U.S. Reportedly to Study Nuclear Warheads for Missile Defense

May 2002

By Wade Boese

A senior Pentagon advisory group reporting directly to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly will study the possibility of arming U.S. missile defense interceptors with nuclear warheads, eliciting strong objections from two leading senators at an April 17 hearing.

With Rumsfeld’s encouragement, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, headed by William Schneider, will explore various U.S. missile defense options, including the use of nuclear warheads on missile interceptors, according to an April 11 article in The Washington Post. The article reported that the study is expected to begin later this summer.

Several days after the story appeared, Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) angrily denounced the idea of nuclear-armed missile interceptors. Stevens, a strong missile defense advocate, said such speculation made him “mad,” recommending that whoever thought up the concept be fired. Feinstein described the proposal as “absolutely inexplicable.”

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency, responded to Stevens’ remarks by pointing out that no current U.S. missile defense work involves nuclear interceptors. “However, people do think about those types of things across a broad range when you’re dealing with missile defense,” Kadish added.

Current U.S. missile defense programs are focused on intercepting ballistic missiles by using either lasers or “hit-to-kill” methods, which are designed to destroy targets through collisions, not explosions. Some independent critics of hit-to-kill, however, suggest that method will not be capable of destroying targets surrounded by decoys because it would be difficult to determine the correct object to intercept.

In theory, a nuclear-armed interceptor would not have to hunt out a specific target to be effective; if the decoys and target were spaced relatively close together, the interceptor would simply have to explode in their general vicinity. An attacking country, however, could disperse the warhead and decoys over a great distance, making it impossible to take out all the decoys and potential warheads with one explosion.

Nuclear explosions in outer space could produce significant collateral damage to U.S. and foreign satellites and the Earth’s electromagnetic fields. Past nuclear tests in space—prior to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which bans nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water—crippled U.S. civilian and military satellites and knocked out some U.S. communications on Earth.

The United States deployed nuclear warheads on its Safeguard missile defense interceptors in 1975, but the Pentagon dismantled that system in 1976, when Rumsfeld first served as secretary of defense under President Gerald Ford. Since that time, no U.S. administration has seriously considered the option.
Russia began deployment of a nuclear-armed missile defense around Moscow in the 1960s. The system still rings Moscow, but serious questions exist about its operational status and effectiveness.