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Ronald Reagan's Vision for Defenses Still the Right One

The remote and once active minuteman missile silo historic site in philip south dakota
The remote and once active Minuteman Missile Silo historic site in Philip, South Dakota, where missile silos containing nuclear weapons as part of the United States defense arsenal once were. (Nyker1/

Henry F. Cooper By Thursday, 23 March 2023 11:00 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan stunned the scientific-policy elite with a message to take advantage of then advancing technology, "to develop a long-term program for defense" rather than relying totally on a "balance of terror," then called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), to deter nuclear attack on the United States.

The context for Reagan’s initiative, subsequently named the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), should not be forgotten.

It came shortly after his March 8, 1983 National Association of Evangelicals speech, describing the Soviet Union as an "Evil Empire."

Negative responses to both speeches came, from the Soviets and U.S. political opponents.

In an even broader context in early 1981, President Reagan chartered an intensive review of all the defense activities he inherited from the Carter administration, including the arms control negotiations and our then atrophying tactical and strategic military systems.

Under a "Peace Through Strength" mantel, he funded a major modernization course — that this writer participated, and did so in an up close and personal manner. 

Memorably, Army Chief of Staff Shy Meyer openly had called his area of responsibility a "hollow army."

In addition, several Defense Science Board (DSB) and Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) studies documented the shortcomings of our vulnerable strategic forces.

Notably one in the summer of 1980 determined that a preferential defense of our vulnerable Minuteman silos was much less expensive than rebasing our ICBMs.

But that preferential defense was not permitted because the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty made any effective strategic defense illegal — freezing in the MAD "mutual vulnerability" doctrine.

The Soviet Union violated that Treaty from its initial signing — as extensively documented in 1983 by the President Reagan’s General Advisory Commission (GAC).

But its terms bridled us — a major concern for Reagan’s arms control initiatives.

The ABM Treaty banned the development, testing and deployment of all space-based, air-based, and mobile land-based ABM systems and their components.

Basically, it banned all effective strategic defenses, however based. And previous studies had demonstrated space-based defenses would be best, given needed technological advances.

There was a notable loophole in the treaty, permitting defenses against short range (non-strategic or tactical) missiles—no doubt because of widely deployed such Soviet systems (with limited ABM capability, by the way) and also then in limited U.S. development.

This U.S. Patriot Theater Missile Defense system—mostly produced with minimal testing after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 — became a hero in defending Israel and Saudi Arabia in the February 1991 Gulf War.

That demonstration changed the political climate for all missile defense programs. And for the first time, the most effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, those based in space, became much more public and controversial. But I’m a bit ahead of my story.

In 1983, a major focus of the Reagan administration was countering the Soviet SS-20 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) systems being deployed in the territory of five of our NATO allies.

A top objective of the Carter administration and retained by the Reagan administration was to counter that deployment — then reaching several hundred IRBMs that undermined NATO’s ability to defend itself against a Soviet invasion.

A major initiative begun by the Carter administration and expedited by the Reagan administration was to develop and deploy the Pershing II IRBM system and Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) system in five NATO nations — along with Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty negotiations.

When NATO INF deployments began, the Soviets walked out of all arms control talks —seeking politically to undermine re-election key European leaders — and Ronald Reagan.

Happily, they were all re-elected . . . but were left with no ongoing negotiations.

By then, SDI was demonstrating advancing U.S. capabilities — including with highly visible experiments in space — that impressed Soviet leaders, who sought a resumption of arms control negotiations with an objective of staling U.S. development of so-called "Space Strike Arms."

So, SDI brought the Soviets back to the negotiating table.

This writer was privileged to become President Reagan’s ambassador and defense and space negotiator in the revived talks with the Soviets.

My job was to lead our efforts to counter those Soviets initiatives to kill the SDI effort, while achieving limits on INF and strategic forces.

We completed a historic ban of Soviet and U.S. INF missiles during the Reagan administration and a significant Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START I) in the early

George H.W. Bush administration, while I then was serving as the third SDI director.

Moreover, the Soviet Union dissolved — with no small merit due to SDI efforts. Britain’s then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observed: "SDI ended the Cold War without firing a shot!"

Concurrently, SDI made great technology strides in advancing technology for all basing modes, especially for space and theater missile defenses.

Most notable, was the "Brilliant Pebbles" space-based system . . . begun by USAF Lt. General Jim Abrahamson, the first SDI Director and advanced to become a fully Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) approved concept demonstration program under USAF Lt. General George Monahan. (The estimated cost of development, deployment and 20-years operations was $10 billion in 1983 dollars—now more like $20 billion.)

Democratic U.S. Senate and U.S. House leaders opposed such activities on this writer's watch; instead insisting that SDI funds be limited to developing ground and sea-based defenses.

See "The Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles" by Don Baucomb.

Exaggerated cost estimates for space-based defense system have since dissuaded our leaders from reestablishing those efforts.

I’ve repeatedly reported these issues — in particular, consider my article on the 35th anniversary of Reagan’s historic speech.

Sadly, little has changed.

We spend most money on much less effective, more expensive defense systems, while ignoring the best defenses that were included in Ronald Reagan’s vision four decades ago.

Could the private sector cutting edge technology provide these products to the government?

Some are demonstrating maneuverable small satellite systems, with forbearers available 30 years ago.

Hope springs eternal.

Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Read Ambassador Cooper's Reports — More Here. 

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We spend most money on much less effective, more expensive defense systems, while ignoring the best defenses that were included in Ronald Reagan’s vision four decades ago.
icbm, sdi, silo
Thursday, 23 March 2023 11:00 AM
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