"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
The National Missile Defense Act of 1999
Share this

Greg Thielmann

The National Missile Defense Act of 1999 was described by its chief sponsor, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), as "the necessary first step to protecting the United States from long-range ballistic missile attack."[1] Indeed, the act constituted an important milestone on the road to U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, a step that the sponsors of the act advocated. Although the act itself neither authorized any programs nor appropriated any funds, it was misrepresented then and has been misrepresented since as proof of strong congressional support for the urgent and unqualified pursuit of strategic missile defenses.

The National Missile Defense Act gave the United States a clearly stated policy goal: to "deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)...." These simple words essentially became executive branch policy following the election of 2000. They were adopted as a charter for the Missile Defense Agency, appearing prominently today on the home page of the agency's Web site. Although the meaning of "effective" has been subject to debate and the elections of 2006 and 2008 have affected the implementation of that policy, the act represents an enduring symbol of the potent backing strategic missile defense has received from Congress during the last 10 years.

Ironically, the threat assessments on which the act was based have proven unrealistic with regard to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. None of these countries and no other proliferant states have deployed long-range ballistic missiles in the decade following the act.

The sponsors of the act also identified growing Chinese missile deployments as a source of concern, "perhaps [the] most troubling"[2] in the words of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet, the U.S. strategic ballistic missile defenses deployed after passage of the act were never intended to defend against a deliberate Chinese attack.

Those missile defense deployments were also not directed at a deliberate Russian attack, although the act prepared the way for the U.S. decision in 2001 to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, which had been a keystone in the management of the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship. The Russians abandoned START II on the day after U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. In ratifying START II, the Russian Duma had conditioned its approval on continuing U.S. adherence to the ABM Treaty.

The Russian abandonment of START II, which the United States had never ratified, removed any chance of reducing Russian strategic offensive forces under the stabilizing terms of that treaty. Although Russian missile and warhead numbers continued to decline even without START II, the Russians were able to retain "heavy ICBMs" and other land-based ballistic missiles with multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

In short, China and Russia have increased the quality and, in the case of China, the quantity, of their strategic ballistic missile forces in response to U.S. missile defense programs. However, there is no evidence that the U.S. programs have dissuaded the states of proliferation concern from developing or deploying ballistic missiles.

Cold War Origins

The United States and the Soviet Union deployed limited numbers of strategic missile defense interceptors and radars in the middle years of the Cold War. These defenses were designed to cope with the intercontinental-range (greater than 5,500 kilometers) and intermediate-range (3,000-5,500 kilometers) ballistic missiles, with which the two sides could threaten each other's homeland. The U.S.S.R. went first, deploying nearly 100 nuclear-armed ABM interceptors around Moscow in the 1960s. The United States began deploying a comparable number of nuclear-armed ABM interceptors at Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1974. The 1972 ABM Treaty had banned the United States and U.S.S.R. from developing nationwide defenses as well as systems or components for sea-based, air-based, space-based, or mobile land-based ABM deployments. The treaty permitted each side to build ABM systems at two fixed locations for defense of each national capital area and a land-based missile base, with up to 100 interceptors at each site. A 1974 protocol to the treaty reduced that allowance, limiting each side to only one site. The Soviets opted to maintain their system around Moscow while the United States elected to protect a missile field in North Dakota, until Congress cut off funding in 1975. A 1997 agreement on confidence-building measures, negotiated in the ABM Treaty's Special Consultative Commission, precisely demarcated strategic missile defense interceptors from those that were designed to intercept tactical and theater ballistic missiles. The latter systems were deemed incapable of overcoming the technical challenge of coping with the much faster re-entry of ICBM and sea-launched ballistic missile warheads.

Although the Soviets sought to be able to defend their capital and national leadership against the new U.S. missile threat that emerged in the 1960s, they never succeeded. U.S. warheads and the options for countermeasures were too numerous and the radars on which the Moscow system relied too vulnerable. Yet, bureaucratic inertia, vested interests, and the psychological desire to have some defense, however inadequate, have allowed vestiges of the Soviet/Russian system to survive even to the present day.

The United States was susceptible to the no-less-potent illusion that it could use technology to replace the defensive shield two oceans had historically provided for keeping enemies at bay. Nurtured by an almost unlimited faith in technological solutions and feeling the same natural reluctance as the Soviets to accept vulnerability, Washington plowed ahead until the inevitable logic of cost effectiveness caught up with strategic defenses in the mid-1970s when the Safeguard ABM system was canceled and dismantled. Although a new vision of a defensive umbrella that would render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" was articulated by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, the Strategic Defense Initiative he launched two years later eventually fell victim to the "cost effectiveness at the margin" criterion advocated by his own special adviser, Paul Nitze. Strategic missile defense planning changed direction successively under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, but research and development funding remained robust throughout both presidencies, and neither administration made any decision to deploy strategic defenses.

