Cover image for The phantom defense : America's pursuit of the Star Wars illusion
The phantom defense : America's pursuit of the Star Wars illusion
Eisendrath, Craig R.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Westport, Conn. : Praeger, [2001]

Physical Description:
xix, 190 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Reading Level:
1470 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
UG743 .E36 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In the past four decades, the United States has spent $85 billion pursuing the fantasy of an effective missile defense system to shield our nation against the threat of a nuclear attack. Recent public tests, while less exotic than some of the original Star Wars proposals, were spectacular failures and call into question the whole program's rationale. Neither the land-based system proposed by the Clinton administration, nor the alternatives proposed by earlier administrations, would ever work--regardless of how much R&D money is channeled into the project. Rather than enhancing national security, these doomed efforts would provoke a new arms race and alienate key allies. The authors apply their extensive insiders' expertise to argue that thoughtful diplomacy is the only real answer to meet America's national security goals.

Like President Reagan with his Star Wars program, President Bush has again made national missile defense (NMD) a national priority at a cost which may exceed $150 billion in the next ten years. Defense experts Eisendrath, Goodman, and Marsh contend that recent tests give little confidence that any of the systems under consideration--land-based, boost-phase, or laser-driven--have any chance of effective deployment within decades. The interests of the military-industrial complex and the unilateralist views of the Bush administration are driving NMD, not a desire to promote national security.

Rather than increase U.S. security, the plans of the current administration, if implemented, will erode it. NMD will heighten the threat from China and Russia, alienate key allies, and provoke a new arms race and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, all in response to a greatly exaggerated threat from so-called rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran. Thoughtful diplomacy, not a misguided foreign policy based on a hopeless dream of a Fortress America, is the real answer to meeting Americas security goals. Designed to stimulate interest and debate among the public and policy-makers, The Phantom Defense provides solid facts and combines scientific, geopolitical, historical, and strategic analysis to critique the delusion of national missile defense, while suggesting a more effective alternative.

Author Notes

Melvin A. Goodman is Professor of National Security at the National War College and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy. He is also an adjunct professor at American University and Johns Hopkins University.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The authors, veterans of the military, the CIA, the U.S. Foreign Service, and Argonne National Laboratory, declare that "national security must take precedence over partisan and self-serving policies; national missile defense should be turned down in the national interest." This brief, focused book explains this damning conclusion. Part 1 examines the history of "Star Wars," the mythology that has been cultivated around the dream of a national missile defense (NMD) system, and the place of NMD in a larger unilateralist worldview gaining strength in Washington. Part 2 dissects the threat NMD is intended to meet, explains "why national missile defense won't work," and describes the flaws of newer, more exotic forms of NMD currently being proposed. Part 3 considers the geopolitical consequences of a unilateral U.S. effort to implement NMD and discusses the arms-control and policy alternatives. Testing possible NMD systems has already cost the nation billions of dollars; perhaps before we decide to implement this technology, voters and politicians need to consider the questions raised here. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

The authors (Eisendrath and Goodman are senior fellows with the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.; Marsh is a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory) present a sound indictment of the missile defense plans of the Bush administration. The thesis of this compressed, not overly technical book is that effective defense against incoming ballistic missiles is impossible given the current state of technology. Countermeasures (camouflaging the real warhead, decoys) against a defensive system can be devised by an attacking state at low cost, so the defensive system cannot reliably distinguish real from sham targets. The authors see no point in pouring $100 billion or more into a system so fraught with technical difficulty and so vulnerable to unsophisticated countermeasures. If national missile defense is the "phantom" of the book's title, then why has it been pursued so intensively by the right wing of American politics? For the authors, the answer lies in the alliance of defense contractors, who have benefited from the enormous sums spent on Star Wars initiatives since the Reagan years, with politicians on the right, who batten on campaign contributions from those contractors. The authors trace how pressure to portray missile defense as feasible has led to exaggeration of threats, rigged tests and suppression of inconvenient data. This book presents a partisan but powerful case, one that advocates of national missile defense will be called upon to rebut. The outcome of the debate matters, and not only because of the money at stake. If the authors here are correct, deploying even an ineffective missile defense will trigger a renewed arms race and jeopardize rather than enhance U.S. security. (Oct) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

