade of all the states assessed, while North Korea remained at the bottom of the list with the lowest overall grades. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and its ballistic missile development require the next U.S. administration to pursue more robust engagement with Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities,” Philipp said.

“Our review of the record indicates that further action must be taken by all 11 states if they are to live up to their international disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. By tracking the progress, or lack thereof, of these states over time, we hope this report will serve as a tool to encourage policymakers to increase efforts to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons,” Davenport said.

A country-by-country summary can be viewed here.
The full report card can be downloaded here


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.


A new study suggests that President Obama, failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas during his second term.

2016 Report Card on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Efforts

Table of Contents

Download this report.

Pentagon Completes Missile Defense Study

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department announced in May that it completed a draft study of three possible locations in the eastern United States for a new ballistic missile defense interceptor site, but said it still has no plans to actually build such a site.

The draft environmental impact statement, which was posted on the website of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on May 31, said that the Defense Department “does not propose and has not made a decision to deploy or construct an additional interceptor site.”

“Any deployment decision would be based on the analysis of the ballistic missile threat to the U.S., system performance and operational effectiveness, site constructability, affordability, and potential environmental impacts,” the study said. 

The program to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, consists of interceptor sites in Alaska and California.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that the estimated $3-4 billion price tag of a third interceptor site would be better spent to upgrade the existing GMD system.

The draft environmental study narrowed an initial list of 457 Defense Department-owned locations throughout the continental United States down to three potential candidate locations. 

The three sites are Fort Drum in New York, Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan. 

For each site, the study assessed the impact of factors such as hazardous materials and hazardous waste management, health and safety, socioeconomics, water quality, and environmental justice.

The draft environmental impact statement took approximately 18 months to complete. The Defense Department held several meetings in June for the public to gain additional information and comment on the draft. Based on this input and input from other government agencies, the department will issue a final version of the statement later this year. 

In the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Defense Department to conduct a study to evaluate at least three possible new long-range interceptor sites that could augment the GMD system, including at least two on the East Coast. 

The fiscal year 2016 defense authorization bill requires the Pentagon to designate a preferred location for a third site within a month of the completion of the draft environmental impact study. (See ACT, November 2015.)

Leah Garton, deputy director of public affairs at the MDA, told Arms Control Today in a June 28 email that the Defense Department does not plan to name a preferred location until it completes the final environmental impact statement. 

This will allow the MDA “to consider comments” on the draft environmental impact statement “from the public and regulatory agencies,” she added.

The Defense Department announced in May that it completed a draft study of three possible locations in the eastern United States for a new ballistic missile defense interceptor site...

Air Force Clarifies New ICBM Plans

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force is not planning to pursue a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would have the capability to be deployed on mobile launchers, according to service officials.

In a May email exchange with Arms Control Today, Maj. Robert Leese, an Air Force spokesperson, said the service is pursuing a replacement missile that is “silo-based.”

“[I]f a mobile ICBM is pursued, it would require different design elements than what is being asked for” in the current replacement program, he added.

Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, told reporters in a June 1 meeting at the Pentagon that “right now we are not looking” at a mobile Minuteman III follow-on.

Arms Control Today reported in April that the service planned to seek a replacement for the existing silo-based Minuteman III ICBM system that could be shifted to a mobile platform in the future. (See ACT, April 2016.) The replacement is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

In response to questions regarding whether the Air Force intended to pursue mobile-capable missiles, Leese said in a March 7 email that the GBSD design “will provide the option for alternative modes of operation in the future.”

Pentagon officials have in the past endorsed the concept of building a replacement for the Minuteman III that could be put on a mobile launcher. 

In a September 2014 speech in Washington, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said, “[What] we want to be able to do is develop a system that would give us an option later on to go back and revisit what is the right basing mode.”

“Certainly with the system we have today, you can’t do that,” he added. 

InsideDefense.com reported on April 15 that the Air Force planned to explore additional mobile command-and-control centers for the GBSD system to enhance its survivability.

Minuteman III missiles are dispersed in hardened silos to protect against attack and connected to an underground launch control center through a system of hardened cables. In the event communication between the missiles and launch control center is lost, specially configured E-6B airborne launch control center aircraft automatically assume command and control of the isolated missile or missiles.

