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Analysis: The Logic of Missile Defense

Council on Foreign Relations

May 7, 2007
Prepared by: Lionel Beehner

U.S. missile defense policy has a checkered history. In 1983, when President Ronald Reagan first proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed Star Wars by its detractors, the plan raised eyebrows in the scientific and diplomatic community. Scientists doubted whether space-based interceptors could create an impenetrable shield; diplomats questioned whether it was wise to abandon the military doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD—the foundation for Cold War-era stability.

Fast-forward two decades. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty has been scrapped, Iran is widely believed to be pursuing a nuclear program for military purposes, and the United States and Russia are no longer mortal enemies. But there is residual distrust. Once again, Washington wants to build a missile shield consisting of radar and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly aimed at rogue states like Iran, yet the Kremlin opposes the move (IHT). To signal his disapproval, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would suspend its obligations under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the implications of which are explained in this new Backgrounder. He has hinted he may abrogate other arms treaties, including the two-decades-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Questions still hang over the efficacy of missile defense. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates say the limited system is “oriented against a potential enemy with a small arsenal, attempting to blackmail our people, sow chaos, and sap our collective will.” Yet the problem, writes Ivan Eland of the California-based Independent Institute, “has always been that an adversary can more cheaply build decoys and other countermeasures, or even additional missiles, to overcome or defeat an expensive and limited defense system.”

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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