Missile Wars
homethe threatthe technologythe strategydiscussion
the technology

people tracking nuclear defense testing
photo of a nuclear defense rocketanimation of deactivating a bomb midflight

It may be the most difficult thing the U.S. military has ever attempted: hitting a missile with a missile at 15,000 m.p.h. ... in space.

faith or reason? related features

The debate over the feasibility of national missile defense has been likened to a theological controversy, both sides arguing their positions with an almost religious fervor. Here are extended excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with top scientific, military, and policy experts on both sides of the debate.

the basics: making sense of missile defense

A primer on missile defense, including a Defense Department animation and a video excerpt from "Missile Wars" showing how hit-to-kill defense is supposed to work -- and why some believe it never will.

interview: lt. gen. ronald kadish

Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish has been the director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) since June 1999. Here, he talks about the many obstacles that his agency has overcome and those that still remain, and why he's increasingly confident about the prospects for a defense against long-range missiles.

interview: philip coyle

Philip Coyle was the assistant secretary of defense and director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon from 1994 to 2001. Here, Coyle discusses why he recommended that President Clinton not deploy the ground-based missile defense system in the summer of 2000, about the Bush administration's strategy of "layered" missile defenses, and why he believes the missile defense program is the most difficult task the military has ever undertaken.

interview: steven weinberg

Steven Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 and is a professor of science at the University of Texas at Austin. Here, Weinberg details the many shortcomings of the past and proposed defenses against long-range missiles and explains why he thinks the problem of decoys presents an insurmountable obstacle to the success of the midcourse "hit to kill" missile defense system.

interview: richard garwin

Richard Garwin, a physicist who helped build America's hydrogen bomb, is a senior fellow and the director of science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. Here, Garwin discusses the impossibility of defending against biological warfare "bomblets" launched with long-range missiles, and other limitations of the existing missile defense technologies.

"Can Missile Defense Work?" by Steven Weinberg

"Would a missile defense system actually protect the US against even the sort of attack that might be launched by rogue states like North Korea or Iraq?" asks Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. (The New York Review of Books, Feb. 14, 2002)

"Why Missile Defense Won't Work," by Theodore A. Postol

"Whether or not one believes there is any threat serious enough to require deployment of a national missile defense," writes MIT physicist Theodore Postol in this hard-hitting analysis, "it makes no sense to advocate a concept that will not work." (Technology Review, April 2002)

"Rhetoric or Reality? Missile Defense Under Bush," by Philip Coyle

"A lot has happened in missile defense in the first year or so of the Bush administration," writes Philip Coyle, former director of the Pentagon's office of operational test and evaluation. "But have these actions brought the United States any closer to realizing its missile defense goals, especially deployment of a national missile defense?" (Arms Control Today, May 2002)

"Missile Defense After the ABM Treaty," by James M. Lindsay and Michael E. O'Hanlon

"Although Bush's commitment to proceeding with missile defense development is beyond doubt, his precise plans remain unclear. The administration has not settled on a specific missile defense architecture, and its public statements about future deployments are sketchy at best." (The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002)

Dept. of Defense: Ballistic Missile Defense Home Page

The Defense Department's overview of its missile defense programs, including a section explaining "How It Works."

Union of Concerned Scientists: Missile Defense

This section of the Union of Concerned Scientists' website offers a critique of national missile defense. The section on "Countermeasures" includes a 4-minute animation video illustrating the inherent technological hurdles presented by decoys.

The Coyle Report (PDF)

About a month after the failed hit-to-kill test in July 2001, Philip Coyle, director of the Pentagon's office of operational test and evaluation, issued a devastating 67-page critique of the proposed national missile defense system. It detailed how the tests had been simplified to ensure the perception of success. The report was delivered privately to the president but the Pentagon refused for eight months to release Coyle's report to the public.

The Welch Report

On Feb. 27, 1998, an independent panel chaired by retired Gen. Larry Welch issued its report on the Pentagon's missile defense testing programs. The panel said that the ambitious programs amounted to a "rush to failure." The report's authors, which included several defense experts, urged a longer development period for missile defense weapons.

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