Missile Defense

July 23, 2011

Readings and activities to help students consider and debate the pros and cons.

Introduction for the Teacher

The missile defense controversy is now almost 20 years old, dating to President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech on March 23, 1983 and continuing today under the administration of President George W. Bush, who recently ordered the Pentagon to field an antimissile system within two years. Bush says the system will add to the nation's security at a time of continuing terrorist threats, even if at first in a limited way. Others argue that the September 11 attacks demonstrate that the U.S. is far more vulnerable to relatively low-tech terrorist assaults than to missile attacks, and that it is a waste of money to devote billions of dollars to a missile defense whose workability is very questionable. Opponents also argue that the missile defense program is as much about offense as it is about defense.
And so the missile defense debate continues. It is part of a larger debate over how best to protect Americans from weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, biological, and chemical. As such, it warrants student understanding.


Activity 1

Write the term "MISSILE DEFENSE" on the chalkboard. Ask students for words, ideas, or information they associate with it and list them without comment underneath. The result might look something like the following:
  • protection from attack
  • North Korea
  • nuclear bombs
  • will it work?
  • Iraq
  • safety
  • terrorists
  • expensive
When students have nothing further to add, ask if there are any questions about what is on the list or any other questions about missile defense and write them on the board. Have students analyze the questions in terms of the following criteria:
1. Which questions call for a factual answer? Where might the information be obtained?
2. Which questions call for an opinion? Whose opinion? Why?
3. Which questions call for the definition of certain words before they can be answered? Which words? Why?
4. Which questions contain assumptions? Are these assumptions reasonable to make? Why or why not?
5. Which questions are impossible to answer? Why?
6. Which questions are unclear and need to be reworded before they can be answered?
7. Which questions call for predictions? Whose? Why?
Have students write down the revised list of questions in their notebooks.

Activity 2

Distribute copies of Student Reading 1: The Missile Defense Issue for students to read.

Student Reading 1:

The Missile Defense Issue

Warfare in the 20th century was revolutionized by two developments:
  • Huge leaps in the power of explosives, especially nuclear bombs. Even one such bomb is capable to destroying a city and killing millions of people.
  • Huge leaps in the speed and distance weapons of mass destruction can travel via ballistic missiles. These missiles can cover 8,000 miles at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour.
A ballistic missile consists of a rocket booster and one or more warheads. The rocket booster operates for about the first 10 to 15 percent of the time the missile is in flight, then shuts off and usually separates from the warhead or warheads. The warhead follows an arch-like flight path and is acted upon mainly by gravity.
U.S. research on defense against a ballistic missile attack began after the end of World War II in 1945. During the Cold War years that followed the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in an intense arms race that resulted in the creation of thousands of nuclear weapons and missile systems to deliver them to enemy targets. Both sides had the power to destroy the other and both sides knew it. Neither side could attack the other without fearing that it too would be destroyed. This deadly state of affairs became known as mutually assured destruction, or MAD.
Both sides also knew that one way of getting around MAD was to build an effective ballistic missile defense system. The country that had one could attack the other without fearing retaliation. But such a system would require the invention of new technologies and be very expensive. It would also upset the relatively stable relations between the two countries. The leaders of both countries concluded, strangely enough, that world peace depended upon both countries being vulnerable to attack: that world peace, in short, depended upon MAD. As a result, the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972 agreed to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). It forbid each country from developing a missile defense system on its national territory.
Twenty years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and was divided into a number of nations. The largest, Russia, became the possessor of most of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons and missiles. But Russia also became friendlier with the U.S. than the Soviet Union had been. U.S. leaders began to worry most about possible nuclear threats from such nations as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as well as accidental or unauthorized missile launches by Russia or some other nation. When George W. Bush became President, his administration decided that the ABM Treaty stood in the way of building a national missile defense (NMD) to protect against such threats.
On December 12, 2001 President Bush announced that he had given Russia formal notice that the U.S. was withdrawing from the treaty. He said:
"We know that the terrorists, and some of those who support them, seek the ability to deliver death and destruction to our doorstep via missiles. And we must have the freedom and flexibility to develop effective defenses against those attacks."
Critics argued that this decision jeopardized the system of arms control that had been built up with the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the decision was "an erroneous one" but did not object strenuously. China and some European allies objected as well.
But the U.S. went ahead with research and development of an NMD, and one year later, on December 17, 2002, President Bush announced plans for a very limited system to defend the country against a very limited attack from a nation like North Korea. The intention is to have such a system in operation by 2004 with 10 land-based interceptors in Alaska and California. By 2005 there are to be an additional 10 land-based interceptors in Alaska and other improvements, including up to 20 sea-based interceptors that would attempt to destroy ballistic missiles shortly after they are launched. Any attack from nations with more than a few long-range missiles, like Russia and China, would overwhelm this system.
Over the years the U.S. has spent some $60 billion on missile defense research and development. To finance the new, limited project, Pentagon officials say the Bush administration would be seeking $1.5 billion over the next two years, on top of $16 billion for this and other missile defense projects. In making his announcement, the President said that the plan "will add to America's security and serve as a starting point for improved and expanded capabilities later."
Critics contend that repeated test failures in antimissile systems over many years demonstrate that producing a workable missile defense is, even if theoretically possible, extremely unlikely. They point to the September 11 attacks as evidence that the U.S. is far more vulnerable to low-tech terrorist assaults than to missile attacks. They argue that if an enemy nuclear weapon reaches the U.S. it is much more likely to arrive in a ship's container or a suitcase than via a missile.

Activity 3

Discuss the following with students:
1. Which of our questions, if any, does the article answer?
2. Are there questions about any matters in the article that you would like to have clarified?
3. Does the article raise any other questions for you?
4. Help students work toward clarity on the following issues:
  • the revolutionary changes in warfare
  • the purpose of the ABM Treaty
  • why the U.S. withdrew from it
  • the nature of the limited Bush missile defense plan
  • why the missile defense issue is so important
Distribute Student Reading 2: The Pros and Cons of Missile Defense. Ask students to read it and take notes about the arguments for and against:
  • the workability of missile defense
  • the cost of missile defense
  • the purposes of missile defense plans
They should also take notes on the following matters:
  • Which, if any, of the questions in your notebook does the article answer?
  • What questions, if any, does each article raise for you? Be prepared to ask these questions in class.

Student Reading 2:

The Pros and Cons of Missile Defense

The Case for Missile Defense
"The case for deploying a national missile defense system has never been more clear. Today the United States cannot stop a single ballistic missile headed for an American city. The consequences of such an attack would be devastating."
—Representative Duncan Hunter, California Republican and vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, 12/17/02
Representative Hunter's statement represents the basic reason that missile defense has had supporters since the successful firing of the first ballistic missile. Warfare, they say, has always meant the creation of defenses against attack. People built walled cities in ancient times to keep out invading armies. They fashioned armor to protect knights from enemy lances. Later, they invented anti-aircraft guns to shoot down attacking planes carrying bombs. Missile defense is simply a reasonable method to protect against far more lethal weapons.
"I believe that it is strategically and morally necessary to build a missile defense. Strategically, because of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the missile technology to deliver them. Morally, because the doctrine of mutually assured destruction...is bankrupt."
—Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, 5/26/99
Mr. Kissinger's statement supports Representative Hunter's and goes one step further. It is morally wrong, he asserts, to rely on MAD, for the only defense that doctrine offered was to assure an enemy that it would be destroyed if we were. It is immoral to base one's defense on the murder of millions of innocent people. An effective missile defense system would mean we would not have to threaten other people's destruction to preserve our own safety.
"The best estimates indicate that missile defense for the U.S. territory is readily affordable. The projected costs of even the most ambitious deployment plans for missile defense are measured in tens of billions of dollars. These costs would be stretched out over a period of a decade or more. It is unlikely that any of these plans will consume more than 3 per cent of defense expenditures during this time frame."
—Baker Spring and James H. Anderson, The Heritage Fund Backgrounder, 10/5/98
Supporters of missile defense, like those in the Bush administration and the Heritage Foundation, maintain that it may be expensive but is nevertheless affordable. Most would probably go on to say that no matter how expensive missile defense turns out to be, the security of the U.S. and its citizens is the most important consideration.
Shooting down a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear weapon that has been fired thousands of miles away has often been compared to shooting down a bullet with another bullet. Supporters say that developing a missile defense system is a technological feat of a high order requiring much research, the invention of new devices, and repeated experiments and tests. But, they argue, it is not impossible.
Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish of the Air Force, who heads the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, has testified before Congress repeatedly on "the feasibility of missile defense." The U.S.'s ability to develop technology to protect the nation "should not be in question," he has said. "Test, fix, test, fix, that's what we're doing. When you look across the board, we have made, I think, significant progress in our overall hit-to-kill technology."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said he expects a series of failures as a missile defense system is tested, for any research and development program is bound to have its setbacks. He says that the very limited missile defense the President has proposed is "better than nothing. The reason I think it's important to start is because you have to put something in place and get knowledge about it and experience with it....I think the way to think about the missile defense program is that it will be an evolutionary program; it will evolve over a period of time. When it finishes some day out there in the years ahead, it very likely will look quite different than it begins."
"The perfect defense argument is a red herring used by those who remain unalterably opposed to missile defense. If perfection were the standard by which all military programs were judged, then the United States would not be able to deploy any programs whatsoever. A potential adversary contemplating a missile attack on the U.S. would still face grave uncertainties even if confronted by a less than perfect defense. The attacker could not be sure how many missiles would get through or what targets they would destroy; unknowns such as these strengthen deterrence."
—Spring and Anderson, The Heritage Fund Backgrounder
In short, supporters argue that missile defense is workable, moral and affordable, and that any missile defense is better than no missile defense.
The Case Against Missile Defense
"Put simply, national missile defense....will not work....and is a budget sink-hole."
—James K. Galbraith, Newsletter of Economists Allied for Arms Reduction, April/May 2001
"President Bush's announcement today that he plans to deploy missile defense systems starting in 2004 violates common sense by determining to deploy systems before they have been tested and shown to work."
Senator Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee
"Increased missile defense spending means fewer resources for public health and education, as well as for other defense programs that actually address existing terrorist threats." 
—Devon Chaffee, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 12/20/02
"Quality control errors can and have occurred in all phases of the tests." If all missile defense test failures are taken into account, the success rate is 41 percent."
—Dr. George N. Lewis and Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, both professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Arms Control Today, December 2002
Some critics of the missile defense program argue that its real purpose is to develop offensive, space-based weapons that will enable the U.S. to respond immediately and devastatingly to a threat to its interests anywhere in the world. They cite such official statements as follows to support their views:
"Unimpeded access to and use of space is and will remain a vital national interest. Space is now part of the tactical battlefield and its use is growing....The mission of space control is to ensure the freedom of action in space for the United States and its allies."
—Secretary of Defense's Annual Report to the President, 2001
The mission of the 76th Space Control Squadron is to "explore future space control technologies by testing models and prototypes of counterspace systems for rapid achievement of space superiority."
—Air Force Command
In 2001 the President released "The National Security Strategy of the United States," a document that states: "While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively....We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed....the President has no intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead the United States has opened since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."
Such statements lead critics of missile defense to conclude that "The real logic of missile defense is not to defend but to protect our freedom to attack." (Bill Keller, New York Times, 12/29/01). Keller cites a hypothetical conflict with China as an example: "Taiwan decides to risk a climactic break with mainland China. The mainland responds with a military tantrum. America would like to defend the island democracy against the Communist giant—but we are backed down by hints that Beijing cares enough about this issue to launch nuclear missiles. American voters may or may not support a conventional war for Taiwanese independence; they're much less likely to support one that risks the obliteration of our cities. Ah, but if we have an insurance policy, a battery of anti-missile weapons sufficient (in theory) to neutralize China's two dozen nuclear missiles, we would feel freer to go to war over Taiwan." Keller also asks if the U.S. would have intervened in Afghanistan so quickly after 9/11 if it had believed that the Taliban "had a single missile capable of pulverizing Washington." But if, the theory goes, the U.S. had a missile defense system able to protect against a limited attack, the Taliban's single missile would be a deterrent to a U.S. attack. "Missile defense, in other words, is not about defense. It's about offense," concludes Keller.
In short, opponents say that missile defense does not work, is enormously expensive, and may well be more about a national security strategy to ensure U.S. domination of other nations than about defending the U.S.


