“[My time at ACA] prepared me very well for the position that I took following that with the State Department, where I then implemented and helped to implement many of the policies that we tried to promote.”
– Peter Crail
Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
ACA Missile Defense Briefings - Powerpoint by Philip Coyle and Remarks by Greg Thielmann
Share this

The Arms Control Association Presents

Policy Briefing on Missile Defense

July 21, 2009


Ballistic missile defense has long been one of the most contentious issues in U.S.-Russian relations. At the July 6 Moscow Summit, the two sides found agreement on many START-related issues but continued to differ on missile defense. President Obama recently announced that a U.S. review of plans to build a missile defense system in Europe will be completed by the end of the summer. Meanwhile, North Korea and Iran continue efforts to develop and deploy ballistic missiles. ACA will offer widely recognized experts to brief on the nature of the emerging missile threat, on the status of U.S. programs to counter that threat, and on the broader implications for U.S. national security.

When: Tuesday, July 21, 2009, 10:00am to 11:30am
Where: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Choate Room
1779 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC


Steven Hildreth, Specialist in Missile Defense and Nonproliferation, Congressional Research Service

Philip E. Coyle, III, Former Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Department of Defense; Senior Advisor, World Security Institute

Greg Thielmann, Former Office Director, State Department Intelligence Bureau (INR); Former Senior Staff Member, Senate Intelligence Committee; Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association

Moderator: Tom Z. Collina, Research Director, Arms Control Association



For more information on missile defense, please download Greg Thielmann's Threat Assessment Briefing "Strategic Missile Defense: A Reality Check (PDF)



Policy Briefing on Missile Defense Implications
Greg Thielmann
Carnegie Endowment
July 21, 2009

My research project at ACA deals with assessing threats realistically and proposing appropriate policy responses.

Today I will be laying out my conclusion that:

  • Our strategic missile defense efforts have actually increased the military threats we face
  • The only way for strategic missile defenses to decrease the threat is to find cooperative solutions with Russia and China.

Let me suggest an insurance metaphor for the U.S. missile defense program.

  • With insurance, we regularly pay a known price to avoid the uncertain possibility of paying a much higher price for a catastrophic event.Long-range ballistic missile defense is a form of insurance or risk management, hedging against the risk of catastrophic losses from a nuclear missile attack on the United States.
  • Long-range ballistic missile defense is a form of insurance or risk management, hedging against the risk of catastrophic losses from a nuclear missile attack on the United States.
  • For more than twenty years, the U.S. has been buying missile defense insurance to mitigate this risk – paying a very high premium for very restricted coverage.
    • Steven Hildreth has described the two emerging offensive threats, which shape our current strategic missile defense efforts.
    • Phillip Coyle has described the kind of restricted coverage we currently enjoy.

I will describe real world impacts and policy implications.

  • I won’t dwell on the direct costs of these programs, except to note that sunk costs since the launch of SDI are well in excess of 100 billion dollars.

“Opportunity costs” is the term economists use for measuring the things we have to give up in deciding to pursue a certain action; we have given up a lot already.

  • I won’t try to list all of the historic opportunity costs, but I’ll mention a couple of programmatic costs, which affect the here and now.
    • The billions spent annually on strategic missile defenses are not available to help pay the costs of two ongoing wars.
    • Strategic missile defense detracts from national efforts to defend against more likely vectors of nuclear attack through our ports and across our land borders from non-state actors.
      • Groups like al-Qaida are not going to be launching ICBMs at the United States.

Let me explain how long-range ballistic missile defenses have actually increased the threats we face – threats from our most powerful potential adversaries and from hostile proliferant states.

First point: Strategic missile defense has worsened the threat from
Russia and China...

