Capstone Thesis: Missile Defense

“I support development and deployment of a limited national missile defense. Few, if any of our duties surpass our obligation to provide for the common defense of our nation.”
-Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman

Emilyn Tuomala, an Honors Scholar who graduated in May 2019, completed an individualized major entitled International Security. All Honors students must write a senior thesis, and Emilyn chose missile defense as her topic. The thesis was supervised by Evan Perkoski from Political Science and its official title is “Determining Defense: Bureaucracy, Threat and Missile Defense.” Below is a short synopsis of Emilyn’s work.

Emilyn presents at Frontiers

As I began exploring careers I realized I was not as interested in political science theory as I was in national security and defense. By creating an individualized major in International Security I was able to compare concepts from political theory classes with defense and national security decisions on topics like missile defense procurement, modernization of the nuclear weapons program and strategies for military deployment. The unique learning structure offered by the individualized major program gave me the skills that ultimately led to my internship with the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, which further solidified my interest in missile defense as a thesis topic.

When President Ronald Reagan introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) policy idea in 1983, dubbed “Star Wars”, he faced staunch criticism from scientists and policymakers alike, all of whom doubted the idea of intercepting Russian missiles and other weapons by shooting lasers from space satellites. While the technology did not exist at the time, the critics of the program did agree with the need to defend the U.S. against Russian nuclear weapons. Fast forward more than 30 years, where over 25 countries now possess missile defense capabilities and sales of such systems continue to increase.

What changed between 1981 to now? What caused interest in the U.S. missile defense systems to change over time, starting as an impossible idea and now a multi-billion dollar reality? The common belief is that national security decisions and technological choices are rationally determined in response to external threats. Is it possible that technological defense decisions are shaped by bureaucracy and political ideology as well? Was funding poured into SDI due to pressure from Russian threats? From U.S. policymakers with close ties to defense contractors? I measure interest in missile defense through the amount of money allocated to these projects, evaluating how it has changed since Ronald Reagan first announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. To assess why it changes over time, I evaluate congressional and presidential politics, national security strategy reports, and other documents to determine the relative influence of each. While I find that the decision-making process underlying missile defense is obscure and often opaque, both threat and ideology shape interest in these systems.

By Emilyn Tuomala
IMJR: International Security