The Phantom Defense is an explicit argument against the George W. Bush administration's plan to accelerate development and deployment of national missile defense (NMD). Coauthored by a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, a former CIA and State Department analyst, and a physicist, the work harnesses both political and technological arguments to make its case. Its basic thrust is that the perceived threat from "rogue states" on which the need for NMD is based is a hollow one, and that current plans will trigger a renewed arms race with an unnecessarily alienated Russia and China. According to the text, the imperatives of the military-industrial complex, rather than strategic and scientific logic, are determining policy on this important and expensive policy issue. The authors assert, perhaps with eerie prescience, that rogue states are much more likely to use terrorist-type weapons and delivery systems to attack the US than they are to employ ballistic missiles. The book concludes with a range of alternative policy and arms control measures available to deal effectively with the threats involved. It also includes a useful appendix on technical countermeasures to missile defense systems. Recommended for general readers, upper-division undergraduates and above. J. L. Twigg Virginia Commonwealth University



Chapter One Déjà Vu All Over Again: A Short History of "Star Wars" If no lessons are drawn from the costly experience, if fantasy weapons and other would-be wonders continue to distort federal planning, if science increasingly takes a back seat to politics and private agendas, then the dangers for the nation and the world will inexorably multiply, perhaps to the point of the ultimate calamity. From Teller's War , written in 1992, by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter William J. Broad     Can anyone tell me again why we need this?       Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, June 7, 2000 The history of anti-missile defense, whether called anti-ballistic missiles, "Star Wars," or the National Missile Defense system is, in Yogi Berra's ironic words, a continuing story of " déjà vu all over again." Each segment of that history repeats its predecessors with exasperating similarity: • First, there are alliances of scientists and weapons laboratories, defense contractors, think tanks, and politicians who are committed to one of several anti-missile systems under research. These usually interrelated groups make unrealistic claims for the systems' early deployment and success, and exaggerate the military threats that the systems are supposed to meet. Through intense lobbying, the alliances, sometimes in competition with each other, gain various degrees of support for their systems from the White House and key sections of Congress. • Appropriations follow, with huge contracts for the labs and defense contractors, as well as continuing support for the politicians, including contributions to their campaigns and the creation of jobs in their states or districts. As intensified research and testing go on, weapons labs and defense contractors distort the results, and negative findings are politically suppressed. As the systems move toward possible deployment, their potential damage to arms control agreements and foreign relations is also dismissed. • Eventually, it becomes clear that the systems cannot do what their proponents claimed, and appropriations decrease, although they continue for some time at fairly high rates. By this time, however, several new system ideas are advanced that benefit the same or similar groups of scientists, labs, defense industries, and politicians, and a new segment of the history begins.     The purpose of this chapter is to trace this seemingly unending cycle, focusing on the Reagan and Bush administrations, and to point out the similarities between their history and the Clinton administration, and the possibility that this cycle will continue during the administration of George W. Bush. To slightly rephrase the philosopher George Santayana, we need to ask: If we know the history, why do we need to repeat it?     To set the stage, we return to the beginning of the story, when, at the end of World War II, the Germans rained V-2 rockets on England. While these rockets were terror weapons and were, for the most part, militarily ineffective, they were the first weapons in history against which there was no real defense. A country could fight an army; it could attack bombers or V-1 "buzz-bombs" from the air or shoot them down from the ground; but there was literally nothing England could do to knock out a much faster moving V-2 ballistic rocket. A ballistic missile is a missile that is self-propelled in the launching stage, which then falls freely in its descent to its target. As the technology of ballistic missiles advanced, a multistage intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, with a nuclear, biological, or chemical warhead became capable of hitting targets across a continent or an ocean.     