The current Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III calls for procuring 642 replacement missiles and rebuilding the existing missile infrastructure, including command and control, at an estimated acquisition cost of $62.3 billion over the next 30 years. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

The U.S. Air Force is not planning to pursue a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would have the capability to be deployed on mobile launchers, according to service officials.

Romania Missile Defense Site Activated

June 2016

By Kingston Reif

NATO last month declared operational a U.S.-built ballistic missile interceptor site in Romania and broke ground on a second site in Poland amid continued Russian claims that the alliance’s missile defense plans are aimed at undermining Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. 

The two sites are part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy in Europe is formally known. The phased adaptive approach is the U.S. contribution to NATO’s missile defense system and is designed to protect Europe against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran. 

“As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with our allies and partners to defend against this threat,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work at a May 12 ceremony marking the integration of the site at Deveselu, Romania, into NATO’s larger missile defense architecture.

The United States completed construction of the Aegis Ashore site at Deveselu last December as part of the second phase of the phased adaptive approach. The site is equipped with a land-based Aegis SPY-1 radar and 12 missile tubes for the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IB interceptor missile.

The SM-3 Block IB has additional capabilities compared to prior SM-3 versions in identifying and tracking objects during flight. The interceptor will defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and have a limited capability against intermediate-range missiles. 

Work said that along with the four U.S. Navy missile defense-capable Aegis destroyers based in Rota, Spain, and an advanced radar in Turkey that were part of the first phase of the phased adaptive approach, the Romania site “provides both a quantitative and qualitative increase in NATO’s missile defense capability and capacity.” 

Work added that “neither this site nor the site going into Poland will have the capability to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent.” 

A day after the ceremony in Romania, Work attended a ceremony in Redzikowo, Poland, to break ground on a second Aegis Ashore site as part of the third phase of the phased adaptive approach. The site, which is slated to become operational in 2018, will include a SPY-1 radar and use the SM-3 Block IB and the more advanced SM-3 Block IIA missile. The SM-3 Block IIA is being co-developed with Japan and will have a greater range and more-advanced capabilities than the Block IB. The missile is expected to provide protection for all of Europe against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. 

NATO hopes to declare the achievement of an initial operating capability for the entire missile defense system, which includes the U.S. contribution of the phased adaptive approach and contributions from other countries such as Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, at its upcoming summit meeting in Warsaw on July 6-7. But The Wall Street Journal reported on May 18 that France is withholding its approval for the declaration pending resolution of its concerns about whether the command and control network for the system is sufficiently mature. 

A major alliance exercise in April tested the operational capabilities of the missile defense system. French officials are continuing to analyze the results of the exercise, the report said. 

Russia remains unmoved by U.S. and NATO assurances that the system is not aimed at Moscow. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of Russian military and defense industry officials on May 13 that “as these elements of ballistic missile defense are deployed,” Russia will be “forced to think about how to neutralize emerging threats to the Russian Federation.” 

“All these are additional steps toward throwing the international security system off balance and unleashing a new arms race,” he added.

Putin did not specify the steps that Russia might take in reaction to the development of the defense system. 

In a May 12 opinion article posted on NATO’s website, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Work’s comments in Romania, stating that the alliance has repeatedly made clear to Russia that “[g]eography and physics both make it impossible for the NATO system to shoot down Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

Stoltenberg added that “Russia has declined all NATO proposals for cooperation” on missile defense and “unilaterally terminated dialogue with NATO on this issue in 2013.” 

Russia also argues that NATO’s ballistic missile defense system is no longer necessary due to the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which the United States says will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least the next 15 years. 

A May 10 fact sheet posted on the website of the U.S. mission to NATO disputed that claim. The Iran nuclear deal “addresses nuclear weapons, but it does not resolve the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles which are being modernized in violation of [UN Security Council]-approved sanctions and are capable of carrying nuclear, conventional or chemical weapons,” the fact sheet says.

NATO last month declared operational a U.S.-built ballistic missile interceptor site in Romania amid continued Russian claims that the alliance’s missile defense system is aimed at Moscow.

