Missiles on the Lakefront: The Forgotten Story of Congressman Ab Mikva and Nike Base C-41

 /  Oct. 13, 2014, 8 a.m.

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Part IV – “Why Are We Really Developing a Missile Defense System?”

On June 22, 2014, an intercontinental ballistic missile was bearing down on America’s West Coast. With only minutes to spare, an interceptor rocket roared out of its silo on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. This was America’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, Nike-Ajax on a global scale. The world’s most powerful radar station, staring down on the Pacific from Adak, Alaska, tracked the closing gap between the two rockets. Satellites beamed its readouts to a supercomputer in Colorado Springs, which updated the exoatmospheric kill vehicle’s trajectory. At hypersonic speeds, the two missiles collided, sparing California. At a cost of nearly $200 million, GMD test FTG-06b had succeeded.

The Senators, Congressmen, and Hyde Parkers who campaigned against missile defenses might not have been impressed. Their particular bills and amendments may have fallen short, but they generated a surge of public concern over ABM systems that contributed to the 1972 ABM Treaty with the Soviet Union. Each country agreed to build only two ABM sites, one guarding an ICBM field and one guarding their capital city. McNamara’s space-age defense system dwindled to a single unfinished radar station on the plains of North Dakota. [ref]

Morgan, Mark L., and Mark A. Berhow. Rings of Supersonic Steel


With the fall of the Soviet Union, missile defense planners turned their attention to a handful of small, isolated “rogue states.” To counter these threats, they introduced a pared-down, rebranded ABM system: Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, a networked rocket-and-radar system designed to intercept a single North Korean or Iranian missile.  In 1995, President Clinton vetoed the first proposal for such a system, claiming it would “waste billions of dollars” defending against a minimal threat. [ref]

Willman, David. "$40 Billion Missile Defense Proves Unreliable." The Los Angeles Times 15 June 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


This mindset soon shifted. In 2002, the Bush administration withdrew America from the ABM Treaty and quietly began developing a GMD System. After twelve years and over $40 billion dollars, the GMD’s exoatmospheric kill vehicles have destroyed only nine of the seventeen test rockets fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. [ref]

"The Unsheltering Sky." Economist (US) 6 Sept. 2014: n. pag. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

[/ref] Test FTG-06b brought the system’s success rate to 53%, well below the 80% of bombers Nike-Ajax promised to contain.

Ian Williams, spokesman for the Missile-Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), draws a clear distinction between the two programs. “The concerns over the Nike system were perfectly valid,” he conceded in a phone interview, pointing to the same concerns raised by Spc. Miller. The GMD system’s interceptors, he explained, employ “kinetic kill” physics to destroy a target with speed alone.

Technical distinctions aside, the GMD system has cost American taxpayers over $40 billion. Having already surpassed the $38 billion projected for McNamara’s “thin” ABM system, [ref]

"Congress Authorizes Controversial ABM Funds." In CQ Almanac 1969, 25th ed., 257-92.

[/ref] GMD will require billions more in testing and technology to raise its success rate. Making the program’s case in an age of austerity, Mr. Williams pointed out that GMD funding represents only a small percentage—and a very distinct purpose—of America’s defense spending. “Most of our defense spending is actually offense spending,” he told me over the phone. “If you look at missile defense, we’re talking about systems designed to defend American cities and civilians against missile threats.” This capability, he continued, could save America even greater expenses in the future. Raising the prospect of a successful North Korean strike on America’s West Coast, he grimly concluded that “we’re looking at a full-scale war. Millions would die, Seoul would be destroyed.” If, on the other hand, America could intercept that missile over the Pacific, “we have a lot more strategic options.”

In nearly an hour of conversation, Mr. Williams raised other arguments in favor of the GMD. In the event of an actual launch, he predicted, Vandenberg would fire multiple kill vehicles to boost the system’s odds of success. He also took issue with the notion that diplomacy and mutually assured destruction could fully contain the likes of Iran and North Korea. Those approaches, he argued, “assume that your enemy is rational.” They also assume that the government will remain in firm control of its nuclear arsenal.  Mr. Williams predicted disaster if a rogue element of North Korea’s military seized control of a nuclear missile.

The Congressional Conference on the Military Budget and National Priorities, called at a time when far more missiles were aimed at America’s cities, understood Mr. Williams’s line of thinking. Taking pains not to fault America’s generals and admirals, they observed that “it is customary for military leaders to plan on the basis of a ‘greater than expected threat’…having made these assumptions, it is not surprising that they propose enormous appropriations and gigantic procurement programs ‘to meet the threat.’” Civilian leadership, they argued, had failed to assess these proposals. [ref]

P. 12

[/ref] “In the brief period of six years that I have been in the Senate,” observed Gaylord Nelson at the time, “no military budget has been subjected by the Congress—or by the public either—to really critical evaluation. We have passed seventy-billion-dollar military budgets after ten minutes or an hour of discussion…we defaulted…in all matters of judgment on the military budget, on the theory that the military knew best and that we were dealing with purely technical military matters and not political ones. This has been our great mistake.” [ref]

P. 19


For a number of reasons, the military and its share of the federal budget would shrink considerably in the decades following the Conference. Yet Congress’s trust in high-tech, high-budget defense programs carries the same drawback that Ab Mikva saw firsthand in Jackson Park: the constant struggle to curtail new threats could draw funds away from much-needed domestic problems.

Dennis Apel knows this dilemma all too well. Not long after moving to Guadeloupe, California in 1996, the co-founder of Vandenberg Witness felt his house windows rattle as a test ICBM launched from the nearby military base. Reaching Mr. Apel to discuss his experiences since then proved difficult. Along with monthly vigils outside the base’s front gate, Vandenberg Witness performs local charity work, and Mr. Apel keeps a full schedule organizing medical clinics and food drives for low-income residents of Santa Barbara County. When I finally connected with Mr. Apel over the phone, he described the GMD as a grim indicator of national priorities. “It’s enormously expensive,” he remarked, “they can’t hire enough teachers, the roads are going to pot, there’s just not enough money…Why are we really developing a missile defense system?” [ref]

Apel, Dennis. Telephone Interview. 16 Sept. 2014


For all the costs and trade-offs of a missile defense system, Congress continues to fund the GMD on the assumption that a small, volatile group of nations poses a substantial risk to the United States. Few of its members have heard otherwise from constituents. A source close to Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA), who represents the Vandenberg region, reported that her office receives little correspondence about the missile tests.  Most concerns about the base, he explained focus on the roar of rocket and jet takeoffs. Mr. Apel, meanwhile, described Capps’s office as “unresponsive” and deferential to the economic weight carried by Vandenberg Air Force Base.

A previous generation of leaders, faced with larger, more capable nuclear arsenals, arrived at very different conclusions on this topic after a lively exchange with their constituents. One of these leaders, a freshman senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, recognized that the Cold War had dealt an unprecedented challenge to his colleagues. Not long before the first Nike-Ajax missiles arrived in Jackson Park, Kennedy wrote that, “in the days ahead, only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival in the struggle with a powerful enemy.” [ref]

Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper, 1955. Print.

[/ref] In the years that followed, a general consensus emerged in Hyde Park and arrived in Washington with Congressman Ab Mikva: “survival” meant striking a balance between guarding against threats and investing in a society worth guarding. Decades after the Conference on the Military Budget and National Priorities adjourned, Ab relocated to Evanston, and Nike Base C-41 became Bobolink Meadows, the question of missile defense continues to test that balance.

Patrick Reilly


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