March 23 will mark the 25th anniversary of President Ronald
Reagan's televised speech to the nation proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect the United States against
missile attack. This speech marked the point of departure
for the basis of U.S. strategic policy away from the threat of
retaliation and toward protecting the American people and territory
against attack. President Reagan put it this way:
If the Soviet Union will join with us in our effort to achieve
major arms reduction, we will have succeeded in stabilizing the
nuclear balance. Nevertheless, it will still be necessary to rely
on the specter of retaliation, mutual threat. And that's a sad
commentary on the human condition. Wouldn't it be better to save
lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our
peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity
to achieving a truly lasting stability?
The Heritage Foundation is proud to have been there
before the President's historic speech. In 1982, The
Heritage Foundation sponsored the release of the High
Frontier study. The study proposed using the U.S.
technological lead in space to field just the sort of missile
defense proposed by President Reagan. As the study's primary
author, the late Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, put it, "In the fall of
1981, High Frontier became a project of The Heritage Foundation
where it has profited from the strong support of Mr. Edwin Feulner,
Seeing Beyond the Cold War
History records President Reagan's speech as a response to the
threat posed by Soviet ballistic missiles at the height of the Cold
War. President Reagan's visionary leadership, however, was based on
advancing fundamental principles that remain valid well beyond the
immediate context that gave rise to specific proposals. This is
clearly the case with SDI.
President Reagan sought to diminish the Soviet Union's menacing
threat of missile attack and hasten the end of the Cold War. SDI
made a significant contribution toward realizing these goals. It
would be wrong, however, to conclude that the basic rationale
behind SDI collapsed with the end of the Cold War. In the post-Cold
War world, ballistic missile and nuclear proliferation and a
multi-polar strategic environment make President Reagan's
preference for defense over the threat of retaliation more
relevant, not less so. It is indeed the foundation for a "truly
Note: Click here to see the
countries with ballistic missiles and here to see
the countries with nuclear weapons.
Ronald Reagan's Three Enduring
Principles Regarding Missile Defense
Fundamentally, President Reagan supported three core principles
regarding missile defense that would be relevant beyond the Cold
War. These same principles motivated President Bush's December 13,
2001, decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile
(ABM) Treaty with the former Soviet Union, which prohibited the
deployment of any effective missile defense system, and they
continue to serve as the foundation for the ongoing effort to field
ever more capable missile defense systems, albeit in fits and
Principle #1: Refuse to accept U.S. vulnerability.
President Reagan refused to accept the notion that vulnerability to
attack represented a superior moral and strategic position for the
United States. His rejection of vulnerability can be traced back to
a 1979 visit to the North American Aerospace Defense Command
(NORAD) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. During a briefing on what
would happen if the Soviet Union launched a missile attack, he
learned that NORAD would detect and track the missiles but would
not be able to take any defensive measures. If the notion of the
inherent stability in vulnerability was a dubious concept during
the Cold War, where the U.S. contended with a single hostile
superpower, it makes no sense in today's multi-polar (multi-player)
strategic setting. Multilateralizing the policy of vulnerability is
both destabilizing and counterproductive because the policy lacks
flexibility in the multi-polar setting.
Principle #2: Operate from a position of strength.
President Reagan firmly believed that in order to be effective in
achieving its national security and foreign policy goals, the U.S.
had to operate from a position of strength. What was an
applicable principle during the Cold War remains so today. As then,
there is enormous leverage that accrues to the U.S. if it has the
means to defeat the purpose of any attack. Further, defeating the
purpose of an attack does necessarily mean having a perfect
defense. In fact, U.S. policymakers across the ideological spectrum
are recognizing that defensive measures are the principal option
when faced with the threat of suicide bombers.
Principle #3: Recognize that the U.S. will never be secure if
its enemies are able to use space as an avenue for attack.
President Reagan recognized that America's ability to control space
militarily was of paramount importance to its security. This is why
SDI focused on space-based options for defense, as recommended in
the High Frontier study. The pursuit of the Brilliant
Pebbles space-based interceptor was the most promising of these
technological options. Today, more and more nations are obtaining
access to space and thereby a new avenue for potentially attacking
the U.S. and its vital interests. The proliferation of space-launch
vehicles and ballistic missiles are at the heart of this trend.
Unfortunately, the enduring principle behind President Reagan's SDI
program is not receiving due consideration. The Brilliant Pebbles
program was cancelled by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and remains
dormant. The ability of the U.S. to defend its vital interests in
and through space will only grow more important with the passage of
History frequently reveals lost opportunities to policymakers.
President Ronald Reagan's 1983 speech proposing SDI, however,
reveals the opposite. His boldness reaped immediate and long-term
advantages, ranging from hastening the end of the Cold War to
establishing the foundation for a U.S. strategic policy that
accounts for and adapts to the perplexing challenges presented by a
multi-polar world. The enduring power of a good idea is an amazing
thing to behold.
Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby
Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The
Department of State, "Peace and National Security," Current
Policy No. 472, March 1983.
Gen. Daniel O. Graham, High Frontier: A New National
Strategy (Washington, D.C.: High Frontier, 1982).
General James A. Abrahamson and Ambassador Henry F. Cooper, "What
Did Americans Get for the $30 Billion Investment in SDI?"
Defending America: A Near- and Long-Term Plan to Deploy Missile
Defenses (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1995), pp.
Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear
Weapons (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. 37-39.
Nuclear Stability Working Group, Nuclear
Games: An Exercise Examining Stability and Defenses in a
Proliferated World (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation,
Edwin Meese III, With Reagan: The Inside
Story (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1992), p. 169.
Donald R. Baucom, "The Rise and Fall of
Brilliant Pebbles," International Flight Symposium, October 23,
2001, and Journal of Social, Political, and Economic
Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (September 2004), pp. 145-190, as
reprinted in Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the
Space Relationship & the Twenty-First Century, 2007 Report
(Cambridge, Mass.: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, 2006),
a detailed description of the critical connection between national
security and U.S. space-based defense capabilities, see
Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the Space
Relationship & the Twenty-First Century, 2007 Report, pp.