Why America Still Needs Ballistic Missile Defense

Report Defense

Why America Still Needs Ballistic Missile Defense

May 6, 1998 12 min read
The Honorable Don Nickles

This lecture was held at The Heritage Foundation on March 23, 1998.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.:

Good afternoon. I would like to welcome all of you to a very special event, a speech by the Honorable Don Nickles, the Assistant Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, to commemorate another very special event and speech, namely the 15th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's speech introducing the Strategic Defense Initiative.

On Monday, March 23, the exact date of the anniversary, we held a reception at The Heritage Foundation with many of the people who helped launch SDI, and I see some of them here in the audience. Afterwards, we watched a videotape of President Reagan's 1983 speech. And as we watched, some of us had decidedly mixed feelings about where we are today.

We realized on the one hand that we have come a long way in those 15 years. We have come a long way because, despite all of the restrictions imposed on the testing of missile defense systems, we know a lot more today than we did 15 years ago about what technologies are needed to defend America. We have come a long way because even the Clinton Administration, for all of its reluctance to deploy a nationwide defense system, recognizes that we face a proliferation treat and that something must be done to defend America against it.

However, even though all of this is true, we also realized as we watched the Reagan speech that we still have a long way to go before the nation is defended. President Clinton has declared proliferation of weapons of mass destruction an official national emergency, and he claims it is one of his top national security priorities. Yet we still have no serious commitment to defend Americans against this threat. The President still refuses to make a decision about deployment; and he refuses to provide the necessary resources to make missile defense a reality.

Frankly, in the end, despite all the supportive rhetoric, the Administration appears to be more interested in delay than in deployment. Earlier this week, the Administration leaked a Pentagon report that suggested the real problem with missile defense testing is that we are moving too fast. I don't see the logic of this conclusion. After 15 years of waiting, I don't see how anyone can conclude that we are moving too fast.

To help us get through the many contradictions that we see today in the missile defense issue, and to help us overcome them, we have with us a very important voice and leader in the Senate. Ever since Senator Nickles joined the Senate in 1980, he has dedicated himself to creating a more responsible and less intrusive federal government. He is known for many things, but he has especially impressed us here at The Heritage Foundation with his support of a family-friendly tax system and his authorship of the $500 per child family tax credit provision, which was included in the Republicans' balanced budget proposal.

Senator Nickles is also known for his courageous stand on national security issues. All of us remember well his principled stand against the Chemical Weapons Convention. Despite opposition even within his own party and leadership, he spoke out about the flaws of this arms control treaty. And even though the vote went the other way, his role was instrumental in reminding Americans of the Reagan legacy of a strong national defense. We look forward to similar leadership from Senator Nickles on missile defense.

Let me say, Senator, that I am sure I speak for many in this room: Given your busy schedule and the many issues that you have on your table, we very much appreciate that you have come here to commemorate this anniversary. We very much appreciate that someone from the leadership--the Senate leadership that in many ways traces its roots to Ronald Reagan--would not let this anniversary pass without proper recognition. We look forward to Senator Nickles' leadership again this year when the Senate considers President Clinton's proposed amendments to the ABM Treaty. Such leadership may be necessary to prevent the Administration from implementing the ABM treaty without submitting these amendments to the Senate for its advice and consent.

Senator, we are very glad to have you here. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Senator Nickles from Oklahoma.

--Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is the Vice President, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

Senator Don Nickles:

I want to compliment The Heritage Foundation for its work on behalf of a strong national defense. I also see friends here with whom I have had the pleasure of working on arms control and security issues for the last couple of decades. Your leadership has been invaluable to this country. I want to thank you because you've done a good job in helping fulfill the number one priority of our government--the protection of our people, the protection of our country, the protection of our interests, and the protection of our liberty when it is at risk.

Protecting America from Missile Attack

In his introduction, Kim Holmes mentioned President Ronald Reagan's historic speech launching the Strategic Defense Initiative 15 years ago. That event is well worth commemorating. I also remember Malcolm Wallop made a similar speech about 18 years ago. Senator Wallop was one of the first leaders to talk about strategic defense. Even back then, he was saying we should have defenses to protect our country against incoming ballistic missiles.