Three events were key in creating the political environment for passage of the National Missile Defense Act. First was the 1994 U.S. congressional elections, which gave the Republicans a majority in the House and Senate. The new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), included "a renewed commitment to a National Missile Defense" in his "Contract With America."[3] Republicans in both houses consistently and relentlessly pursued this goal as part of the GOP's political agenda, culminating in passage of the 1999 act.

Report Spurs Action

The second and most important substantive development was the July 1998 release of the Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, who had been President Gerald Ford's secretary of defense. The report's executive summary warned that North Korea and Iran would be able to inflict major destruction on the United States within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability and that both placed "a high priority on threatening U.S. territory" and were even then "pursuing advanced ballistic missile capabilities to pose a direct threat to U.S. territory."[4] The report claimed that any other nation with a well-developed, Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructure could be within five years of an ICBM capability. Finally, the report warned that the United States "might have little or no warning before operational deployment" of these systems.[5]

The dire warnings of the Rumsfeld Commission were subject to considerable criticism and controversy among experts. Senate Democrats were still confident going into the August recess that year that they could sustain efforts by the Clinton administration to avoid congressional passage of an unqualified endorsement of strategic missile defense in reaction to the report. The public, however, which had already been spooked by Rumsfeld's depiction of a potential near-term threat from "rogue state" ballistic missiles, was about to receive a further jolt. North Korea surprised the world with its August 31, 1998, attempt to place a satellite in space using a three-stage Taepo Dong-1 rocket. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, no missile re-entry vehicle was tested, and the system's throw weight was inadequate to deliver a nuclear-sized payload to the United States, the political impact of the event was enormous. Proponents of strategic missile defenses skillfully used the North Korean launch as vindication of the Rumsfeld Commission's warnings and accompanying allegations that previous U.S. intelligence assessments had been overly sanguine.

Most Democratic senators became unwilling to stand behind White House threats to veto the strategic missile defense resolution being pushed by the Republican majority. The alternative strategy the Democrats chose was to make the issue go away by adding language to make the bill uncontroversial. Amendments to the policy bill provided reminders that any national missile defense program funding would have to be subject to annual authorization and appropriation measures and that it was still U.S. policy to seek negotiated reductions in Russian strategic forces. Clinton stressed that the amendments made clear that no deployment decision had been made, but the simple language of the bill implied strongly that Congress recognized U.S. technological obstacles as the only acceptable justification for delay. The Senate bill passed 97-3 on March 17, 1999. The House bill passed the next day, 317-105.

Clinton announced in 2000 that strategic missile defenses, then under the rubric of the National Missile Defense program, were sufficiently promising and affordable to justify continued development and testing but that there was not sufficient information about the technical and operational effectiveness of the entire system to move forward with deployment. He noted that critical elements, such as the booster rocket for the interceptor, had not been tested and that there were questions about the system's ability to deal with countermeasures.[6]

At the outset of the Bush administration in 2001, the programmatic course of strategic ballistic missile defense and the future of the ABM Treaty were still up in the air. That summer, a bipartisan majority of the Senate Armed Services Committee even voted to reduce missile defense funding.

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon created an entirely different atmosphere for continuing the debate. In the fearful wake of those attacks, President George W. Bush was successful in supercharging strategic missile defense procurement and deployment. In spite of virtually unanimous international opposition, he announced U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in late 2001 and a commitment to deploy strategic defense interceptors by 2004. The U.S.-based deployments and their "operational" designation were accomplished only after Rumsfeld, whom Bush had appointed secretary of defense, suspended traditional acquisition rules and operational testing criteria, introducing an unconventional and controversial "spiral" development process. By the end of two terms, the Bush administration was able to deploy a set of 20 ground-based missile defense (GMD) interceptors at sites in Alaska and California and to plan for deploying another 24 there and 10 more in Poland.