Missile Defense Blimp Crashes

December 2015

By Kingston Reif

A flight crew launches a blimp that is part of the U.S. Army’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System at the Utah Test and Training Range February 3, 2014. (Photo credit: Tiffany DeNault/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)

Part of a U.S. Army blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats crashed in northeastern Pennsylvania on Oct. 28, increasing doubts about its ability to contribute to the defense of the U.S. homeland.

One of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) detached from its mooring station near Baltimore, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. In a Nov. 5 press statement, North American Aerospace Defense Command said an investigation to determine the cause of the incident was under way.

The helium-filled JLENS blimps float 10,000 feet in the air and carry radars capable of providing 360-degree coverage of objects from 340 miles away. The blimps can remain aloft for 30 days at a time and transmit the information they gather to a range of defensive systems.

The U.S. government initially planned to buy 16 pairs of JLENS blimps, but the purchase ultimately was curtailed to two pairs of test blimps. The blimps are used in pairs because one conducts surveillance and the other analyzes the information that the first one gathers.

The U.S. government spent $2.8 billion on the system through 2013, according to a March 2014 Government Accountability Office report.

The JLENS has faced questions about whether it can work as intended. A 2014 report by the Pentagon’s director for operational test and evaluation stated that poor weather could reduce performance of the system and that the JLENS has not yet demonstrated “the ability to survive in its intended operational environment.”

Late last year, a pair of JLENS blimps began a planned three-year exercise over the area around Washington designed to demonstrate the system’s capabilities for homeland defense and determine its future. The exercise has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation of the Oct. 28 crash. The Army requested $40.6 million for the exercise in fiscal year 2016.

In a May 19 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the exercise as a key part of the Defense Department’s efforts to ensure that the U.S. homeland is adequately defended against a cruise missile attack.

Responding to news of the crash, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee oversight and investigations subcommittee, said in a Nov. 4 statement that the United States “cannot afford to waste taxpayers’ money on ‘zombie programs’ whose best function is fodder” for late-night comedians. She called for “canceling the program outright and using the money where it will do more good.”

But the Defense Department has not ruled out resuming the planned three-year exercise.

Adm. William Gortney, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said in a Nov. 5 statement that if the results of the ongoing investigation warrant resuming the exercises, “we will work with the Army and the [Defense] Department to review the way forward for the JLENS exercise in support of cruise missile defense capabilities” of the Washington area. 

Part of a U.S. Army blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats crashed...

Chinese Strategic Missile Defense: Will It Happen, and What Would It Mean?

November 2015

By Bruce W. MacDonald and Charles D. Ferguson

Military vehicles carrying DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missiles drive past the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on September 3 during a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. [Photo credit: Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images]Since January 2010, China has tested strategic ballistic missile interceptors at least three times.1 Surprisingly little analytic, open-source attention has been paid to these Chinese activities. In contrast, for the past two decades, China has received growing U.S. attention for modernizing and expanding its strategic offensive nuclear forces.2

The cause of this analytic gap might be self-imposed blinders on U.S. strategic assessment concerning Chinese strategic ballistic missile defense development. Ever since the end of the Cold War, U.S. security policy has largely assumed that only the United States would possess credible strategic missile defense capabilities with non-nuclear interceptors.

This article examines the question of whether this tacit assumption will remain valid for much longer and seeks to understand the implications for the United States and its allies of further development and possible deployment of a limited Chinese strategic missile defense system. This analysis is based on the authors’ discussions from mid-2014 to the late spring of 2015 with more than 50 experts (government officials, military officers, and nongovernmental analysts at think tanks and universities) in China and the United States. The course of these discussions was guided by a set of incentives and disincentives that China might be considering in weighing whether to continue developing and potentially deploying a strategic missile defense system. The conversations helped further refine these model incentives and disincentives, as described below.

The overarching assessment is that it is quite possible, certainly less unlikely than many believe, that China could deploy a strategic missile defense system with a small number of interceptors within the next few years for a variety of national security, geopolitical, and domestic reasons.