If you really believe the number one priority of our government is the protection of our people, then the idea of being defenseless against an intercontinental ballistic missile or any other type of weapon system that puts us in jeopardy is not acceptable. If your basic premise about the fundamental purpose of our government is that it must provide for the common defense, then no other position is possible.

There are only a few things that the federal government really has to do. I happen to be one who believes very strongly that state and local governments have their proper roles. And the best level of government, the family, has a very important role as well. But the federal government, our collective government, has responsibilities that none of these other levels of government can fulfill; and chief among these is national defense. For the federal government to leave America in this condition of defenselessness against an onslaught of intercontinental ballistic missiles is just not acceptable. We have to change this situation.

And that's what Ronald Reagan was talking about in the visionary, forceful speech he made 15 years ago, when he pointed out why we need a Strategic Defense Initiative. What he said then is just as true today: We have to employ our talents, our technology, and all our capabilities toward building a defensive system.

Why Mutually Assured Destruction is Obsolete

The very idea of MAD, of mutually assured destruction, is obsolete, and it should be consigned to the trash can of history. Today, it makes no sense to say we are going to rely on mutually assured destruction, which gives the commander in chief only one option--namely, that if America comes under attack, we will destroy the attacker even as he destroys us.

Under MAD, therefore, we assume the choices are so bad that no one will ever attempt to launch missiles against us. But when you see the instability in certain countries and of certain leaders, you have to question whether this concept will continue to deter aggression--especially from a madman or rogue regimes that, when pushed to the wall, know they can fire a missile that will get through to America even though it means we will retaliate.

International Instability. It bothers me a great deal when Boris Yeltsin makes statements like his latest during the confrontation with Iraq. He said, not once but twice, "This Iraqi crisis could lead to world war." I thought the first statement was irresponsible. But I thought the second was grossly irresponsible. I thought perhaps the first remark was a slip of the tongue. But when he repeated the threat the next day, I thought that there is no excuse for a major international leader to make such an irresponsible statement.

When you look at other countries that are developing the capabilities and the technology to deploy missiles of very significant destructive capability with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads, then the MAD dogma makes even less sense. It is one thing to deter the Soviet Union in a two-superpower confrontation, but how do you deter these rogue states, some of which are totally unstable and unpredictable?

We need to develop the capability that would give our commander in chief better options than just retaliatory mass destruction. We need to give him the option to say, "Let's try to destroy those missiles before they fall in our backyard."

The Persian Gulf War. We should have learned this lesson during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When Iraq started firing Scud missiles both at our troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and at our ally, Israel, what was our response?

Before the war, I was in Israel. I met with our Israeli allies and they said, "We really need some Patriot missiles. We need help against Iraqi missiles." You might remember Saddam Hussein's threat that, if war broke out, Israel would burn. He proclaimed: "We will burn Israel." The clear implication was that Iraq would use chemical weapons, maybe even biological weapons--and Saddam was making the threat very graphic.

So Israel came to us and said, "We need some help." And we rushed some Patriot missile batteries from Germany; they were there when the Scuds fell. They did a good job--not totally successful, but they did a good job. They were a big improvement over nothing.

As a matter of fact, if the Israelis hadn't had the Patriots, they might have been a lot more inclined to engage in that conflict. I have always thought that Israel, as an independent and sovereign nation, had a right to defend itself. This applies in 1998 as well as in 1991. But Israel showed great restraint--at our request. I'm not sure they would have had quite as much restraint if it were not for the Patriot missile defense system.

Why SDI Makes Sense

But, as I said, the Patriot missiles were not totally successful. Why? The Patriot system is good--I am not knocking it--but it was not designed to defend a wide area like an entire city from missiles. It can knock down a missile when it's right over your own backyard, but if the missile is carrying a lot of warheads, that's not very acceptable. If you are intercepting it over your own backyard and it happens to be carrying a biological weapon or a chemical weapon, you might actually help disperse the toxins over your own territory. In other words, you need to intercept it when it is in somebody else's backyard--preferably right over the country that's launching the weapon, long before it gets to you.