By the mid-1950s, the history of warfare had radically changed. The atomic bomb had been followed by the hydrogen bomb, with a destructive power measured in megatons--that is, in millions of tons of explosives, rather than in the kilotons, or thousands of tons of explosives, unleashed by the kind of bomb that had been used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Equally distressing, it was clear that a hydrogen bomb could now be delivered by missiles launched from bases thousands of miles away. As in the case of the V-2 rockets, there was no real defense. The launching pads could perhaps be destroyed on the ground, but once the missiles were in the air, there was nothing to do but await death and destruction.     By the mid-1950s, with the Cold War a grim reality, President Eisenhower began the search for a defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles when he authorized the operational development of a nuclear-tipped interceptor missile, Nike-Zeus, and commissioned Project Defender to develop components for a nationwide ballistic missile defense system. Nike-Zeus was replaced by Nike-X, and was, in turn, replaced by Sentinel. In 1969, President Nixon moved from protecting cities to protecting military sites. Eventually, the Senate approved the deployment of the SAFEGUARD Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system to protect Minuteman missiles at Grand Forks, North Dakota.     Starting in the 1960s, groups of scientists, laboratories, think tanks, and strategists, both political and military, as well as defense industries worked together to support the development and eventual deployment of a full anti-missile defense system. Appropriations funded the research, prototypes were developed, tests undertaken, and claims advanced, often overreaching the verified results.     Many systems were explored. Some models proposed using atomic blasts to destroy missiles, and others would use direct impact; some sought to defend the country as a whole, or specific areas, and others merely the specific launching pads or silos of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles. Some would engage the incoming missiles at their launching; others in outer space; and others in the atmosphere near their destination. One of the ideas under development, soon after its discovery in 1960 by Charles Townes, was the concept of a destructive laser. Because missiles traveled at great speeds, more than 12,000 miles per hour, a weapon that traveled at the speed of light might prove more effective in knocking them out than one whose speed was limited by rocket propulsion.     None of these systems, however, proved to be sufficiently convincing, and after over a decade of intensive research, an effective ABM system still seemed highly questionable. In addition, the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 had been approved by the U.S. Senate, so that testing of nuclear-armed interceptors was limited to testing warheads in underground explosions. For the first time, proponents of anti-missile defense were running into the impediment of arms control agreements.     According to prevailing standards of military procurement, a system needed to pass a number of tests to warrant its deployment. It needed to be militarily effective, it needed to be able to survive, and it needed to be cost-effective at the margin, that is, that the incremental increase in defense should not exceed the incremental increase in offense--criteria used by armaments expert Paul Nitze in 1985 to assess the Strategic Defense Initiative (see below). The value of the system also needed to exceed any loss to U.S. security should arms agreements be sacrificed or abrogated, or foreign relations eroded because of the system's deployment. The reader can see in this list the same set of criteria that President Clinton established in 1999 for deployment of the National Missile Defense system. In the mid-1960s, as today, the anti-ballistic missile systems under development failed to meet most of these criteria.     The systems were militarily ineffective because the Soviets, with a growing arsenal of thousands of missiles, could overwhelm them with more missiles than they could conceivably shoot down. Bear in mind that these missiles carried hydrogen bombs, which could wipe out cities. As a protection for the population of the United States, a defensive missile system that purported to defend the population could offer little margin for error. But even as a protection for just U.S. missile bases, to retain the possibility of retaliation in case of a Soviet attack, U.S. anti-ballistic missiles would be inadequate. The other side could still overwhelm American defenses, and, in any case, it could confuse them with various kinds of decoys. Discriminating between decoys and the real warheads, and then shooting them down, would always be many times more expensive than the offensive system. If the United States built a defensive anti-missile system, the Soviets simply could add more missiles or countermeasures to their offensive system, at much lower cost. As Jerome Weisner, President Kennedy's science advisor, and Herbert York, the former director of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wrote in 1962, building a defensive missile system would goad the Soviets to increase their offensive power, which the United States would then have to match, thus spiraling up the arms race. Rather than gaining security, the United States would face the "dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security."     