For more than 50 years, China has explored and developed capabilities to defend against a spectrum of ballistic missile challenges, from short-range missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In 1964, the year in which China tested its first nuclear explosive device, it launched the 640 Program, which is coded as “64” for 1964 and “0” for the first major defense program that began that year, to study missile interception, early-warning systems, and target discrimination techniques. Yet, this ambitious agenda fell far short of a viable ballistic missile defense system due to China’s relative lack of financial and technical resources in the final two decades of Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule.

In 1983, Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, canceled this program, in part because his modernization efforts emphasized economic development above all other priorities. Nonetheless, Chinese leaders felt internal political pressure that year to continue examining missile defenses in order at least to understand the implications of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) launched by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. By the mid-1980s, Chinese scholars were advising the foreign affairs and defense ministries about diplomatic and technical options for responding to the U.S. missile defense program.

Regarding technological development, the 863 Program, which began in March 1986, had the purpose of stimulating development of many advanced technologies in multiple commercial and defense applications. In particular, it encompassed 18 military technologies with the overall objective of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As part of the PLA applications, a team of Chinese technical experts studied concepts related to the SDI, including laser-based interception methods, space-based tracking techniques, and kinetic-energy interceptors. In the latter area, Chinese researchers were seeking to understand the implications of the long-running U.S. defense program awarded to the Lockheed Corp. in August 1978 that was attempting to develop a hit-to-kill non-explosive method for intercepting a ballistic missile re-entry vehicle. (“Hit-to-kill” means that the interceptor would have to make direct contact at high velocity with the missile’s re-entry vehicle to destroy it without using an explosive warhead.)

After three failed tests in February, May, and December 1983, the fourth test of the U.S. Homing Overlay Experiment was successful on June 10, 1984. This technology could also provide a country with the capability to produce anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, a finding that was not lost on China.

By the end of 1991, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decision by the George H.W. Bush administration to substantially scale back U.S. research and development (R&D) on strategic missile defense led China’s interest in missile defense to wane. Although the United States remained committed through most of the 1990s to limited-scale strategic missile defense development, North Korea’s August 1998 launch of a long-range Taepo Dong missile tipped the arguments in favor of U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defense systems despite the failure of this launch. In January 1999, William Cohen, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, announced that the United States would invest more in theater and national missile defense systems and would seek an amendment to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to enable a deployment of a missile defense system intended to shield the territory of the United States even if only to intercept a very limited number of ballistic missiles.

In response, China launched a vigorous diplomatic effort to denounce these U.S. plans, but the United States under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama has pressed ahead with a limited deployment of missile interceptors with the stated purpose of defending against an ICBM threat primarily from North Korea. Behind the scenes, China was quietly performing R&D on countermeasures to U.S. missile defenses and modernizing its strategic nuclear forces.

This brief history illustrates the decades-long pattern of Chinese behavior that several Chinese academics emphasized in meetings: (1) Chinese arms control officials and political leaders have strongly denounced U.S. deployment of strategic missile defense; (2) in parallel, China has devoted financial and technical resources to understanding the U.S. developments; (3) if the United States significantly expands its strategic missile defense deployment, China takes offsetting steps to ensure the credibility of its offensive nuclear deterrent and accelerate its limited, ongoing missile defense development; and (4) Chinese senior leadership can decide whether to move forward with deployment of its own strategic missile defense system. China may also be inclined to move forward on strategic missile defense by factors unrelated to U.S. ballistic missile defense developments.

Moving to Deployment?

Chinese testing of missile interceptors since 2010, discussions with several Chinese experts in the last 12 months, and statements by the U.S. government in recent years suggest that China may be on the verge of making a decision on a limited deployment of a strategic missile defense system. Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Defense in its 2014 report on Chinese military capabilities, “China has made efforts…to gain a [ballistic missile defense] capability in order to provide further protection of China’s mainland and strategic assets.”3 China publicly announced that it conducted ground-based midcourse ballistic missile defense tests in 2010, 2013, and 2014, although the United States believes the 2014 test was actually a test of an ASAT system.4 Chinese state media described all these tests as defensive in nature and not aimed at any country.5

One unusual feature of Chinese statements about the country’s ballistic missile defense intercept tests is that China made the statements at all. Beijing normally is quite secretive about its strategic weapons tests. Probably a major reason that ballistic missile defense constitutes such a striking exception is the worldwide condemnation China experienced with its 2007 ASAT test, which created a huge amount of harmful long-lived debris in low-earth orbit. The statements help Chinese leaders shape the narrative on these tests, rather than let others characterize them.

