Missile Defense: From Reagan's Vision to Today's Imperative

One day a madman could come along and make the missiles and blackmail all of us. — Ronald Reagan, to Mikhail Gorbachev, 1985


No doubt, President Reagan would have agreed with the Jack Ryan's, the hero of Tom Clancy's novels,  mentor in the Sum of All Fears, when he stated that he did not fear the man with thousands of nuclear weapons, but rather the man with just one.

While it is tempting to view missile defense as a relic of the Cold War, it is equally or even more important now, as the world struggles with how to confront today's 'Axis of Evil' and tomorrow's potential missile—based threats. The United States is in a diplomatic standoff with Iran — a country whose national policy includes the complete destruction of another country — as it seeks to develop nuclear devices, an objective very consistent with the use of nuclear—tipped missiles.  In addition, North Korea has reneged on its non—proliferation agreements and tested missiles with the potential to reach both the United States and Western Europe. Should these nuclear and long—range missile developments of Iran and North Korea prove successful, these rogue regimes would have intercontential weapons with nuclear capability at their disposal.

Fortunately, the development of missile defense systems in the U.S. did not end with the Cold War.  Because of over twenty years of R&D, today there are defensive missile systems, some in their initial stages of development and deployment, others more advanced, designed to protect the United States and its allies. When North Korea moved toward the testing of its missiles, it was announced that a variety of defensive systems, which were in final testing, were rapidly activated and deployed to that theater in the event they were needed.   In a press conference following the North Korea's test of its missiles, President Bush stated the United States could use its anti—missile systems to shoot down the North Korean missiles, if necessary.

During the Cold War, the dominant strategic doctrine was Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  Under this doctrine, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would initiate nuclear war since the only response available was to unleash its nuclear arsenal, leading to a nuclear exchange, which would end in Armageddon.  Because the price of nuclear war was too high to consider, there was an uneasy peace between the two superpowers and an ever—increasing arms race since neither side wanted to lose its ability to respond to a first strike. 

In order for MAD to maintain the peace, two things are necessary.  One is that both sides must have the ability to completely destroy the other side in response to a 'first strike.'  The other is that the leaders of each superpower must play the nuclear game in a rational matter and not miscalculate.   In discussing the standoff produced by the MAD doctrine, President Reagan wrote in his memoir An American Life  that

'...this did not seem to me something that would send you to bed feeling safe.  It was like having two westerners standing in a saloon aiming their guns at each others's head — permanently.  There had to be a better way.'

The path to championing missile defense and finding that better way began in July 1979, when Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California and an unsuccessful challenger for the Republican nomination in 1976, was a popular newspaper columnist and radio commentator who was preparing a final run at the White House.  He arranged for a tour of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) facility in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.  This facility deep in inside the mountain has the ability to withstand a nuclear strike, and is nerve center for tracking missile threats against the country.  During this tour, candidate Reagan was shocked to learn that despite the latest and most sophicated technology available, the military was basically powerless to defend against a nuclear strike and could only warn the target city it had less than fifteen minutes before being destroyed. 

Deeply troubled by his visit to NORAD and the deadly standoff of MAD, when he became President, Reagan formed a small group in the White House and the Pentagon to come up with that better way.  President Reagan gave this group a rather straightforward challenge: every offensive weapon in the history of man has seen the creation of a defense against it, so why not one for nuclear missiles?

This group responded to the President's challenge with a proposal to develop a series of systems, which would provide a defense against these weapons, to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

On March 23, 1983, in a nationally televised address, President Reagan shared with the world his proposals for SDI.  The President recognized that SDI was a long—term effort fraught with many challenges yet would produce breakthroughs that would ultimately produce a safer and more secure world stating:

'I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it's reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn't it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.'

In addition, to the research and development efforts contained in SDI, President Reagan offered to share the fruits of these efforts with any country including the Soviet Union which would abolish nuclear weapons, so that they would no longer be hostage to the threat to nuclear Armageddon.  It was President Reagan's belief that such a system would protect the world against both nuclear exchange between superpowers and the threat of a rogue country with just a few nuclear missiles or one.  In the 1984, Presidential campaign commercials referred to SDI as the 'peace shield.'

The primary foreign policy focus of the Reagan Presidency was the Soviet Union and implementing a strategy which ultimately ended the Cold War.  At the same time the Cold War was winding down, a new threat was emerging, the global war on terrorism. During his Presidency, the opening salvos of the war on terror where fired.  These incidents included the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the 'cat and mouse' game with Libya's Colonel Qadaffi.

Many believed that President Reagan started SDI as a bargaining chip designed to bring an end to the Cold War.  While that may have been a part of his strategy, his ultimate vision was to create a viable defense against nuclear weapons from either a superpower or a future rogue state in the then—beginning war on terror.  In a 1985 press conference, Reagan discussed the importance of missile defense stating:

'... we will put in this defensive thing [SDI] in case some place in the world a madman some day tries to create these weapons again —— nuclear weapons —— because, remember, we all know how to make them now. So, you can't do away with that information, but we would all be safe knowing that if such a madman project is ever attempted there isn't any of us that couldn't defend ourselves against it.'