Eventually, the Senate saw that U.S. security would be better advanced by an arms control agreement than by any combination of defensive missile systems, and approved the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, with only two dissenting votes. The treaty stated in article 5, section 1, "Each Party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components which are sea-based, air-based, space-based, or mobile land-based."     The ABM Treaty represented a major arms control achievement that effectively limited ballistic missile defense to a strategically insignificant deployment. It contributed to containing one important area of arms competition by heading off a race in ballistic missile defense. It may also have restrained to some extent the continuing race in strategic offensive arms, although less than was hoped and less than it should have.     The treaty allowed two ABM deployment sites, with one site for each nation's capital and the second at an ICBM field. In 1974, this was restricted to one site by mutual agreement. The Soviet side had been prepared in 1972 to agree not to exercise the right to deploy at the allowed second site, but the United States had been unwilling to go along with this proposal. However, after Congress in 1973 turned down the administration's proposal to deploy ABM defenses in the nation's capital, the question of a second site for the United States became moot. Accordingly, in March 1974, after the Soviet side suggested in talks with Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, that both sides renounce the second sites, no one in Washington objected.     The United States indeed built its permitted ABM system, called SAFEGUARD, at Grand Forks, North Dakota, but a year later, after an expenditure of $6 billion, it was dismantled as useless. (The Soviet Union continued to maintain its defense system around Moscow.) Although many in Congress were concerned that the system would be ineffective, vulnerable to attack, and easily overwhelmed, it had been approved in order not to undermine America's negotiating position in the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT). However, its limitations eventually prompted the House of Representatives to vote for the deactivation of the SAFEGUARD system on October 2, 1975, one day after SAFEGUARD became operational.     Research, however, continued on anti-missile systems, although mostly on defenses of missile silos rather than of the country as a whole. This research kept a number of major American corporations in the game, waiting for the possibility of larger contracts, particularly if systems were eventually deployed.     In this period, leading up to President Reagan's victory in 1980, the main thrust of anti-missile defense research had moved from area defense to point defense of missile silos, and finally to providing a bargaining chip in arms reduction negotiations. The prevailing view of the Carter administration was that U.S. security would depend not on defense, but on deterrence, that is, on the nation's capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on the Soviets even after a first strike, should one occur. This was the system that had come to be known as Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, as it relied on the threat of the deaths of tens of millions of people to insure that no side would use nuclear arms. However, the idea of being defenseless while maintaining the capacity to inflict millions of deaths was morally uncomfortable to people on both the right and the left. While MAD seemed to work, an alternative based on defense would have enormous appeal.     Despite the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibited the United States or the Soviet Union from deploying an anti-missile defense system and had clear limitations on testing one, groups of conservative politicians, defense contractors, scientists, and laboratory and industry representatives assembled to push for anti-missile defenses. A political lobbying group formed in 1978, consisting of politicians, retired generals, and industrialists, called the Committee on the Present Danger, and another related group called High Frontier formed in 1981 to push anti-missile defense. Similar groups had existed in the 1960s and 1970s, although with somewhat less access to the White House. A kind of kitchen cabinet of the Reagan administration, High Frontier was particularly influential, and was able to bypass the usual checks and balances of the U.S. government.     