America at Risk: The Citizen’s Guide to Missile Defense

Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?
—President Ronald Reagan, March 23, 1983

IN 1991, DURING THE PERSIAN GULF WAR, the United States rushed Patriot missile batteries to Israel to help to protect Tel Aviv from missile attack. In April 1994, we sent Patriot missiles to South Korea to reassure that country during a period of high tension. In January 1999, we dispatched Patriots to Turkey when Iraq threatened missile attack. Congress also has allocated funds for upgrading defensive systems capable of protecting our troops and our allies against short-range ballistic missiles.

These actions were justified, but they raise a critical question: Is it fair to protect U.S. service personnel overseas and citizens of other countries from missile attack but leave the American people without any protection at home? The answer is “no.” Leaving Americans vulnerable to ballistic missiles armed with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is immoral. As a matter of principle, American citizens should be afforded the same level of protection the government affords our troops and allies overseas.

National security matters little to those who believe America is not worth protecting. The logical extension of this view is not merely opposition to missile defense, but an argument for total disarmament. After all, if America is not worth defending against missile attack, why bother to defend it against any other threat? But leaving America defenseless against foreign threats is not the answer. It is instead a shameful form of moral surrender.

The United States has adopted a nuclear posture that rests on two moral contradictions: First, the government’s duty to “provide for the common defense” conflicts with its unwillingness, at least thus far, to provide the American people with meaningful protection from missile attack. This failure undermines the fundamental compact between the citizen and the state, whereby the former gives up some rights and privileges in exchange for security.

The present policy of vulnerability contains a second moral contradiction: Although our government professes to respect human life, it relies on a retaliatory strategy that threatens millions of innocent lives. Imagine if North Korea fired a missile at Los Angeles. If this missile were tipped with a nuclear bomb, deadly biological agent, or chemical weapon, it could inflict hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of casualties. Considering the scale of destruction, the President would have to choose retaliation, which would be likely to result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands (or more) of North Korean civilians—or American capitulation. Neither outcome would be strategically or morally desirable. The ability to intercept incoming missiles would present a morally sound alternative between these two extremes.

Both contradictions are indefensible, considering the availability of technologies that we could deploy to protect our country. As President Reagan asked in his 1983 speech establishing the SDI, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” If the moral contradictions in U.S. policy are left unresolved, we risk paying for them with our lives, treasure, and sacred honor.

Attacking enemy missiles in their silos is an alternative to building a defensive shield or relying on retaliatory threats. Yet preemption is not part of our political tradition—and for good reason. Aggressor states like Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany have used this rationale to pursue their dreams of territorial conquest. It would cost us dearly—in moral, political, and strategic terms—if we adopted this posture.

Clearly, a defensive system designed to intercept hostile missiles would be preferable to striking first. It would end our vulnerability without threatening anyone else. If the Department of Defense emphasized preemptive options, other states probably would be encouraged to develop similar weapons and adopt hair-trigger postures. The result—an increased risk of war—would be predictable and unwelcome. Yet, because we lack any protection against hostile missiles, the pressure to adopt such extreme measures like preemption will increase.

President Reagan’s moral rational articulated in 1983 for developing defenses remains true today. National missile defense is about saving lives and protecting our country. This is the reason a defensive system capable of protecting all Americans is morally preferable to deterrence based on the threat of retaliation or any preemptive option.

Building a national missile defense also would help to preserve our status as a superpower. America has been a positive force for freedom and democratic principles since gaining its independence in 1776. Yet our ability to promote freedom abroad will suffer if we remain defenseless against missile attack. Bereft of any protection, we will leave ourselves open to political coercion, perhaps even nuclear blackmail….

More powerful states have recognized that our vulnerability to missile attack at home will restrict our ability to protect vital security interests abroad. In 1996, a senior Chinese official asserted that his government did not worry about America’s defending Taiwan because “American leaders care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.”

During the Cold War, we had little choice but to rely on our stockpile of nuclear weapons and the threat of retaliation to dissuade Soviet aggression. At that time, the technologies available to intercept hostile missiles were primitive. Today, however, dramatic progress in technology gives our leaders more choices; we no longer must remain resigned to relying on retaliatory threats to dissuade aggression. Successful missile intercept tests already have shown that we have the potential to develop an effective national missile defense against ballistic missiles launched by rogue states. We have ships that could be equipped with missile interceptors and deployed around the globe. We have satellite technology that would allow us to deploy space-based sensors and interceptors. The refusal of some elected leaders to take missile defense seriously and fund the development and deployment of a missile defense system is itself a moral failing.

Our elected leaders must get beyond the fatalism of vulnerability. They must act to end the morally bankrupt policy of leaving American citizens naked to missile attack. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asserts, “it is reckless to stake the survival of a society on its vulnerability or on genocidal retaliation—even against an accidental launch. National and theater missile defense must become a higher national priority.”

The threat of a missile attack on an American city is not a Hollywood fantasy or a fictional plot in a Tom Clancy novel. In fact, the threat of an accidental launch from Russia or China—or an intentional launch by an anti-American leader—of a ballistic missile carrying nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons is a harsh reality we no longer can wish away.

The truth is that America cannot defend itself today from even one such missile. And all Americans are held hostage by this vulnerability.


Mr. Anderson is a defense policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. This article is excerpted from his book America at Risk: The Citizen’s Guide to Missile Defense.