Although it is uncertain at this time whether China will deploy a strategic missile defense system in the coming years, it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility and remain unprepared for what could be an important new development in a dimension of the strategic environment that the United States has had largely to itself for the last 25 years. Just the series of missile defense tests that China has conducted in the past five years should make the United States and its allies alert to this important possibility and encourage closer examination of China’s possible motivations and objectives. Accordingly, a limited Chinese strategic missile defense deployment is probably less unlikely than most people realize.

Factors in China’s Decision

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (left) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in Beijing on October 9, 1986. In 1983, Deng canceled the so-called 640 Program, an early Chinese effort to explore missile defense. [Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images]China’s strategic missile defense program has reached a stage of maturity that makes deployment a viable option. The questions now are whether, when, and to what purpose might it do so. Dozens of officials and experts in China and the United States responded to a list of factors that could make China want to develop strategic missile defense and could lead toward potential deployment. The list was created prior to the meetings, and the officials and experts helped revise and refine it. These factors are presented here in roughly descending order of what is believed to be their importance to China.

Achieving better understanding of strategic missile defense technology. In discussions, many of the Chinese officials and experts said that R&D would be useful for China’s own planning and intelligence gathering and would provide insight into the vulnerabilities of U.S. ballistic missile defense systems and ways to overcome or defeat those systems. Such knowledge would be useful in general and especially in understanding the intricacies and challenges of current and future U.S. ballistic missile defense systems and their components.

Some experts believe that China will not go beyond development and thus will not deploy a system. This is certainly possible. Notably, China would gain important operational information and insight if it deployed a missile defense system. Most of those operational insights, however, could be gained from a limited deployment, with only incremental benefit from more-sizable deployment levels.

Because Chinese leaders have felt humiliated by foreign powers’ domination from the early 19th to the mid-20th century, “there is strong Chinese sentiment that China cannot fall behind technologically …[lest China become] vulnerable to outside security threats. This is evident in the Chinese phrase luohou jiuyao aida, or ‘the backward will be beaten up,’ which permeates Chinese culture as well as defense policy.”6

Providing a cover for kinetic-energy ASAT testing. The 2007 Chinese ASAT test used hit-to-kill technology very similar to the technology that China is currently testing in its strategic missile defense program, for which China has not been criticized. Unlike a full ASAT test, these missile defense tests do not generate long-lived orbital debris. As a result, developing strategic missile defense provides a public rationale that allows China to continue to improve its kinetic ASAT technology while avoiding the diplomatic downsides of ASAT testing, which have undercut China’s campaign against the weaponization of space. As one PLA official said, the hit-to-kill technology “is useful for both missile defense and space applications, but space is more important.” The connection between strategic missile defense and ASAT weapons was widely accepted and understood. No one tried to deny Chinese ASAT activity. At a minimum, it was defended as necessary for technical readiness and an understanding of what the United States and others might do in that area.

Enhancing technological prestige and sending a message. Strategic missile defense without nuclear-armed interceptors is a very challenging mission, one that very few nations have even partially mastered. Technologically, it is much more difficult than defense against shorter-range missiles, which travel at much slower velocities. China is rightly proud of its growing technological prowess in many fields and seeks ways to demonstrate this prowess. Demonstrating its capability would represent a “technological merit badge” for China, one that few others can match. Such a capability would be a point of Chinese pride on domestic and international stages. This capability also would be a subtle form of deterrence, sending a message especially to India, Japan, and the United States that “we are strong,” “we have muscle,” and “we are able,” phrases used multiple times during the meetings in China.7

Countering growing Indian ICBM capabilities. India has successfully tested its canister-launched, three-stage Agni-5 ICBM and is expected to begin deploying it in 2016, putting all major Chinese metropolitan areas within range of Indian nuclear weapons for the first time. India is expected to begin testing an even longer-range, larger-payload Agni-6 ICBM by 2017, expected to be capable of carrying multiple warheads. Because China and India likely see their offensive nuclear capabilities as intended for deterrence rather than nuclear war-fighting, these developments need not be directly provocative. From a domestic political perspective, Chinese leaders may feel the need to respond to such developments because China’s perceived nuclear vulnerability to India, symbolized by the new ICBMs, could become a potent political issue.

