The origins of the US ballistic missile defence debate (1945–1989)
The US ballistic missile defence debate did not start with George W. Bush’s decision to deploy a layered BMD system in 2002, or even with Ronald Reagan’s 1983 announcement of the SDI. The idea of constructing defences to protect against the missile attack can actually be traced all the way back to the German V2 rocket and the last days of the Second World War. Almost as soon as the US began researching and developing anti-missile technology, questions and debate arose about the strategic wisdom, technological feasibility and cost of such a programme; debates that dominated strategic planning during the Cold War, and which continued to influence policy several generations later. As a result, knowledge of the period 1945-1989 is essential in order to understand the pressures and dynamics that would drive and shape policy in the post-Cold War world. The evolution of thinking and policy between 1945 and 1989 would be central to the post-Cold War missile defence debate in several fundamental ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, the condition of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) – whereby the best form of defence was considered to be offense and vulnerability – created a strong political lobby of officials, policy makers and commentators wedded to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and to the notion that BMD was inherently destabilising. Second, the technological problems associated with ballistic missile defence – especially after the rejection of nuclear explosions for interception in the 1980s1 – combined with the huge cost of researching, developing and deploying such defences over this period, led many to believe that such a system was simply too difficult or too expensive, and that better means of assuring US security existed. The final key dynamic was a political and ideological split between ‘arms controllers’ and ‘cold warriors’, with the former seeing BMD as destabilising and the latter as a necessity for US security. This divide began along ideological lines in the 1970s in the wake of the ABM Treaty, and became party-politicised during the 1980s – particularly following the announcement of the SDI – with Republicans broadly favouring the idea of strategic/national ballistic missile defences, and Democrats broadly against. The net result was that as the Cold War ended, US thinking on missile defence was split along several different and important lines, setting the stage for the political battles that would play out between 1989 and 2012.