WASHINGTON — With fears running high about a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union in 1983, President Ronald Reagan pitched an idea that seemed to come straight from his years as a Hollywood actor.
“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” he asked in a prime-time address that featured aerial photos of Soviet aircraft and military hardware in Cuba and Nicaragua.
Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was derided by critics as “Star Wars.” But building off technological advances, the US military has spent more than $200 billion in the nearly four decades since working to make that science fiction a reality. Now, after Russian President Vladimir Putin placed his vast nuclear arsenal on high alert following his invasion of Ukraine, Americans might be wondering what kind of missile defense shield all that money and effort has produced.
The answer, experts said, is not a very effective one.
The US only has a limited ability to destroy an incoming nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, a study released last month by the American Physical Society concluded. It said that “the current capabilities are low and will likely continue to be low for the next 15 years” to protect the US against a strike from North Korea, which has an estimated 20 nuclear warheads and relatively unsophisticated missiles. The Pentagon disputes the findings and says the most recent tests show the system can handle a North Korean attack.
But the ability to defend against an attack by Russia, which is estimated to have nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads and highly sophisticated missile technology, is practically nonexistent. The US system is no match against a large number of incoming missiles — precisely the kind of attack that Russia would launch, experts said.
“This idea of an impenetrable shield against an enormous arsenal of Russian missiles is just a fantasy,” said Laura Grego, a fellow at MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy who co-chaired the American Physical Society team that wrote the report. “It’s too hard to do.”
It’s so difficult that the US intentionally hasn’t even tried. Official Pentagon policy states that its system is only designed to protect the nation from nuclear missiles fired by a rogue state like North Korea. For a military superpower like Russia, the US depends on its own vast nuclear arsenal of about 5,400 warheads as a deterrent. It’s a doctrine known to those who grew up during the Cold War as mutual assured destruction or MAD — any nuclear attack on the US would result in a counterstrike that would annihilate both countries.
“The United States relies on nuclear deterrence to address the large and more sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities,” according to the Defense Department’s most recent Missile Defense Review.
That’s probably surprising, and frightening, to many people, experts said.
“It’s fundamentally uncomfortable, this idea that we let the other guy have the ability to take us out and we expect the other guy to let us have the ability to do that, and we’re both going to stay rational and neither of us is going to cause the other to act on it,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Analysts have raised concerns that Putin has not been acting rational in his attack on Ukraine and in statements like the one he made when launching the invasion.
“Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history,” he said in a televised speech. A few days later, he announced Russia’s nuclear forces had been placed in “special combat readiness.” The US downplayed the move and gave no indication it changed its own nuclear readiness level, known by another frightening Cold War-era acronym called DEFCON.
Panda said many Americans don’t realize the US has little protection against a nuclear attack.
“I’ve seen it on my Twitter mentions,” he said. “I’ve been critical of setting up a no-fly zone partially on the basis of escalation risks and people reply, ‘Well, let the Russians try to nuke us. We have a missile shield, we’ll be fine.’ It’s just a very pervasive misunderstanding.”
The US must depend on nuclear deterrence because the arithmetic of our limited missile defense system and Russia’s massive arsenal doesn’t add up, said Robert Soofer, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy during the Trump administration. Russia can overwhelm the US system by launching many more nuclear missiles than it could possibly knock out with its small squadron of ground-based interceptors.
“There are ways that Russia can strike the United States that really makes the GBI system virtually useless,” said Soofer, a nonresident senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “If Russia wants to penetrate US missile defenses, they can.”
The main missile defense system protecting the United States was developed after President George W. Bush pulled the nation out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with the Soviet Union. The move came shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks amid heightened concern about a nuclear attack from a rogue state like North Korea and freed the US from restrictions on deploying a national missile defense system.