That's the concept behind the Strategic Defense Initiative. It is exactly what a lot of us want to do. Let's develop defense capabilities to make sure such weapons are never used, because there won't be any point in using them--they won't reach their targets, and the chemicals or germs they are carrying may even fall on the aggressor himself.

Not a "Star Wars" Fantasy. Unfortunately, SDI has had a lot of challenges, mostly from Democrats and certainly from this Administration. They want to demagogue SDI.

When you hear President Clinton or Vice President Gore calling SDI "Star Wars," it is clear that they want to create the image that it is totally unrealistic. Basically, what they are really saying is they want to leave our people defenseless. They want to continue relying on an obsolete theory called mutually assured destruction. As I said earlier, this theory no longer makes sense.

Not a Violation of the ABM Treaty. Perhaps you have heard the Administration falling back on the old excuse, "Well, wait a minute; that's a violation of the ABM Treaty." They worship the ABM Treaty and would sacrifice our own defense to ensure it remains in force. This is a serious mistake.

Let me remind the Administration--if this is a real concern and not just an excuse to do nothing about missile defense--how the ABM Treaty is written. The Treaty itself gives us the grounds to opt out of the Treaty if we think it is in our national interest to do so. We have always had that option written into the ABM Treaty.

The problem with the Administration is that they not only worship the ABM Treaty, but they are trying to expand it. Now that the Soviet Union is gone and the nature of our adversary has changed, the Administration is saying, "We think the Treaty covers some of the former Soviet republics." But it does not. Or they say, "We think it should apply to some theater systems, and so we want to limit our capability to deploy certain kinds of defensive systems. We will limit our theater defense interceptors to a certain speed or a certain range." It is not in the original ABM Treaty, yet the Administration would allow new limits on our ability to protect ourselves from a theater missile, even though that was not the purpose of the Treaty.

The Administration is trying unilaterally to expand the Treaty through new Treaty negotiations and to hinder our capability to defend ourselves and our allies. Notice they have no hesitation whatsoever in expanding our responsibilities--for example, expanding our NATO commitments. They would commit the United States forever to defend these new countries and put them under our "nuclear umbrella," but they do not want to give us the capability to intercept certain theater weapons, not to mention intercontinental ballistic missiles.

So you realize there is a great deal of inconsistency with this Administration's policies. They seem to worship a treaty that was written in 1972, and now they want to expand its limits, I think very much to the detriment of our national interests and to the detriment of the United States. So it is that we face major challenges this year from this Administration, both in terms of funding the missile defense program and in their interpretation of the ABM Treaty.

The Challenge Before Congress

I want to compliment The Heritage Foundation and all those who have been fighting on the frontiers of freedom and trying to assist those of us in the Senate and the House who are like-minded in saying, "Let's not handcuff our capability to defend ourselves." It bothers me to read the comments of leaders of the Hamas and others who hate America that their goal is to have more weaponry capable of delivering all types of weapons of mass destruction. We must give our commander in chief and our military the capability to respond to these threats in some way other than retaliatory mass destruction. That is our goal; that is our objective.

We will wrestle with this issue both on the defense authorization bill and on the appropriations bill, and wrestle with the Administration as well to make sure that it does not make a deal--either with Russia or with the states of the former Soviet Union--that would handicap our self-defense.

This is a big challenge. It is going to take a lot of work. It is going to take a lot of education. We need those of you who have spent time in the arms control arena to actively engage and help those of us in the Senate who have an interest in these issues to really make a difference, and not just for the next year or two, but for the future. When you look at the fact that Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, China, and other countries either have capabilities or are developing capabilities that could directly threaten the United States and our allies that we have treaty commitments to protect, then it is incumbent upon us to develop the capabilities to protect ourselves.

I thank you very much for all your efforts to make this happen.

-- The Honorable Don Nickles represents the state of Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate, where he also serves as Assistant Majority Leader (Majority Whip).


The Honorable Don Nickles