The ABM Treaty constituted a tacit acknowledgment by both sides that unlimited strategic defenses constituted a threat to the stability of the balance in offensive forces. Each side further demonstrated by its subsequent actions, albeit at different times, that offenses and defenses were inextricably connected. In 1988 the United States demanded that the Soviet Union dismantle the large phased-array radar Moscow was constructing at Krasnoyarsk before Washington would agree to any new offensive arms control limits.[7]

In response to U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty on June 13, 2002, Russia announced one day later that it would no longer consider itself bound by START II, consistent with the Duma's ratification terms in 2000, which were contingent on continuation of the ABM Treaty. Thus, not for the first or last time, U.S. determination to escape from strategic missile defense strictures led to the loss of an opportunity to secure lower limits and stabilizing measures in strategic offensive forces.

In 2004 the Bush administration began talks with eastern European states to explore the potential use of their territory for deployment of U.S. GMD interceptors and a sophisticated midcourse X-band radar. By the end of his administration, Bush had secured agreements with the Czech Republic for hosting the radar and Poland for hosting the missile interceptors, but the agreements remain to be ratified by the host governments. Meanwhile, on the U.S. side, the pendulum again seems to be swinging away from the urgent priority assigned to strategic missile defense by the Bush administration. President Barack Obama said in his April 5, 2009, Prague speech that he would only go forward with a missile defense system in Europe that was "cost effective and proven." His revised request for the Missile Defense Agency in the fiscal year 2010 budget was $7.8 billion, a $1.2 billion funding cut in missile defense.[8]


In this tenth anniversary year of the National Missile Defense Act, it is worth noting that the North Korean ICBM seen as imminent when the act was passed has still not been successfully flight-tested. Deployment is down the road, "probably another three to five years minimum," according to Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [9] Helms worried during the 1999 debate over the act that "Iran may very well be able to deploy an ICBM before America has a missile defense to counter it, even if the United States breaks ground on construction tomorrow morning."[10] In fact, neither Iran nor any of the other emerging ballistic missile states the Rumsfeld Commission said could have ICBMs by 2003 has them today.

The sponsors of the National Missile Defense Act were correct in predicting that the pursuit of strategic missile defenses outside the ABM Treaty would not necessarily forestall additional reductions in the number of Russian strategic missiles given the state of Russia's economy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That pursuit did, however, derail START II, the next step of negotiated reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic forces. In order to satisfy the requirements of START II, Moscow would have had to deploy only single-warhead ICBMs, leading to a force structure with greater crisis stability and possibly with fewer overall warheads than it currently has. U.S. strategic missile defense deployments also provided additional incentives for the modernization of Chinese strategic forces that so troubled Helms at the time the act was debated. Using formulas familiar to U.S. and Russian strategic planners countering strategic defenses in the past, the Chinese have increased the mobility and number of their deterrent forces while improving the survivability of their re-entry vehicles.

Actual threat history aside, the National Missile Defense Act became an important argument in the continuing policy debate over the direction and pace of the strategic missile defense program. After 1999, whenever skeptics of missile defense raised programmatic issues, the act was cited as proof that an overwhelming and bipartisan majority in Congress had already established a policy of rapid deployment, relegating other issues to a subordinate position. The act prodded the executive branch to move forward with little consideration of the full repercussions. Following the superficial logic of the act, the United States discarded the ABM Treaty even though most of the U.S. missile defense activities that have taken place between then and now could have been accommodated under the broad conceptual framework of the treaty. Moreover, the United States rushed to deploy defenses against the rogue-state ICBM missile threat before that threat materialized and before U.S. defensive systems had been adequately tested. These actions cost the United States dearly in terms of treasure spent and opportunities lost to reduce the threat from its potential adversaries with the most lethal capabilities, against which U.S. strategic forces are still principally directed.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, where he directs the Realistic Threat Assessments and Responses Project. He previously served as a senior professional staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for 25 years.


1. "Senate Backs Missile Defense System," CNN.com, March 17, 1999, www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1999/03/17/missile.defense/.

2. Congressional Record, March 15, 1999, p. S2632.

3. Republican Contract with America, http://www.house.gov/house/Contract/CONTRACT.html.

4. Greg Thielmann, "Rumsfeld Reprise? The Missile Report That Foretold the Iraq Intelligence Controversy," Arms Control Today, July/August 2003, p. 3.

5. Ibid.

6. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, "White House Fact Sheet on National Missile Defense," September 1, 2000.

7. Paul Lewis, "U.S. Ties Arms Deal to a Soviet Radar," New York Times, September 1, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/01/world/us-ties-arms-deal-to-a-soviet-radar.html.

8."David Morgan, "Pentagon Seeks $1.2 Billion Cut for Missile Defense," Reuters, May 7, 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSTRE5465CJ20090507.

9. Gen. James Cartwright, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 16, 2009.

10. Congressional Record, March 15, 1999, p. S2632.