Missile Defense - 33 Minutes The Heritage Foundation

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The History of SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and Missile Defense in America

Contrary to common perception, the U.S. government has been researching and developing missile defense systems for more than 60 years. Since countries began developing ballistic missiles, the United States has been invested in finding solutions to protect Americans and our friends and allies from them. The first missile defense system was drawn up by a British general during World War II, and consisted of radars and massive antiaircraft artillery.

This kick started the U.S. government's efforts in researching and developing missile defense systems. Throughout the Cold War we ran a series of different missile defense programs. It started with Projects Thumper and Wizard in 1946 under the U.S. Air Force. The Army also developed a program in the 1950s called Project Plato, which would eventually become the popular PATRIOT missile of today.

Many feared that deploying a missile defense system would fuel an arms race with Moscow. The political decision to hold population hostage to adversary’s attack (also popularly know as a “balance of terror” or “mutually assured destruction” was codified by 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty signed between the United States and the Russian Federation. However, the same logic did not apply in case of China. Because it was widely believed that China has far less ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, the defense against their missiles was deemed appropriate. But the ABM Treaty caused the United States to forgo defenses of the population. The Johnson Administration initiated a missile defense system called Sentinel that would protect U.S. cities against the attack from China.

The ABM Treaty limited each country to two missile defense sites; the number was brought down to one per country in 1974. The Nixon Administration renamed the Sentinel system to Safeguard and deployed it around U.S. ICBM silos in North Dakota. However, Congress cut funding for the system which was not operation more than 5 months. The ABM treaty significantly retarded U.S. ballistic missile development writ large.

It wasn't until President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech in 1983 proposing his Strategic Defense Initiative that missile defense became a common household term. Reagan did not believe in the strategy of mutually assured destruction and preferred a strategy of protecting Americans from ballistic missiles.

Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the need for missile defense quickly dissipated. The Bush Sen. administration rejected proposal of Mikhail Gorbachev to jointly develop global ballistic missile defense system. President Bill Clinton wished to remain compliant to the terms of the ABM Treaty, and allowed very little research and testing to be done.

Under President George W. Bush, however, missile defense has received drastically more attention. The United States withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002, and since then has been vigorously developing, testing and deploying missile defense technology. Since October 1999, the military has conducted more than 50 intercepts.

In 2008, the U.S. has moved beyond tests, and used our Aegis ballistic missile defense system to successfully shoot down a broken satellite falling towards earth. In 2010, the Airborne Laser (now know as the Airborne Laser Test Bed) successfully acquired, tracked and intercepted two short-range ballistic missiles, one liquid-fueled Scud-like missile and the other solid-fueled U.S. target missile. It is fair to say that missile defense is no longer scientific theory, but a well-tested and functioning system.