In a rushed effort completed by 2004, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system began with 30 interceptor missiles in underground silos: 26 at Fort Greely in Alaska and four more at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Guided by radar and satellite sensors, they’re designed to pursue an enemy missile into space. There, they release a “kill vehicle” to intercept and destroy the nuclear warhead above the atmosphere after it separates from the incoming missile.
The Obama administration added 14 more interceptor missiles at Fort Greely in 2017. Two years later the Trump administration started the process of adding 20 more missiles there with upgraded technology and the first are scheduled to be deployed by 2028.
The US has been testing elements of the system over the Pacific Ocean since 1999 with mixed results. Of the 19 attempts to destroy the target, 11 have been successful, including the two most recent ones in 2017 and 2019 that were conducted against realistic intercontinental ballistic missile targets, according to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.
“The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat,” Air Force Lieutenant General Samuel A. Greaves, then the agency’s director, said in a statement after the test.
That threat is rising. North Korea in recent days has conducted two tests of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the White House said Thursday.
But Russian nuclear missiles are more sophisticated than those from North Korea, Soofer said. So the US would need to fire multiple interceptors at an incoming Russian missile to destroy its warheads, and the system could quickly get overwhelmed.
“At some point, we’re not going to be able to handle the Russian threat,” he said. “If there’s an unauthorized launch, an accidental launch, and it’s one or two missiles, I hope we can do something against it. But that’s not the way the Russians are going to operate. They’re not going to just launch one nuclear missile against the United States.”
To supplement the ground-based interceptors, the US has other ballistic missile defense systems designed to protect smaller areas. One is the Aegis system, which can fire missiles from Navy ships or land-based launchers to target short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Two others are the Patriot and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, mobile ground-based systems.
“If the Russians were to launch a modest attack against regional targets, we have some capacity for intercepting and defeating those attacks,” said Loren Thompson, a longtime defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “We have some reasonable prospects of intercepting nuclear attacks using shorter range missiles, but when it comes to long-range missiles with which Russia could attack America, we have virtually no defense.”
The US has two Aegis missile defense sites in NATO nations, one in Romania and another in Poland that the Pentagon expects to be operational by the end of this year. The US has said they’re designed to protect Europe against a possible ballistic missile attack from Iran and pose no threat to Russia. But the presence of those US facilities near Russia’s border has angered Putin, who has said they could be used to launch offensive missiles at Russia.
It’s a continuation of his displeasure with the US for its missile defense efforts, starting with his objection to the decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In a 2018 speech, Putin said Russia was developing new nuclear weapons designed to evade US missile defenses.
Arms control advocates said that’s a downside of the US missile defense effort — it leads Russia and China to try to upgrade their nuclear weapons.
“We sort of end up with the worst of both worlds, where the American taxpayer ponies up for tens of billions of spending on a homeland missile defense system that doesn’t really work that well and causes Russia and China to take steps that further deteriorate our own security,” Panda said.
Despite the limited capabilities of the missile defense system to protect the US, Soofer said it’s still an important part of our national defense.
“The only rational reason for Russia or China to attack us with nuclear weapons is if they thought they could disarm us and keep us from retaliating,” he said. “If we have missile defenses, even if they’re not 100 percent effective, they still don’t know how many of their missiles are going to get through. You complicate their attack and then you enhance deterrence.”
Despite Putin’s threats, Soofer said there is little appetite in Washington for a costly expansion of the US missile defense system to be able to repel a Russian attack. Such a system probably would require space-based interceptors — Reagan’s original idea that proved infeasible in the 1980s and a concept that Soofer described as “the third rail of missile defense politics on Capitol Hill because nobody wants to supposedly militarize the heavens.”
But Grego said a spaced-based system remains infeasible today, potentially requiring thousands of interceptors because of the complications of orbits and the Earth’s rotation.
“Even if you had a Death Star, you need lots of Death Stars,” she said, harkening back to “Star Wars.” “For strategic missile defense, which is defending the US homeland from Russian missiles, it isn’t really a political decision. Physics has done that for you. It’s just too hard. You’re not going to do it.”