Thirty-nine years ago, on March 23, 1983, President Reagan shook the world with a 4-5 minute insert in concluding a comprehensive 29-minute speech to the nation, most of which is worth reviewing because it mirrors today’s threats that have been ignored far too long.
But my focus today is his concluding comments that called on the nation’s scientists and engineers to end the dominance of ballistic missiles by developing effective defenses against them.
Reagan was appalled that the only planned response to a major nuclear attack by the Soviet Union was to retaliate in kind, basically destroying the Soviet Union in response to them destroying us — also with disastrous consequences for the rest of the world. In response to this so-called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, he famously asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than avenge them?”
Thus was born his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that sought ways to build technologically sound, truly effective defenses against ballistic missile attack — particularly based in space.
As I wrote four years ago, he demonstrated this firm opinion when he walked out of the Reykjavik Summit because Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev demanded that our space technology demonstrations be limited to the laboratory — ending the most effective SDI technology efforts. Integrated into his “Peace Through Strength” agenda, he also rebuilt our military capability that had atrophied, especially during the Carter years in the 1970s.
Notably, his closest partner in those days, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, later reflected on this event when she observed that “President Reagan’s SDI and his commitment to continue it ended the Cold War without firing a shot.”
The “Left” in America and many around the world (with a few exceptions, like leaders of our NATO partners and others threatened by the Soviet ways, responded negatively to SDI, labeled “Star Wars” to reinforce the idea that SDI was a fantasy, a fictional illusion at best, that would cause an arms race that could lead to the end of the world.
The Soviets loudly chimed in, while operating the world’s only homeland ballistic missile defense (BMD) and violating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, as has been the case for most if not all of their arms control (and other) agreements. Russia continues this tradition, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) intended to block Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. from which President Trump withdrew — now being renegotiated.
In spite of opposition from the “Left,” President Reagan and his allies held firm and the Soviets returned to the negotiating tables they had abandoned when we countered their SS-20 Intermediate Range Force (INF) ballistic missiles threatening our NATO allies by deploying our own INF systems in the homelands of five of our NATO allies.
I was privileged to lead the U.S. Defense and Space Talks (DST) defending Reagan’s SDI efforts against the Soviet challenge, echoed by the global liberal Left. We held firm while SDI demonstrated technology to reach Reagan’s vision — especially based in space. And we achieved the first arms control agreements ever actually to reduce nuclear arms.
And SDI learned how to build truly effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, now over three decades ago, but those efforts regrettably later stalled out.
For example, SDI’s 1986 Delta 180 experiment (a month before the Reykjavik Summit) demonstrated technology to intercept a boosting missile in space, an experiment conceived by Dr. Michael Griffin, then at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) — later my Deputy SDI Director for Technology during the George H.W. Bush administration and most recently President Trump’s Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USDRE).
Had we continued Reagan’s SDI visionary efforts, we would have long ago developed truly effective BMD systems, including the capability to defeat the hypersonic missile threat that Mike correctly noted during his recent USDRE watch we had so fallen behind that we are playing “catch-up” to others — as recently demonstrated by Putin’s hypersonic missile attacks in Ukraine.
While gutting SDI in early 1993, President Clinton’s Defense Secretary Les Aspin famously boasted that he was "taking the stars out of Star Wars." Since then, no Democrat or Republican administration, until President Trump’s, has even come close to reviving those technologies. And even then little was done, in spite of Dr. Griffin’s attempts to do so.
We knew how to intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and still need to revive such programs! Had we continued our SDI efforts, we long ago could have deployed a space-based constellation to intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase, in outer space, and high in the atmosphere during their reentry phase.
As reported years ago, that “Brilliant Pebbles” system was expected to cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars — now about $20 billion in today’s dollars. Much, much, much less than what we have invested in far less capable systems, claimed to be more required by alleged, but apparently uninformed, “experts.”
I believe we could have countered today’s hypersonic threat to which we now are playing “catch-up,” since we decades ago abandoned our efforts demonstrating that capability. Had we continued those efforts, the current threat would probably have been deterred—possibly even Russia’s threat to Ukraine.
See Newsweek’s recent article, “Zelensky Begs Israel for Defense Systems; Calls ‘Iron Dome’ the World’s Best.”
The Israeli missile defense programs got their start with strong SDI support — I was proud to help get Israel’s Arrow “off the ground” in the wake of the Patriot-Scud battles in the 1991 Gulf War that so clearly demonstrated the value of defenses. And Israel still receives significant U.S. funding for its homeland defense.
Serious people value truly effective defenses, as was President Reagan’s objective. Too bad that no administration since 1992, Republican or Democrat, has followed his vision.
My “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” piece describes the then current BMD story — and, regrettably, nothing has changed. Isn’t it about time that we follow his vision rather than totally depending on MAD?
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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