Should the U.S. Continue to Fund the SDI Anti-Nuclear Missile Defense System?

In a Nutshell

Yes

No

  1. It may eventually protect us one day from a nuclear attack by a rogue or terrorist nation such as North Korea or Iran.
  2. Similar weapons systems (such as the Patriot Missile Defense used in Gulf War II) can be advanced from the technology improvements.
  3. It can defend us against missile delivery of chemical or biological weapons.
  4. The psychological impact on enemies is more powerful than the defense system itself.
  5. Military and scientific jobs are created from the project.
  6. Funds spent on the project are pumped into the economy.
  7. Military technological advances and research often lead to valuable civilian advances (e.g. the Internet).
  8. The missile defense system may discourage terrorist nations from even trying to develop nuclear weapons.
  1. The system has little chance of success against a massive scale attack or against a terrorist strike.
  2. The towering costs for a system that may never be used would be better spent on fighting poverty, improving education, etc.
  3. Spending large amounts of money on these types of projects leads to unwinnable, useless arms races.

Related Links

Overview/Background

The Cold War, which produced tens of thousands of nuclear weapons capable of blowing up the Earth several times over, ended in the early 1990s. Prior to the end of that war, President Reagan started work on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a research program designed to construct an anti-nuclear defense system. Some of the system would be space-based; it would be designed to lock onto a target and destroy it before it hit the ground. By admission of former Russian President Gorbachev, the fear of American technology advances and the exorbitant cost of trying to match Reagan's defense spending both led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The highly controversial project was discontinued by President Clinton while he was in office, but President Bush revived the program. President Obama and most Democrats would like to end the program. With the Cold War over, the controversy has grown. In an age of terrorism, do the security benefits justify the massive cost, which will likely reach into the hundreds of billions?

Yes

  1. It may eventually protect us one day from a nuclear attack by a rogue or terrorist nation such as North Korea or Iran. The threat of a full-scale retaliatory response kept the U.S. and Soviets out of nuclear war for decades; however, we live in a new era of terrorism. Deterrence is no longer an effective strategy. We're dealing with a new level of hate and fanaticism that seeks more to destroy than gain power. Does anyone doubt that Osama bin Laden would have launched a nuclear weapon if he had it, even if we threatened to retaliate in kind? North Korea, a communist nation desperately on the brink of starvation, already has a couple of nukes. Iran, ran by fanatical anti-American clerics and a president who has promised that Israel will be "wiped off the map", is actively developing nuclear weapons. Who knows what other groups or countries are out there developing these weapons? Also, with such as massive stockpile of Russian missiles out there, it's always possible that one of those missiles will fall into the wrong hands.

  2. Similar weapons systems (such as the Patriot Missile Defense used in Gulf War II) can be advanced from the technology improvements. The SDI project isn't just building a nuclear missile defense, it's building knowledge and technology. Much of that technology was used to develop the Patriot defense system. These systems performed to near perfection in defending Kuwait from Scud missiles launched by Saddam in Gulf War II. The U.S. military is far superior to the military of every other country in the world largely because of our technology. We should always do everything we can to maintain that advantage.

  3. It can defend us against missile delivery of chemical or biological weapons. Saddam Hussein held several missiles capable of delivering chemical weapons. Other nations and terrorist groups could also get their hands on these type of weapons. The SDI technology would provide yet another protection besides that against nuclear weapons.

  4. The psychological impact on enemies is more powerful than the defense system itself. As pointed out by former Soviet leader Gorbachev, the SDI project was part of what brought down the Soviet Union. The U.S. military has recently rolled over Saddam and the Taliban in record time. Much of the world is in fear of U.S. technology. Think about it from the viewpoint of a rogue country like North Korea. They know the U.S. already has the power to wipe their country off the face of the Earth in a matter of minutes. The U.S. then develops a missile defense shield that can effectively take out the North Korean nuclear deterrent. Even if the system really can't fulfill all the hype, the possibility is enough to force these rogue countries to the negotiating table.

  5. Military and scientific jobs are created from the project. The economy can always use a jolt when it comes to jobs. A massive project like this requires the services of a large number of personnel.

  6. Funds spent on the project are pumped into the economy. Yes, this project costs an enormous amount of money; however, it isn't if all that money vanishes into thin air. Although much of the money is lost in testing the defense, most government spending goes to workers and contractors, who can then in turn spend the money on other things in the economy.

  7. Military technological advances and research often lead to valuable civilian advances (e.g. the Internet). The focus of military research is always on fighting wars and defending the nation. However, the technology developed inevitably leads to unexpected civilian advances. The Internet was started as an American military project designed to provide a backup means of communications in the event of a nuclear war. Obviously, it developed into much more than that. The military is often the only organization with the funding and motivation to pursue ambitious research goals. Who knows what other uses will come from the SDI project?

  8. The missile defense system may discourage terrorist nations from even trying to develop nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was created to stop the spread of such weapons. Unfortunately, as demonstrated in the case of North Korea, it's impossible to get every nation to abide by the treaty. However, the development of a nuclear missile defense may just stop the spread of the weapons. Nukes take years of development and testing along with massive amounts of funds. If the U.S. has a system to effectively neutralize the weapons, what is the point of developing them in the first place?

No

  1. The system has little chance of success against a massive scale attack or against a terrorist strike. A missile strike from Castro's Cuba would take 5 minutes to reach Washington. If a terrorist hit us with a nuclear device, it would likely be from inside the country, rendering a missile defense useless. Any massive level strike from Russia, China, or North Korea sometime in the future could unleash hundreds or thousands of missiles. Is it realistic to think a missile defense could protect us in any of these situations? Even if we managed to shoot down all the missiles, we'd still have to deal with the radiation and other fallout problems. We can simulate many situations and test for various scenarios, but the only way to truly test the effectiveness is in a war. What happens if things go wrong once we're forced to use them for real?

  2. The towering costs for a system that may never be used would be better spent on fighting poverty, improving education, etc. The cost of this project may one day reach a trillion dollars. Is it really worth spending this much money on a system that has such a limited chance for success? Money is a finite resource. If we spend it on missile defense, we have to take it away from other things we could spend it on; for example, education, homeless shelters, food programs, AIDS initiatives, health insurance, small business investment, tax cuts, etc.

  3. Spending large amounts of money on these types of projects leads to unwinnable, useless arms races. The nuclear arms race led both the U.S. and Soviet Union to keep building more and more nuclear weapons, even after both countries had accumulated enough to wipe the other country off the map. When you have that much destructive power, what's the point of continuing? The SDI and other weapons projects leads countries to get into useless competitions. We don't need another arms race.

Related Links

National Missile Defense Pros and Cons
Ballistic Missile Defense Fact Sheet History
Missile Defense and Its Symbol Effects

Is anything missing? Is any of the material inaccurate? Please let me know.

Written by:
Joe Messerli
Page Last Updated:
11/19/2011

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