Keeping up with Indian developments in ballistic missile defense. A related incentive for China to develop and deploy at least some form of strategic missile defense is that India is seeking to develop and deploy a strategic missile defense system itself. According to the director-general of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, India expects to have the capability by 2016 to protect against ballistic missiles having a range of up to 5,000 kilometers.8 From a purely political perspective, as one Chinese academic said in a tone of complete incredulity, “Can you imagine India having strategic ballistic missile defense and China not having it?”9 India and China are taking some important steps to reduce tensions between them, but there remains a strong subtext of competition and wariness between the two countries.

Reinforcing Chinese ICBM survivability. China is deeply committed to maintaining the deterrent credibility of its nuclear forces, especially to ensuring that the country can withstand an intended disarming first strike and still have a sufficient number of weapons to retaliate. Because China has a nuclear arsenal that is far smaller than those of Russia and the United States, it has a smaller margin of error and is quite sensitive to potential perceived threats to its deterrent capabilities. As one Chinese specialist said, “Do not mistake China’s lean nuclear deterrent as meaning it will not do whatever is necessary to maintain the viability of that smaller deterrent.”10

Because of China’s great respect for U.S. technological capabilities, it is possible that the Chinese leadership and the PLA would have concerns that road-mobile ICBMs that China has been developing are not a permanent future guarantee of ICBM survivability. As U.S. surveillance, intelligence, sensor, reconnaissance, and especially software capabilities advance, along with the ability to extract useful information from the “big data” that these capabilities provide, China will likely continue to have concerns about the survivability of road-mobile ICBMs.

To destroy these missiles, the United States or Russia would not need to identify a mobile ICBM’s location precisely. It is important to remember that road-mobile ICBMs are much softer targets than silo-based ones, which means that a Chinese adversary would need to locate a Chinese road-mobile ICBM to within only a few miles to have confidence in its ability to destroy it with a nuclear weapon. A Chinese strategic missile defense capability tailored to this threat to the mobile missiles could not guarantee survivability, but at the least, it could seriously complicate an adversary’s planning. China could not count on its missile defense system working well, but neither could the adversary count on the system failing to work well. This perception effect creates a modest but important island of stability in an otherwise potentially unstable crisis situation. In a high-stakes crisis where the use of nuclear weapons is being contemplated, a modest level of Chinese ballistic missile defense for its silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs could strengthen China’s ability to deter an adversary’s launch of nuclear weapons.

Inoculating the leadership against domestic charges that it was leaving China defenseless against external missile threats. Xi Jinping is a powerful leader, but he serves as president at the pleasure of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. Although his position presently appears secure, it is not very difficult to envision a scenario in which his hold on power could become more tenuous: a serious decline in China’s economy, growing unemployment, a collapse of the stock market or banking system, new scandals, and other ills. A political attack from another party faction that pointed out that Beijing would be helpless if even a single nuclear-armed missile were heading toward China could be a serious political threat, as it proved to be in the United States in the late 1990s. Even a small Chinese missile defense, which would provide other security benefits as well, could seem like a reasonable and low-cost domestic political insurance policy. Politically, there is a big difference between a small strategic missile defense system and none at all.

