Safeguard Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) System Summary

After Congress appropriated the necessary funds, construction at the Safeguard site near Grand Forks, North Dakota, proceeded rapidly. In contrast, at the Montana site, located north of Malmstrom AFB, labor disputes caused serious construction delays. Construction at both Safeguard sites was well underway when President Richard Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty at the May 1972 Moscow Summit. In conjunction with the ABM treaty signing, the two national leaders signed an interim agreement to place limitations on certain strategic offensive arms.

The ABM Treaty and the interim agreement resulted from ongoing Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) begun in November 1969. Interest in the United States for arms control talks was rooted in the mid-1960s as the Soviets began to make inroads on American strategic superiority through deployment of numerous land- and sea-based offensive strategic nuclear-tipped missiles. Soviet deployment of a Galosh antiballistic missile system around Moscow also concerned American strategic planners. Conversely, the proposed American deployment of an ABM system far more capable than Galosh was a factor that motivated the Soviets to come to the negotiation table.

The treaty permitted the United States to retain two ABM facilities: one protecting the nation's capital and the other guarding a single ICBM launcher area. When the ABM Treaty was signed, the Safeguard facility near Grand Forks was 85 percent complete, while the site near Malmstrom was only 10 percent done. Since the treaty allowed only one ICBM field to be protected, work at the Malmstrom site ended. The government salvaged all of the usable material and then covered the foundations of the unfinished structures with topsoil. Today only the first story of the huge unfinished perimeter acquisition radar building is visible on the site.

Construction continued at Grand Forks, and the nation's first, and ultimately only, Safeguard site became operational in 1975. Realizing that this single site could do little against the hundreds of Soviet warheads that could be launched against it, the Army decided to operate the site for a single year to gain operational experience. When the Army's plan to cease operation reached Congress, appropriations for the site were cut, forcing the deactivation to occur sooner. However, a portion of the ABM installation (the perimeter acquisition radar) remained active as a tracking component for NORAD.

In 1974, when Congress decided to terminate the Safeguard program, it also directed the Army to refocus its ballistic missile defense program toward developing the next generation of missile defense technology. Accordingly, in May 1974, the Army abolished the Safeguard System Organization and in its place created the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). Like its predecessor, BMDO was based at the Army's Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama. Despite a reduction in funding, over the next 10 years the Army studied and experimented with a wide range of missile defense technologies. Many of the new technologies stemmed directly from the Safeguard program, while others were completely new. On the whole, the Army's research focused on three areas: developing new sensors to locate and track targets, developing nonnuclear interceptors to destroy incoming reentry vehicles, and developing new defensive strategies to optimize the capabilities of the new technology.

Indicative of a decade of development, in June 1984 the BMDO's Homing Overlay Experiment demonstrated that it was possible to intercept and destroy a target outside of the earth's atmosphere using a nonnuclear interceptor. In the words of one observer, the Army tests proved it was possible to "hit a bullet with a bullet."

At the same time the BMDO was developing new missile defense technology, newly elected President Ronald Reagan was searching for a way to circumvent the grim constraints of the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).d Shortly after Reagan took office, he began seeking advice on creating a workable ballistic missile defense. Acting on the advice of, among others, Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the American H-bomb, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in March 1983 the President told the nation of his intent to "create a nationwide defense shield against ballistic missiles that would make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."

Reagan called his new concept the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which the media promptly dubbed "Star Wars." To direct the $17 billion program, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger created the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), a joint service, independent development organization that reported directly to him.

The Army's missile defense expertise formed the backbone of the SDIO, and in July 1985 the new Army Strategic Defense Command replaced BMDO. Working together, researchers from the SDIO, the Army, and the Air Force developed a new layered defense strategy. The new plan was based on attacking enemy missiles soon after they had been launched, in midcourse, and as they neared their targets.

Some of the exotic technologies the SD10 planned to use included space- and ground-based lasers, space-based rocket interceptors, and a neutral particle beam weapon. The untried technology was both controversial and expensive. The Soviet Union, as well as some of the United States' European allies were harshly critical of SDI, claiming it would upset the balance of power. President Reagan, however, was unmoved by controversy and remained an ardent proponent of ballistic missile defense. With Reagan's support, SD1 funding grew rapidly, increasing from $1.4 billion in fiscal year 1985 to $4.5 billion in 1989.

In 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union led to significant cutbacks in the missile defense program. With the threat of a Soviet missile attack diminishing, the United States turned its attention from developing a nationwide missile defense to concentrating on localized theater missile defense.