The effect of President Reagan's vision for missile defense goes beyond the Cold War.  Not only did it play a critical role in the end game for that half a century conflict, its power was felt in the 1991 war with Iraq and today's war on terror, its first operational use.  In the 1991 Iraq War, Saddam Hussein sought to drive a wedge in the fragile worldwide coalition against him by launching Scud missiles at Israel, a neutral country.  If Israel had entered the war by defending itself against these attacks, it would have no doubt caused this conflict to unfold in ways that would have further complicated the politics of that region.  The first operational anti—missile system, the Patriot missile, was deployed to the region.  This system was able to offer some limited defensive capability against many of the Iraqi missiles, and helped convince Israel to stay out of the conflict.  This defensive system helped stabilize the situation and validated President Reagan's vision for missile defense.

Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, SDI was redirected away from the defending against a Soviet attack to a more limited attack by a rogue state.  Building on the successes of the Patriot missile in the Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush in the 1991 State of the Union speech directed that missile defense efforts be redirected to address a limited strike rather than a massive strike by the Soviet Union. 

Because of the end of the Cold War and the lack of any apparent threat, defense spending, including research and development for missile defense, was reduced as policymakers used the 'peace dividend' to fund a variety of other priorities in the early part of the Clinton Administration.  Late in the 1990s, however, due to efforts, a bipartistian commission led by then private citizen Donald Rumsfield, the efforts were revived.  In particular, this Commission recognized that nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue state were an increasing danger.  As result, funding was increased and efforts were refocused.

With the attacks of September 11, the United States was once again faced with a threat and increased defense spending in a variety of areas, including missile defense.  With the spread of nuclear and missile technology, it is now possible for state sponsored terrorists groups or rogue nations to use these weapons to blackmail the rest of the world —  if there is not a missile defense system. Just as President Reagan told Secretary Gorbachev during their discussions on SDI at their summit conferences.  Recent events in Iran and North Korea support President Reagan's vision for the importance of a robust missile defense system 'which offers new hope for our children in the 21st century' as he envisioned in March 1983 when the missile defense program was first proposed.

James A. Leggette, Ph.D. is an economist and talk radio host.  Michael W. Funk, a former Congressional Fellow, is currently an executive in the telecommunications industry.  They are collaborating on a book on Ronald Reagan's economic legacy.

One day a madman could come along and make the missiles and blackmail all of us. — Ronald Reagan, to Mikhail Gorbachev, 1985


No doubt, President Reagan would have agreed with the Jack Ryan's, the hero of Tom Clancy's novels,  mentor in the Sum of All Fears, when he stated that he did not fear the man with thousands of nuclear weapons, but rather the man with just one.

While it is tempting to view missile defense as a relic of the Cold War, it is equally or even more important now, as the world struggles with how to confront today's 'Axis of Evil' and tomorrow's potential missile—based threats. The United States is in a diplomatic standoff with Iran — a country whose national policy includes the complete destruction of another country — as it seeks to develop nuclear devices, an objective very consistent with the use of nuclear—tipped missiles.  In addition, North Korea has reneged on its non—proliferation agreements and tested missiles with the potential to reach both the United States and Western Europe. Should these nuclear and long—range missile developments of Iran and North Korea prove successful, these rogue regimes would have intercontential weapons with nuclear capability at their disposal.

Fortunately, the development of missile defense systems in the U.S. did not end with the Cold War.  Because of over twenty years of R&D, today there are defensive missile systems, some in their initial stages of development and deployment, others more advanced, designed to protect the United States and its allies. When North Korea moved toward the testing of its missiles, it was announced that a variety of defensive systems, which were in final testing, were rapidly activated and deployed to that theater in the event they were needed.   In a press conference following the North Korea's test of its missiles, President Bush stated the United States could use its anti—missile systems to shoot down the North Korean missiles, if necessary.

During the Cold War, the dominant strategic doctrine was Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  Under this doctrine, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would initiate nuclear war since the only response available was to unleash its nuclear arsenal, leading to a nuclear exchange, which would end in Armageddon.  Because the price of nuclear war was too high to consider, there was an uneasy peace between the two superpowers and an ever—increasing arms race since neither side wanted to lose its ability to respond to a first strike. 

In order for MAD to maintain the peace, two things are necessary.  One is that both sides must have the ability to completely destroy the other side in response to a 'first strike.'  The other is that the leaders of each superpower must play the nuclear game in a rational matter and not miscalculate.   In discussing the standoff produced by the MAD doctrine, President Reagan wrote in his memoir An American Life  that

'...this did not seem to me something that would send you to bed feeling safe.  It was like having two westerners standing in a saloon aiming their guns at each others's head — permanently.  There had to be a better way.'