Defending essential “point targets.” As a variation on defending its ICBM locations, China may wish to defend smaller, high-value assets against possible attack from, say, India. Particular candidates would be central leadership locations, for example, Beijing; essential military facilities such as nuclear weapons storage sites and the Chinese ballistic missile submarine base; or key economic areas whose loss could threaten domestic stability, such as the Three Gorges Dam.11

The cost of a robust defense would be substantial, so the number of such sites would likely be limited to a few high-priority locations, but certainly those that provided protection to senior officials would qualify. The radars and interceptors for such point defenses would be different from those used for broad-area defense, with interception taking place within the atmosphere much closer to the attacking missile’s target rather than outside the atmosphere. The atmosphere strips away the chaff and decoys that help hide the nuclear warhead from radar detection, making warhead detection and tracking much easier. At this point, however, the nuclear warhead is very close to its target and still moving quite fast.

An interceptor for this type of engagement can cover only a limited area, much more limited than missiles that intercept the warhead much farther away. This means that it can defend only a few high-value targets unless a country is prepared to make extraordinary expenditures. China could choose to develop and deploy both kinds of strategic missile defense systems, but this would be a costly endeavor.

Other possible Chinese incentives for deployment include introducing a level of uncertainty in U.S. allies about the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantee, especially as the U.S. strategic arsenal is reduced in an eventual follow-on agreement to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty; acquiring important negotiating leverage in any eventual multilateral strategic arms control negotiations; and creating technology spin-offs, especially for theater missile defense.

On the other hand, China has to consider several important disincentives for proceeding with deployment.

Incurring large costs for the deployment and operation of an effective system. Developing and deploying an effective strategic missile defense system would be expensive. A number of academics in China made reference to the cost of deployment, with a few calling strategic ballistic missile defense “a money-burning program” and “a hole with no bottom.”12

Contradicting past Chinese position on strategic missile defense. Actual deployment of a missile defense system would represent a major shift in Chinese policy. Yet, it would not be the first time Beijing would have made such a shift; Chinese ASAT behavior is a notable previous example.

Deployment also would be a jarring contrast to the peaceful image China has sought to present to the world. Nevertheless, if Chinese leaders decide that such a move would be in their national interest, they would provide justifications for the change—for example, that U.S. behavior was forcing them to take this step against their preferences. In two separate meetings, two PLA officials said that internal discussions about China deploying a strategic missile defense system are taking place. They emphasized, however, that nothing has been resolved and that any decision would take place at a very high level.13

Triggering potential adverse responses from India, Japan, the United States, and possibly others. Chinese work on developing strategic missile defense does not appear to have led to any significant responses from other countries, but actual deployment could do so and could lead to offensive-defensive arms races that China would most likely want to avoid. 

Observations and Conclusions

Chinese President Xi Jinping participates in an arrival ceremony at the White House on September 25. [Photo credit: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images]Chinese development of strategic missile defense is ongoing and is helping China understand the complexities of designing such a system and what its weak points are, whether or not it decides to deploy the system. In addition, this development provides an important hedging option for China against an uncertain and evolving future strategic environment.

China faces a variety of incentives and disincentives for deploying a strategic missile defense system. Whether China would deploy such a system is unclear, but the very fact that such a decision is under consideration is telling and represents a major change over the last 10 years. At a minimum, it appears that a Chinese deployment of a missile defense system is probably less unlikely than most U.S. defense analysts have assessed it to be.

Such a deployment would likely be limited. The most compelling reasons for China to deploy a strategic missile defense system involve the small number of interceptors required. Seeking to defend against the larger U.S. or Russian nuclear arsenal would require a very large investment with no assurance it could reach its goal because either adversary would almost certainly take offsetting steps to counter such a Chinese initiative. Furthermore, even were it to ultimately deploy missile defense interceptors in greater numbers over a wider area, China would want to gain more experience in what would be a new class of weapons for it.

Following are the most likely reasons for a limited deployment.

  • It would provide China with a plausible cover to continue testing its kinetic-energy ASAT system. This suggests that a limited nationwide or regional defense would be more likely than a point defense although the latter cannot be ruled out. Point defense would not provide much cover for an ASAT testing program.
  • It would send a strategic message to India, Japan, and the United States, in that order, that China is capable of defending itself and overcoming major technical obstacles to do so.
  • It would enhance China’s regional prestige and sway, providing a “technological merit badge” of recognition for achieving such a difficult technological task.