-- the only countries, which can jeopardize our survival as a nation:

  • At different times during the Cold War, each was the principal target of U.S. strategic missile defenses; and in each case we eventually decided that such defenses could not be effective.
  • Now neither nation is considered an enemy. During the last decade, it has been U.S. policy to deploy an effective missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack – not against the arsenals of Russia and China.
  • The problem is that we have not been able to figure out a way to build limited territorial defenses without causing Russia and China to worry that their own deterrent capabilities could be threatened.
    • So far, U.S. determination to deploy territorial missile defenses has at least twice prevented stabilizing agreements with Moscow on strategic offensive arms control.
      • As a consequence, Russia has ended up with more capable systems than it would otherwise have had in order to ensure that it could penetrate U.S. defenses.
    • U.S. missile defenses have also given Beijing strong incentives to improve the quality and quantity of China’s strategic forces.
      • China is today the only one of the five NPT nuclear weapons states that is increasing rather than decreasing the size of its nuclear missile force over the last decade.

Second point: Deployment of U.S. strategic missile defenses actually
encourages rogue state missile programs.

  • Missile defense proponents continue to argue the opposite case – that U.S. missile defense deployments will dissuade rogue nations from pursuing missiles and nuclear weapons.
  • There is no evidence that deployments of missile defenses discourage deployments of missile offenses – none.
    • We see instead the opposite dynamic between defenses and offenses:
      • Russian ABM deployment—U.S. MIRVing
      • Israeli Arrow ATBM deployment—Continuing expansion of Iranian missile program
      • Indian strategic defense program initiated—Continuing expansion of Pakistani nuclear/missile programs
      • Taiwan deployment of Patriot ATBM—Chinese augmentation of missile forces across the straits, now over 1,000.
  • You have heard Steven describe how vigorous North Korean and Iranian missile efforts have been, in spite of massive U.S. investments in missile defense during the last decade.

Clearly, missile defenses don’t dissuade the North Koreans and Iranians—but do they really encourage them?

  • I concede we don’t know for sure what the “Supreme Leader” or the “Dear Leader” are thinking. But consider my hypothesis, which is at least consistent with what we do know.
  • Both North Korea and Iran want to gain prestige and power from their missile and nuclear programs.
    • For the U.S. to act as if its nuclear deterrent is insufficient to deter Pyongyang and Tehran from launching missile attacks against the United States is to credit these small nuclear/missile programs with enormous power – beyond that of the Soviet Union in its heyday.
      • Hardliners in these countries can argue that their missiles have succeeded in spreading fear in the United States and its allies; they have made the enemies of Iran and North Korea cower.
        • They can claim vindication for their policies, arguing: “The massive U.S. missile defense effort is proof that our nuclear and missile programs are potent.”

Moreover, missile defense not only encourages proliferation; it facilitates it.

  • Instead of strengthening non-proliferation efforts, U.S. missile defenses and the proliferation of related technology to friendly governments outside the NPT weakens non-proliferation regimes like the MTCR.
    • Most ballistic missile defense technology cannot be distinguished from ballistic missile offense technology.
    • So transfers of U.S. missile defense technology to non-NPT signatories fosters missile proliferation:
      • The U.S. helps Israel build missile defense systems; Israel offers to sell Arrow ballistic missile interceptors and their associated Green Pine radar to India. (Neither state is a signatory to the NPT.) Non-proliferation norms are violated and other non-proliferation efforts become more difficult.

To return to my insurance metaphor, paying our premiums is actually contributing to the risks that we’re trying to insure against.

-- And the coverage provided by the U.S. strategic ballistic missile defense insurance has a long list of restrictions.

  • If you read the fine print, you realize that it may not cover multiple launches or warheads using simple decoys or chaff or night shots with cooled warheads, etc.
    • Consequently, the policy holder has no guarantee in a crisis that his insurance would prevent North Korean or Iranian nuclear missiles from landing in the United States.
  • The fine print also includes another disclaimer: the insurance policy doesn’t apply to the most likely nuclear threat the U.S. will face – from non-state terrorist groups.

I will leave you with the words of the distinguished scientist, Dr. Richard Garwin, who previously served the United States first as a designer of nuclear weapons and a designer of penetration aids to accompany them:

“Our best defense against states that might fire ICBMs against the United States is still the commitment to a massively destructive retaliatory strike against the military of the country. We should not weaken that deterrence in our enthusiasm to replace it with a system to destroy the warhead in flight.”

--Richard L. Garwin
IBM Fellow Emeritus
IBM Thomas J. Watson
Research Center
June 3, 2009

Office presentation icon Coyle_Missile_Defense.ppt1.9 MB