Congress and Missile Defense

Publication Date: 
September 2015
a chapter in Regional Missile Defense from a Global Perspective
Collaborative Education and Cooperative Security
The Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program
U.S.-Russian Security Relations
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

The PDF available above is a pre-publication version of the chapter that appears in the book.

Congress has been more involved in missile defense than it usually is on national security, but its motivations and impact are often misunderstood. One common misconception is that missile defense was intensely controversial during the 20th century, but now represents a rare area of stable consensus across party lines and between the Executive Branch and Congress. Another is that Congress has been unusually active on missile defense because the public strongly supports it and would punish politicians who did not.

A deeper look shows that there is not, and never has been, a consensus about the feasibility and desirability of comprehensive missile defense, nor on related questions, such as how nuclear deterrence works and what, if any, role arms control should play in security policy. Since the end of the Cold War, advocates for both comprehensive and very limited missile defense have claimed that a consensus has been reached on their preferred approach, but such claims are often political tactics used to silence opposition. Public opinion has been consistently mixed over the decades, with majority support for the abstract idea of protection that declines sharply if cost, effectiveness, or impact on arms control are considered.

Lack of true consensus and low public attention let members of Congress influence the shape, size, and speed of missile defense programs for reasons related as much to ideology and partisan politics as to national security. A brief review of Congressional actions prior to 2001 shows a pattern in which Congress repeatedly pulled the Executive Branch closer to the middle from its preferred position of a more minimalist or maximalist approach. Political calculations, more than true consensus, also explain why Congress has acquiesced to the President’s budget requests and supported consistency in budgets and programs after September 11, 2001, choosing to debate implementation details rather than the overall desirability and feasibility of missile defense. The relative calm in Congress represents more of a truce than a true consensus. That quiescence could end again for technological, economic, strategic or political reasons.