The United States would likely have no technical reason to make any significant adjustments to its strategic posture in response to the most likely levels of any Chinese strategic missile defense deployments. It would be more likely that the United States would need to respond somehow to address domestic U.S. political concerns and concerns of U.S. allies, especially in Asia. The U.S. responses would seek to demonstrate that the U.S. strategic nuclear posture and forces are robust and able to deal with such deployments. A number of technical options available to the United States should suffice, particularly in missile defense penetration aids and enhancements to the bomber leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.

A Chinese move to deploy early-warning satellites would be a significant indicator of greater interest in strategic missile defense deployment, as it would be a crucial component of an effective strategic missile defense system. Such satellites would not be necessary for a deployment devoted exclusively to ASAT testing.

In summary, Chinese deployment of a limited strategic missile defense system should be no cause for alarm by the United States and other countries. Yet, the implications would be significant and would merit greater understanding through increased dialogue and more-thorough policy and technical review.

This article has only scratched the surface of this issue. One area for further analysis is the new dynamics of a multipolar strategic missile defense world. In particular, especially in light of Indian determination to deploy such defenses and Russian deployment a growing possibility as well, the management of strategic nuclear crises in the Eurasian region could become more challenging. Alternatively, if the affected countries can reach agreements through dialogues and the establishment of rules of engagement, strategic stability could result.

Bruce W. MacDonald is special adviser to the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Project at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Charles D. Ferguson is president of the FAS. This article is based on the report “Understanding the Dragon Shield: Likelihood and Implications of Chinese Strategic Ballistic Missile Defense,” developed under work supported by the Naval Postgraduate School Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering WMD with funding from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The views and conclusions are those of the authors. 


1.  Frank A. Rose, “Ensuring the Long-Term Sustainability and Security of the Space Environment” (remarks, U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium, Omaha, Nebraska, August 13, 2014), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2014/230611.htm (hereinafter Rose STRATCOM remarks).

2.  Steps China has taken include deployments of the road-mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), development and likely future deployment of the longer-range DF-41 ICBM, development of Jin-class ballistic missile submarines and associated JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and deployment of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles on its older DF-5 ICBM and possible deployment on the DF-41.

3.  U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 7, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2015_China_Military_Power_Report.pdf.

4.  Rose STRATCOM remarks.

5.  Frank A. Rose, “Ballistic Missile Defense and Strategic Stability in East Asia” (remarks, Federation of American Scientists, Washington, D.C., February 20, 2015), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2015/237746.htm

6.  Denise E. Der, “Playing Defense: Examining China’s Intentions Regarding Ballistic Missile Defense” (master’s thesis, Georgetown University, 2015), p. 14.

7.  Chinese academic experts, meetings with authors, Beijing and Shanghai, February 2015.

8.  Wang Ting, “Agni V and China/India Ballistic Missile Defense” (presentation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, n.d.), http://carnegieendowment.org/files/Wang_Ting%20Presentation.pdf. The presentation took place during the week of October 2, 2012. See Sarah Weiner, “Recap: ‘China-India Nuclear Crossroads,’” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 9, 2012. http://csis.org/blog/event-recap-china-india-nuclear-crossroads. 

9.  Chinese academic, meeting with authors, Beijing, February 11, 2015.

10.  Chinese expert, meeting with authors, Beijing, February 10, 2015.

11.  In 1993 a Chinese scholar published an article that examined the threat to China’s Three Gorges Dam from missile strikes and raised the possibility of missile defense to protect it. Brad Roberts, “China and Ballistic Missile Defense: 1955 to 2002 and Beyond,” IDA Paper P-3826, September 2003, p. 21, n.80, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA418710 (citing Wan Yung-Kui, “Can the Chinese Armed Forces Successfully Protect the Three-Gorges Dam?” Hong Kong Tangai, No. 31 [October 15, 1993], pp. 72-80).

12.  Chinese academics, meetings with authors, Beijing, February 2015.

13.  People’s Liberation Army officials, meetings with author (MacDonald), Beijing, February 2015.

It is quite possible that China could deploy a strategic missile defense system with a small number of interceptors within the next few years. 


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