U.S. Department of Defense - Missile Defense Agency

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History of U.S. Missile Defense Efforts 1945-Present

The history of U.S. missile defense efforts spans over six decades. These resources are presented with a description of the missile defense efforts of the time in the hopes that the context will help illuminate the content of these documents.

For a quick overview of U.S. missile defense efforts, don't miss the Missile Defense: The First Seventy Years pamphlet.

Please choose a section title to view a description of missile defense efforts of the time, and, if available, the historical resource documents.

Origins of the U.S. Missile Defense Program

America's missile defense program may be traced back to the period directly after World War II. However, American efforts to develop defenses against ballistic missiles continued at a relatively low priority until the 1950s. During this decade, U.S. progress in developing long-range missiles, combined with evidence that the U.S.S.R. was also developing these weapons, led to more intense efforts to develop missile defenses. In 1958, Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy made the U.S. Army responsible for developing missile defenses. After the Nike Zeus missile achieved the first successful intercept of a dummy ICBM warhead in July 1962, the Army pushed for the deployment of a national missile defense system.

However, by the mid-1960s, the Soviets had begun deploying their own missile defenses. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the fielding of the Sentinel missile defense system, which was intended to provide a defense against a light missile attack.

Learn more about the Nike Zeus
Learn much more about the U.S. Army's first antiballistic missile in this pamphlet.

Department of Defense Annual Report (extracts) 1959-1968
These excerpts from the annual reports of the U.S. Army describe early missile defense efforts from 1959-1968. Please click on a year below to open the extract.

1959 1960 1961 1962 1963
1964 1965 1966 1967 1968

Safeguard and the ABM Treaty

Following Richard Nixon's election in 1968, Nixon refocused the U.S. missile defense deployment so that the Sentinel system would primarily protect U.S. deterrent forces and renamed the system Safeguard. In August 1969, about two months after Nixon had invited the Soviet Union to discuss reductions in strategic arms, Congress approved the Safeguard deployment.

The first round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) began in November 1969. A little over two years later these talks produced the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which limited the U.S. and Soviet Union to two missile defense sites, each one having no more than one hundred interceptors.

In 1974, the treaty was modified by a protocol that reduced the number of sites either treaty signatory could deploy to only one. By the time of the protocol, the U.S. was about to finish the Safeguard site. However, due to growing concern over nuclear tipped interceptors, Congress cancelled the Safeguard program shortly after the site became operational.

From 1976 until the early 1980s, the principal objective of the Army's missile defense program was to develop interceptors that did not require nuclear warheads. By the early 1980s, the Army had succeeded in developing the sensor and guidance technologies that would allow a defensive missile to destroy an attacking warhead by physically colliding with it. In June 1984, the Army demonstrated this hit-to-kill capability in the Homing Overlay Experiment (HOE).

U.S. Army Historical Summaries (extracts) 1969-1984
These excerpts from the annual reports of U.S. Army describe missile defense efforts from 1969-1984. Please click on the document title to open the extract.

1969 Sentinel-Safeguard1970 Advanced BMD Program
1971 Missile Systems1972 Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense
1973 Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense1974 Systems
1975 Systems1976 Ballistic Missile Defense
1977 Ballistic Missile Defense1978 Ballistic Missile Defense
1979 Ballistic Missile Defense1980 Ballistic Missile Defense
1981 Ballistic Missile Defense1982 Ballistic Missile Defense
1983 Ballistic Missile Defense1984 Ballistic Missile Defense

Strategic Defense Initiative

While the Army was developing its hit-to-kill interceptor technology, the Soviets were improving their offensive missile capabilities. By the early eighties, a number of strategic analysts had begun to worry that the Soviets had achieved a first strike capability that would allow them to cripple U.S. strategic forces and still retain enough nuclear weapons to destroy America's cities. In February 1983, this situation led the Joint Chiefs of Staff to recommend to President Ronald Reagan that the U.S. begin to place greater emphasis in its strategic plans on developing missile defenses.

President Reagan was highly receptive to this recommendation. In a nationally televised speech on March 23, 1983, the president announced his decision to initiate an expanded research and development program to see if strategic defenses were feasible.

In April 1984, following a year of technical and strategic studies to determine how best to pursue the president's goal, the Defense Department established the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) under the leadership of its first director, Lieutenant General James A. Abrahamson of the U.S. Air Force. This organization was to carry out the SDI program of research and development (R&D) to resolve the feasibility issue.

After two and a half years of R&D, at the end of 1986 the President and Secretary of Defense decided to enter a missile defense system into the defense acquisition process. SDIO began to develop defenses against widespread missile attacks.