High Frontier was set up by Karl R. Bendetsen, the retired CEO of the Champion International Corporation, and retired Lieutenant General Daniel O. Graham, who had headed the Defense Intelligence Agency. It was soon moved under the institutional umbrella of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to the Reagan administration. In addition, various panels, convened under military auspices, for the study of national security contained a high percentage of corporate members whose businesses stood to gain by favorable findings.     In 1980, the Republican plank called for the United States "To achieve overall military and technical superiority over the Soviet Union," including "vigorous research and development of an effective anti-ballistic missile system, such as is already at hand in the Soviet Union, as well as more modern ABM technologies." Here, the threat of an effective Soviet system was an outright deception; the only system the Soviets had was the totally ineffective one around Moscow, disparagingly called "Galosh," which the United States had dismissed, and evidence was otherwise lacking that the Soviets were honing in on an effective system. At the same time, the Pentagon was claiming that, with Soviet advances in missile accuracy, the U.S. land-based system might well not survive a Soviet first strike, and therefore needed to be defended. Such claims frequently failed to mention U.S. submarine-based missiles, which were virtually invulnerable, as well as the country's formidable fleet of bombers.     High Frontier's Daniel Graham promised that, by using "off-the-shelf" technology, the United States could build a network of several hundred satellites carrying rocket interceptors that would defeat any Soviet attack. He claimed that the United States could launch this system for some tens of billions of dollars. This plan met with nearly universal rejection by defense analysts. In November 1982, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger wrote Graham: Although we appreciate your optimism that "technicians will find the way and quickly" we are unwilling to commit this nation to a course which calls for growing into a capability that does not currently exist. While there are many instances in history where technology has developed more quickly than the experts predicted, there are equally as many cases where technology developed more slowly.     Weinberger based his view, in part, on an Air Force Space Division analysis that had concluded High Frontier "has no technical merit and should be rejected.... No alternate configuration supported a favorable conclusion." Another Defense Department analysis stated, "It is the unanimous opinion of the Air Force technical community that the High Frontier proposals are unrealistic regarding state of technology, cost and schedule."     The Reagan presidency saw the largest build-up of American arms in U.S. history. In addition to its political motivation, Reagan's claim that the United States was woefully unprepared, his armaments buildup, and his administration's push to develop missile defense systems were the result of a serious misreading of Soviet military spending.     In 1975, preparing for the presidential election the following year, President Ford removed the director of central intelligence William Colby and replaced him with a political appointee, George Bush. Ford and his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board then appointed a team of right-wing academics and former government officials, headed by Harvard Professor Richard Pipes, to draft their own intelligence estimates on Soviet military power. Pipes had consistently labeled the Soviets an aggressive imperialistic power bent on world domination, and his estimates were drafted in order to reify his views. The group was called Team B, and it predictably concluded that the Soviets had rejected nuclear parity, were bent on fighting a nuclear war, and were radically increasing their military spending. (The committee was called Team B to distinguish it from Team A, the analysts of the CIA who normally performed this type of analysis.) Other members of Team B, particularly Paul D. Wolfowitz, nominated to be Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, believed that Moscow would use its nuclear advantage to wage conventional war in the Third World. Team B also applied worst case reasoning to predict a series of developments that never took place, including Soviet directed-energy weapons, mobile ABM systems, and anti-satellite capabilities. This mistaken interpretation of Soviet capabilities in strategic defense weapons was used by the Reagan administration to help build support for a costly but ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the United States to develop its own arsenal of nuclear directed-energy weapons.     By 1983, the CIA had corrected their exaggerated estimates of Soviet military spending, but dissemination of this new understanding was suppressed by Reagan's CIA director Robert Gates and defense secretary Caspar Weinberger. This act of making intelligence subservient to policy was an all-too-common feature of Cold War intelligence. Gates also failed to see Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as any different from Joseph Stalin--he was simply a communist dedicated to taking over the world and uninterested in any honest effort at arms control--despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Again, one must question present assessments of the irrationality of so-called "rogue states" in the light of such past intelligence readings.     