U.S. Must Move to Full Missile Defense

This week, HUMAN EVENTS begins an occasional series of exclusive articles in which leading conservatives who served in the Reagan Administration explain how they believe the principles of Reagan conservatism ought to be applied today and in the coming years. This week, Frank Gaffney, who served in Reagan’s Defense Department, addresses the issue of missile defense.


Ronald Reagan is now esteemed around the world for having the vision and the leadership skills to bring about the demise of the Soviet Union. He is less widely appreciated for his understanding of the sorts of threats likely to eventuate in a post-Soviet era—and his efforts to defend America against them.

Certainly, few, if any, of those who heard him launch his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on March 13, 1983, realized that he saw the need to develop and deploy a new family of weapon systems not just to redress a strategically ill-advised and morally reprehensible situation—the posture adopted 11 years before, allowing absolute American vulnerability to attack by the USSR’s vast arsenal of ballistic missiles. President Reagan intuitively understood that, in the future, our vulnerability to such missile attacks could be exploited by others, as well—whether to blackmail or to inflict horrific devastation on this country.

At the time, it took no small amount of courage to gainsay the conventional wisdom that deemed the so-called U.S.-Soviet suicide pact known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as the ideal state of affairs. Recall that the left at home and abroad was already in a fever pitch over what they pilloried as Reagan’s pell-mell rush to Armageddon. They were demonstrating in the streets by the millions in opposition to his conventional force build-up, his strategic modernization program and his strong support for the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe.

In fact, today it is little remembered that the lengthy, prime-time Oval Office speech that launched the SDI program was almost entirely devoted—apart from the last paragraph or two that addressed the need for defenses to render “ballistic missiles impotent and obsolete”—to explaining the requirement for us to field just such a new intercontinental missile, the MX.

To Reagan’s many critics, it was bad enough that the Strangelovian “cowboy” in the White House was determined to field a new generation of nuclear arms. By so doing, according to the self-appointed arbiters of such things, such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, he had moved the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” perilously close to midnight.

The thought that the President might try to supplant the sacrosanct MAD doctrine with a posture in which strategic missile defenses contributed to stability sent the left into paroxysms of vitriolic contempt and fervid opposition. Once the Soviets’ determined effort to derail the INF deployments came to naught, Moscow loosed its vast disinformation, propaganda and political influence resources full bore in support of the domestic and international campaign to thwart SDI.

President Reagan’s determination to defend America against then-present and future missile-wielding enemies was as firm as his conviction that technology could be brought to bear to achieve that objective. With the steadfast support of key members of his administration—notably, National Security Advisor William Clark, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Counselor Edwin Meese, CIA Director William Casey and UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick—Reagan was undeterred by efforts to: caricature SDI as a loopy and infeasible “Star Wars” fantasy; eviscerate its funding; and compel him to give up the program in U.S.-Soviet negotiations.

Unfortunately, the Reagan years in office passed without the promise of missile defense’s being realized. No new strategic anti-missile systems were deployed. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—which purported to codify Mutual Assured Destruction by banning effective missile defenses—remained “the supreme law of the land.”

Path-Breaking Work

Still, the massive research and development program launched in March 1983 made it possible, albeit years later, for America to begin to be defended against ballistic missiles. In fact, virtually every anti-missile technology and system that was pursued by subsequent U.S. administrations was made possible by the path-breaking work undertaken under President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

It took the better part of two additional decades, many billions of dollars and another act of considerable presidential courage to translate the Reagan SDI legacy into actual deployed missile defenses. When Ronald Reagan’s strategy for “rolling back” and ultimately destroying the Soviet Union—in which the Strategic Defense Initiative played a featured part by threatening to end-run and invalidate the huge investment the Kremlin had made in its missile arsenal—bore fruit during George H.W. Bush’s time in office, the missile defense program was substantially redesigned and scaled back.

Under Bush 41, the threat of a massive, devastating Soviet attack potentially involving the nearly simultaneous “lay-down” of thousands of warheads gave way to concerns about accidental and smaller-scale threats. As a result, Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) became the objective, with attendant reductions in the number and complexity of defensive systems required. While the stage was set for a relatively rapid layered deployment of space-, ground- and sea-based anti-missile capabilities, none were actually put into place before Bush left office.

Unfortunately, the eight years of the Clinton presidency were even more frustrating for advocates of the Reagan vision of a defended America. Not only did Bill Clinton and his subordinates adamantly oppose any U.S. departure from the ABM Treaty, so as to deploy effective anti-missile systems, they actually strove to strengthen the treaty’s impediments to such defenses by negotiating further prohibitions with the Russians. GPALS was terminated. The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization was downgraded to a less-aggressive Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin crowed he was “taking the stars out of ‘Star Wars’” by virtually eliminating any missile defenses in space or other activities that would be inconsistent with the ABM Treaty.

During these years, though, Republicans in Congress worked assiduously to keep the Reagan missile-defense legacy alive. In 1994, they incorporated into the Contract with America a commitment “to develop for deployment at the earliest possible date a cost-effective, operational anti-ballistic missile defense system to protect the U.S. against ballistic missile threats (e.g., accidental or unauthorized launches or Third World attacks).” When that contract resulted in GOP control of the House of Representatives, leading congressional figures such as Representatives Bob Livingston (R.-La.) and Curt Weldon (R.-Pa.) worked to translate this commitment into reality by adding money for programs starved for funds and pushing legislation such as the 1999 Missile Defense Act that made it U.S. policy to deploy a national missile defense.

It fell, however, to President George W. Bush to implement that policy. To his great credit, in December 2001, Bush lived up to his campaign promise to withdraw from the obsolete Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and set in train the deployment of layered missile defenses, starting with a limited number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska linked to an array of sensors and command-and-control systems.

Time to Fulfill the Vision

Thanks to this deployment, the United States no longer is in the position of utter vulnerability to missile attack that Ronald Reagan recognized was unacceptable during the Cold War and would be intolerable in the post-Soviet era. Still, as an outstanding new report by the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the Space Relationship and the 21st Century makes clear, we continue to lack the defenses necessitated by the current proliferation of missile threats and enemies who may wish to use them against us.

The time has come to fulfill President Reagan’s vision by accelerating and greatly increasing the number and capabilities of missile defenses deployed aboard Navy vessels equipped with the Aegis fleet air defense system. These offer our best near-term hope for being able to defeat seaborne ballistic missile attacks. Then at the earliest possible moment, as Reagan anticipated, missile defenses must be fielded in space, where they can provide truly global protection for this country and for its forces, friends and allies overseas.

Sign Up