Reagan Launches Strategic Defense Initiative
Read the text of President Reagan's announcement by clicking on the title. Watch his call against nuclear weapons by clicking the thumbnail below.

Announcement of Strategic Defense Initiative, excerpt, March 23, 1983

Click to play Regan video

Missile Defense after the Cold War

In late 1989, the administration of President George Bush initiated a review of the SDI program as part of a broader examination of U.S. strategic requirements for a "new world order" that was thought to be emerging. The review was completed in March 1990. The review noted that as the Cold War waned the most important threat to the U.S. would be from unauthorized or terrorist attacks by limited numbers of missiles. Additionally, deployed U.S. forces would face increasing threats from shorter-ranged theater missiles as the technology of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction proliferated.

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and in January 1991, the U.S. and its allies initiated Operation Desert Storm. Iraq responded with attacks by Scud missiles against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. These missile attacks led to a major milestone in military history: the first operational engagement between a ballistic missile (an Iraqi Scud) and a missile defense system (the American Patriot). Responding to this change in the ballistic missile threat, on Jan. 28, 1991, President Bush announced that the Defense Department was refocusing the SDI program from its emphasis on defending against a massive Soviet missile attack to an emphasis on defending against limited strikes.

Soon after, in 1993, Secretary of Defense Aspin announced that he was changing the name of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). In his announcement, Aspin noted that the name change signified the end of the SDI decade and gave credit to SDI for helping to end the Cold War.

Throughout the rest of the 1990s, BMDO refocused U.S. missile defenses on a more limited budget to deal with limited strikes. The new program helped produce an important milestone in missile defense history. In early 1994, the Extended Range Interceptor, or ERINT, was selected as the new interceptor missile for the advanced Patriot system. This interceptor utilized hit-to-kill technology. The previous operational missile defense interceptors had relied on warheads with either nuclear or conventional explosives to achieve their destructive effects.

BMDO began to develop national missile defense for testing and deployment using this new technology, which allowed the interceptor to destroy its target by colliding with it at high speeds, destroying the incoming missile and its payload. Experts agreed that the threat was constantly evolving, so BMDO followed the principles of spiral development in its acquisition. In spiral development, one fixes the design-to-threat at some point and makes this threat the basis for developing a stable system configuration. While stable, this configuration is also designed to be upgraded as more advanced defensive technologies become available. These technologies allow the fielded system to stay ahead of the evolving threat.

Welch Panel Reports
In the late 1990s, an independent review panel met to look at missile defense testing and programs. Click on the date to view the reports.

Report of the Panel on Reducing Risk in Ballistic Missile Defense Flight Test Programs - Feb. 27, 1998

National Missile Defense Review Committee Report - Nov. 1999

National Missile Defense Independent Review Team (Welch Panel) Executive Summary - June 13, 2000

Missile Defense after the ABM Treaty

Upon taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush brought to his presidency a strong commitment to deploying missile defense in the shortest possible time. On Dec. 13, 2001, he gave Russia the six-month notice of U.S. intent to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. Subsequently, on Dec. 17, 2002, he issued a statement announcing the national policy on ballistic missile defense that required the Secretary of Defense to "proceed with fielding an initial set of missile defense capabilities" in 2004. Under President Bush's leadership, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reoriented the missile defense program with a concept for an integrated, layered defense that would be capable of attacking warheads and missiles in all phases of their flight and was expected to eventually provide global defenses against missiles of all ranges. As a reflection of these changes Secretary Rumsfeld issued a Jan. 2, 2002 memorandum changing the name of BMDO to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

By the end of 2004, sixty years after the first V-2 missiles struck Great Britain, MDA began limited defensive operations of its Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) after deploying five long-range Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska. Together with the PAC-3 interceptor for short-range BMD, and the Aegis SM-3 for medium-range BMD, for protecting deployed United States forces, friends and allies, the GMD interceptors enabled midcourse engagement of intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, and a limited defense of the United States against near-term ballistic missile threats as the BMDS continued development.

The Bush administration started planning for a European missile defense site to intercept ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East using a modified version of the GMD interceptor and a midcourse X-band radar. While maintaining the U.S. government's commitment to homeland defense, in 2009, the Obama administration decided to base European missile defenses on upgraded versions of the SM-3 interceptor. The new phased adaptive approach deploys U.S. upper tier sea- and land-based missile defenses in Europe in four phases to supplement North Atlantic Treaty Organization lower tier systems as short- and longer-range missile threats from the Middle East proliferated.