The United States paid dearly in the 1980s for the exaggeration of the Soviet threat and the military build-up at home. It spent over a trillion and a half dollars on defense in the 1980s as the Soviet Union was gradually collapsing like a house of cards; it turned itself into a debtor nation in the process and allowed its education system to erode and its health care system to neglect millions of citizens.     By the end of the 1970s, corporations such as TRW, Boeing, Rockwell International, Lockheed, United Technologies, Textron, and Hughes were heavily invested in laser technology. However, in 1981, the Department of Defense's Science Board concluded unanimously: "It is too soon to attempt to accelerate space-based laser development towards integrated space demonstration for any mission, particularly ballistic missile defense."     Laser technology as the basis for anti-missile defense got a strong boost, however, from a new technology, the idea of X-ray lasers. Its exponents claimed that these lasers, energized by a nuclear explosion, could conceivably destroy all of the Soviets' incoming missiles. The system would be space-based because the X-rays could not penetrate far into the earth's atmosphere. This X-ray variant was pushed by Livermore Laboratory's charismatic Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, and an implacable foe of communism. According to Teller, this weapon held the promise of totally reversing the United States' supposed worsening strategic position, and enabling the nation not only to protect its missiles, but its population as well. The United States would move from "mutually assured destruction" to "assured survival."     For several years, Teller and his allies on the Committee on the Present Danger and High Frontier peddled the X-ray laser system on Capitol Hill. High Frontier's Karl B. Bendetsen wrote to Reagan's counselor Edwin Meese that Livermore could deliver "a fully weaponized" X-ray laser "for ballistic defense on a five-year time scale." Despite skepticism from officials at his own laboratory, Teller claimed that a single laser module might destroy more than a thousand speeding missiles by generating as many as 100,000 independently aimable beams. White House interest in the system was also spurred by an alleged "beam gap," indicating that the Soviets were making advances in beam weaponry for missile defense. The "beam gap" was still another instance of how the possibility of a Soviet weapon was, in a worst case scenario, elevated to a virtual certainty.     Eventually, the White House bought the system. As the distinguished physicist Herbert York wrote in 1985, the Strategic Defense Initiative was "an instance of exceedingly expensive technical exuberance sold privately to an uninformed leadership by a tiny in-group of especially privileged advisers." York's use of the word "uninformed" is worth considering. As one reads the history of this period, it becomes clear how scientifically uninformed the political leadership, from Reagan on down, really was, and how easily Teller and others achieved acceptance of technical systems without adequate scientific review. The review process was either politically coopted--for example, Teller had been influential in securing a protégé as the president's science advisor--or was ignored for political reasons. Rather than a government with orderly review committees and clear procedures, Reagan had installed what came close to the British eighteenth-century model of a "king's friends" government of scientifically uninformed advisors.     This group was particularly vulnerable to a mythic figure like Edward Teller, the "father of the H-bomb." It is unclear whether Teller himself consciously deceived Reagan and others, or whether, in his exuberance, he deceived himself, but through his long career he often failed to see the relation between the conceivability of scientific ideas and the possibility of their concrete realization as engineering. That an idea was scientifically possible was no guarantee that it could be developed as an operating system. Teller saw himself as a man with a mission to stop the communists before they destroyed us; his enthusiasm clearly outran the practicality of some of his schemes. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE PHANTOM DEFENSE by Craig Eisendrath, Melvin A. Goodman, and Gerald E. Marsh. Copyright © 2001 by Craig Eisendrath, Melvin A. Goodman, and Gerald E. Marsh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
Part I. History and Mythology
Chapter 1 Deja Vu All Over Again: A Short History of "Star Wars"p. 3
Chapter 2 Anti-Missile Defense and the Political Mazep. 29
Chapter 3 Two Views of the Worldp. 43
Part II. The Threat, and Efforts to Meet It
Chapter 4 The Exaggerated Threat of Ballistic Missilesp. 65
Chapter 5 Why National Missile Defense Won't Workp. 81
Chapter 6 Other Proposed National Missile Defense Systemsp. 103
Part III. International Consequences and Policy Alternatives
Chapter 7 Geopolitical Implications of National Missile Defensep. 121
Chapter 8 Arms Control and Policy Alternativesp. 141
Appendix 1 Countermeasuresp. 159
Appendix 2 Waste, Fraud, and Abusep. 165
Appendix 3 The Center for International Policyp. 183
Indexp. 185