Activity 1

Review the assignment, checking to see that students understand the arguments about missile defense. Help students determine what questions on the class list have been answered and consider what additional questions need attention.
Suggested follow-up activities:
1. Ask students to write one well-developed paragraph expressing a tentative point of view on missile defense and the reasons that support it. The emphasis here is on "tentative," for students should understand that two days of reading and discussion on such a controversial and complex issue do not make them authorities.
2. Student questions can be the basis for a more extended inquiry into the missile defense debate. See "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for suggested procedures to follow for individual and small-group inquiries.
3. An interesting activity for students might be to poll a group of people to determine their views on missile defense. Through this activity students can learn not only something about what people think but also about the problems of polling. Polls pose some special problems. Perhaps the most important one is deciding exactly what you want to find out and then wording your questions so that they elicit the desired information fairly. Consider, for example, the following questions:
  • Do you support building a missile defense system to defend Americans against nuclear attack?
  • Do you support continuing to try to build a missile defense system even though the expenditure of billions of dollars has not produced anything yet?
  • Do you support efforts to build a missile defense system that Pentagon experts believe will defend Americans against an attack?
  • Do you support efforts to build a missile defense system even though many scientists do not believe that one will ever work?
Each of these questions calls for a yes, a no, or a don't know. The virtue of such responses is that they are easy to tabulate. But might it oversimplify an issue about which some people may have mixed feelings? Of course, it is possible to ask follow-up questions, but doing so will add to the time needed to conduct and tabulate the poll.
Other questions students might consider include:
  • Will respondents understand the complexity of a missile defense system?
  • Should the questions in the survey be preceded by a brief explanation of some of the ingredients in it?
  • How fair is the wording? Will words like "defend Americans" and "billions of dollars has not produced anything yet" evoke emotional rather than reasoned responses?
The concept of sampling may be unfamiliar to students and call for some explanation. Probably such a discussion will be useful even if the survey is to be a random sample. If some attempt at sampling is to be made, what demographic factors need to be taken into account? Among them might be sex, age, ethnic background, and economic status.
Students should be cautioned about the danger of generalizations based on limited evidence. Polling a handful of students and relatives, for example, does not make a person an authority on how the public views missile defense.


Center for Defense Information: cdi.org
Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space: space4peace.org
Heritage Foundation: heritage.org
Institute for Strategic Studies: ndu.edu/inss/insshp.html
National Institute for Public Policy: nipp.org
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: wagingpeace.org
Peace Action: peaceaction.org
New York Times, 12/18/02
Washington Post, 12/18/02
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org