Once called National Missile Defense, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program, or GMD, is complex. We recommend first learning more about it from our main missile defense page before reading the FAQs below. These answer some of the most common in-depth questions our missile defense experts receive.
Isn’t having something better than having nothing?
At a total cost of nearly $53 billion (and plans to spend approximately $10 billion more over the next five years), the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program has a failing test record. In a real-world scenario, the system cannot be relied upon to protect the United States from even an extremely limited attack. In this case — a nuclear attack against the homeland — deploying a failing system to attempt to thwart the attack makes little, if any, difference to not having any system at all.
Lawmakers have an obligation to undertake a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of complex military programs. Unfortunately, such an analysis has not been thoroughly conducted related to GMD. Every dollar spent expanding GMD, without first proving that the system works, is a dollar not spent on other, effective security and diplomatic programs that have been proven to enhance U.S. national security.
Why don’t we have enough interceptors to counter China and Russia?
“The systems that we have … are not focused on trying to render useless Russia’s nuclear capability. That, in our view, as in theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive.” —Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense
China and particularly Russia are the only countries that can seriously threaten the United States with a large-scale nuclear attack. However, ignoring the failing test record of the GMD system, it would be very expensive, dangerous, and destabilizing to build the hundreds or thousands of interceptors necessary to counter Chinese and Russian nuclear forces.
Hypothetically, if one country builds 100 interceptors to counter another country’s 100 missiles, the latter could simply build more missiles to overwhelm the defense. The defense would then rationally respond by building more interceptors, yet again causing the offensive country to build more missiles. The cycle then continues endlessly. This type of arms race is dangerous on its own, but it is also illogical for the defense. Offensive missiles are much cheaper and easier to build than interceptors, always giving the advantage to the offense. This hypothetical scenario also assumes that one interceptor can confidently knock down an incoming nuclear weapon, which it cannot. The GMD system has been effective 55% of the time in highly-scripted tests. In order to reach a confidence level of at least 90%, three interceptors would need to be fired at a single warhead.
Knowing the dangers of the offense-defense arms race, President Richard Nixon and then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972, which greatly limited the deployment of anti-missile systems. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2002. Ever since, bipartisan lawmakers have gone to painstaking lengths to articulate that GMD is designed only for limited or rogue missile attacks, not strategic attacks from Russia and China.
Nonetheless, some lawmakers want to build hundreds or even thousands of interceptors, which would be interpreted as a threat to Russia and China, a recipe for a new arms race.
Should we deploy missile defense systems in space?
Deploying a national missile defense architecture in space would be prohibitively expensive and strategically dangerous – and, considering the test record of the existing ground-based program, the chances of success are extremely low.
How much would it cost?
While the cost estimates for a space-based missile defense program vary, the authoritative National Academy of Sciences in 2012 assessed that an “austere” program would have a life-cycle cost of at least $300 billion in 2010 dollars (about $350 billion today). For perspective, NASA’s entire annual budget is $20 billion. As our experts John Tierney and Philip Coyle have written, “At a minimum, such a space-based missile defense system would brutally siphon funds from higher priority Pentagon programs.”
Would it work?
For a space-based missile defense interceptor to be effective, it would have to be in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). In LEO, the interceptor would be moving very quickly and wouldn’t be able to remain in position long enough to reach a boosting enemy missile. A study by the American Physical Society, recognizing this practical challenge, concluded that a system “would require a fleet of a thousand or more orbiting satellites just to intercept a single missile.” Such a system would be financially impractical and open up strategic destabilization as explained above in the previous FAQ.
You keep saying that missile defense has a failing test record? i thought the success rate was 80 percent?
Across the entire missile defense enterprise, which includes shorter-range missile defense systems, the success rate in testing is approximately 80 percent. However, shorter-range systems, such as the Patriot and THAAD missile defense programs, are limited to smaller, regional coverage areas. The only program designed to protect the entire United States homeland from a long-range missile attack is the GMD program. GMD has a failing test record: a success rate of just 55 percent in highly scripted tests, including three misses in the last six tries.
To learn more about national missile defense and the dangers of a space-based missile defense system, check out our experts’ analyses:
- “We May Not Be Able to Stop a North Korean Missile” by John Tierney, The New York Times
- “Congress Wants a Space-Based Missile Defense System. That’s a Colossally Bad Idea” by John Tierney and Philip Coyle, Defense One
- “A False Sense of Security” by Philip Coyle and James McKeon, U.S. News & World Report