The path to championing missile defense and finding that better way began in July 1979, when Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California and an unsuccessful challenger for the Republican nomination in 1976, was a popular newspaper columnist and radio commentator who was preparing a final run at the White House.  He arranged for a tour of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) facility in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.  This facility deep in inside the mountain has the ability to withstand a nuclear strike, and is nerve center for tracking missile threats against the country.  During this tour, candidate Reagan was shocked to learn that despite the latest and most sophicated technology available, the military was basically powerless to defend against a nuclear strike and could only warn the target city it had less than fifteen minutes before being destroyed. 

Deeply troubled by his visit to NORAD and the deadly standoff of MAD, when he became President, Reagan formed a small group in the White House and the Pentagon to come up with that better way.  President Reagan gave this group a rather straightforward challenge: every offensive weapon in the history of man has seen the creation of a defense against it, so why not one for nuclear missiles?

This group responded to the President's challenge with a proposal to develop a series of systems, which would provide a defense against these weapons, to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

On March 23, 1983, in a nationally televised address, President Reagan shared with the world his proposals for SDI.  The President recognized that SDI was a long—term effort fraught with many challenges yet would produce breakthroughs that would ultimately produce a safer and more secure world stating:

'I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it's reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn't it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.'

In addition, to the research and development efforts contained in SDI, President Reagan offered to share the fruits of these efforts with any country including the Soviet Union which would abolish nuclear weapons, so that they would no longer be hostage to the threat to nuclear Armageddon.  It was President Reagan's belief that such a system would protect the world against both nuclear exchange between superpowers and the threat of a rogue country with just a few nuclear missiles or one.  In the 1984, Presidential campaign commercials referred to SDI as the 'peace shield.'

The primary foreign policy focus of the Reagan Presidency was the Soviet Union and implementing a strategy which ultimately ended the Cold War.  At the same time the Cold War was winding down, a new threat was emerging, the global war on terrorism. During his Presidency, the opening salvos of the war on terror where fired.  These incidents included the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the 'cat and mouse' game with Libya's Colonel Qadaffi.

Many believed that President Reagan started SDI as a bargaining chip designed to bring an end to the Cold War.  While that may have been a part of his strategy, his ultimate vision was to create a viable defense against nuclear weapons from either a superpower or a future rogue state in the then—beginning war on terror.  In a 1985 press conference, Reagan discussed the importance of missile defense stating:

'... we will put in this defensive thing [SDI] in case some place in the world a madman some day tries to create these weapons again —— nuclear weapons —— because, remember, we all know how to make them now. So, you can't do away with that information, but we would all be safe knowing that if such a madman project is ever attempted there isn't any of us that couldn't defend ourselves against it.'

The effect of President Reagan's vision for missile defense goes beyond the Cold War.  Not only did it play a critical role in the end game for that half a century conflict, its power was felt in the 1991 war with Iraq and today's war on terror, its first operational use.  In the 1991 Iraq War, Saddam Hussein sought to drive a wedge in the fragile worldwide coalition against him by launching Scud missiles at Israel, a neutral country.  If Israel had entered the war by defending itself against these attacks, it would have no doubt caused this conflict to unfold in ways that would have further complicated the politics of that region.  The first operational anti—missile system, the Patriot missile, was deployed to the region.  This system was able to offer some limited defensive capability against many of the Iraqi missiles, and helped convince Israel to stay out of the conflict.  This defensive system helped stabilize the situation and validated President Reagan's vision for missile defense.

Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, SDI was redirected away from the defending against a Soviet attack to a more limited attack by a rogue state.  Building on the successes of the Patriot missile in the Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush in the 1991 State of the Union speech directed that missile defense efforts be redirected to address a limited strike rather than a massive strike by the Soviet Union. 

Because of the end of the Cold War and the lack of any apparent threat, defense spending, including research and development for missile defense, was reduced as policymakers used the 'peace dividend' to fund a variety of other priorities in the early part of the Clinton Administration.  Late in the 1990s, however, due to efforts, a bipartistian commission led by then private citizen Donald Rumsfield, the efforts were revived.  In particular, this Commission recognized that nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue state were an increasing danger.  As result, funding was increased and efforts were refocused.

With the attacks of September 11, the United States was once again faced with a threat and increased defense spending in a variety of areas, including missile defense.  With the spread of nuclear and missile technology, it is now possible for state sponsored terrorists groups or rogue nations to use these weapons to blackmail the rest of the world —  if there is not a missile defense system. Just as President Reagan told Secretary Gorbachev during their discussions on SDI at their summit conferences.  Recent events in Iran and North Korea support President Reagan's vision for the importance of a robust missile defense system 'which offers new hope for our children in the 21st century' as he envisioned in March 1983 when the missile defense program was first proposed.

James A. Leggette, Ph.D. is an economist and talk radio host.  Michael W. Funk, a former Congressional Fellow, is currently an executive in the telecommunications industry.  They are collaborating on a book on Ronald Reagan's economic legacy.