Missile Wars
homethe threatthe technologythe strategydiscussion
introduction: october 10, 2002
a photo of a computer screen

On Oct. 7, President Bush spoke to the nation about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein and said that America must be prepared to go to war against Iraq to prevent Hussein -- or terrorists -- from using such weapons.

But while the president makes his case for war, if necessary, to disarm (if not destroy) Saddam Hussein, another crucial decision about national security has gone almost unnoticed: the Bush administration is moving full steam ahead with its accelerated plan to build a national missile defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), a program that could eventually cost more than $200 billion.

Most Americans don't realize that the United States in fact has no defense against a missile attack. To some, this is simply unacceptable. And yet, the critics ask, didn't Sept. 11 prove that terrorism poses a far greater threat to the American homeland than ICBMs, which are extremely difficult to build and are impossible to launch without leaving a "return address"? (Only two other countries in the world -- Russia and China -- are known to possess ICBMs.) Furthermore, scientists contend, despite decades and many billions of dollars in research and development, building an effective shield against missiles may simply be impossible.

In "Missile Wars," FRONTLINE examines the heated debate -- some have called it a theological controversy -- over national missile defense. Is protecting the U.S. from long-range missiles a moral necessity? Or is it still, given questions of cost and technology, an expensive fantasy?

Through interviews with staunch proponents, skeptical scientists, and military and intelligence experts, the report investigates this multibillion dollar -- yet still unproven -- weapons system, explores the current rationale for missile defense, and probes whether it will protect America from the greatest threats it now faces.

General Eugene Habiger, former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, says a missile attack clearly is not the greatest threat now facing America. "If I were the military advisor to a Saddam Hussein or the leader of North Korea, and they wanted to know best how to inflict great pain on the United States," he tells FRONTLINE, "a missile would be the last thing I'd recommend."

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich disagrees. "Now that we're getting away from Sept. 11, the same tired voices are going back to the same sense of 'Gee, this is too dangerous, this is too radical, it's not really that necessary,'" Gingrich tells FRONTLINE. "And all I can say is, one morning there's going to be genuine risk of losing an American city."

Gingrich helped revive national missile defense when he included it in his famous Contract with America. This was of no small concern to the Clinton administration, which some observers say was fearful of appearing weak on defense.

A 1995 intelligence estimate by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded, however, that the threat of a rogue state being able to deploy an ICBM capable of reaching the United States was at least fifteen years away. Charging that the estimate was the result of political pressure placed on the intelligence community, the Republican-controlled Congress ordered an outside review -- a "Team B" exercise -- to be chaired by former CIA director Robert Gates. But Gates did not deliver the verdict many proponents of national missile defense were expecting.

"We did agree with the [intelligence] analysts that we were not looking at an imminent, sudden surprise emergence of an operational missile force of any of the countries under consideration," says Janne Nolan, a Gates commission member who now serves as director of international programs at the Eisenhower Institute. "And certainly the least-popular conclusion that Chairman Gates emphasized was that there had been politicization -- but it had been in the Congress, not in the intelligence community."

Congress then convened yet another "Team B" -- this one chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, a long-time proponent of missile defense and now secretary of defense in George W. Bush's administration. The Rumsfeld commission concluded that some Third World countries, by collaborating among themselves, cutting corners, and lowering their military specifications, could produce a crude missile of intercontinental range far sooner than the CIA had predicted.

"The thing that came to all of us on the Rumsfeld commission as the greatest surprise was just how much these bad actors were helping one another and how much help was coming to them from Russia and China -- some of it officially sanctioned," says Paul Wolfowitz, who served on the commission and is now Rumsfeld's deputy secretary of defense.

Critics, however, say the Rumsfeld panel simply lowered the intelligence bar, altering the standard from what was probable to what was merely possible. "It raised the specter of fear, of uncertainty, of the unknown, of threats coming from anywhere at any time," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And if that was your threat, who wouldn't want a national missile defense to protect us?"

Just one month after the release of the Rumsfeld report, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile with a third stage that, if successful, might have given it intercontinental range. Although the third stage fizzled and the test was a technical failure, missile defense advocates claimed vindication.

Despite the intense political pressure, the CIA refused to budge on one point: An attack by an ICBM was still the least likely threat that America faced. Far more likely, the agency said, was an attack by terrorists. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration reversed course and began moving ahead with plans for a limited anti-missile defense program to be based in Alaska. Repeated test failures and other technical weaknesses, however, were accompanied by criticism that the tests themselves were not objective measurements of an anti-missile system's actual performance.

"When the Army wants to test its equipment, wants to test the abilities of its officers, they have maneuvers. In the maneuvers the blue team is not told in advance exactly what the red team is going to do," says Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. "The [hit-to-kill] tests so far have been like a maneuver in which the blue team is told exactly what the red team's plans are. That's not a serious test of a system."

In the summer of 2000, President Clinton deferred the decision on deployment to his successor. And with a Republican president back in the White House, missile defense has once again been placed on the front burner.

But many scientists question whether a missile defense system as envisioned is technologically possible. "The strongest proponents of national missile defense have no technical understanding at all," contends Richard Garwin, a physicist who served on the Rumsfeld commission.

Philip Coyle, former director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon, agrees. "Pentagon briefings for national missile defense show Plexiglas domes over the United States, and we imagine that enemy missiles will bounce off this Plexiglas dome like hail off a windshield," he says. "It simply isn't in the cards."

"I look at people who doubt our ability to create this and I think, 'What century are you living in?'" Gingrich tells FRONTLINE. "For the last 250 years, humans have been increasingly good at inventing science and technology that accomplished things."

Despite the technical hurdles, the director of the missile defense program promises to persevere. "Four presidents and at least nine Congresses have asked us to do this job," says Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. "There's nothing that I see that says we should stop because it's too hard to do."

home · the threat · the technology · the strategy · introduction · map
timeline · producer's chat · interviews · quiz: missile test · discussion
tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

photograph © 1996 CORBIS; original image courtesy of NASA/CORBIS
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation