“I firmly believe that it was the determination to embark upon that SDI program and to continue with it that eventually convinced the Soviet Union that they could never, never, never achieve their aim by military might because they would never succeed.” ~ Margaret Thatcher, August 2, 1991 at SDI’s National Test Facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado
This evening at the Heritage Foundation, many of us Reaganites will be celebrating the birth of Ronald Reagan, on this date in 1911. Americans owe President Reagan for many achievements, not the least of which was Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to which his closest partner, Britain’s Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, referred.
Furthermore, the SDI program was an important adjunct to the President’s Strategic Modernization Program, which upgraded our then atrophying strategic forces — our intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), Submarine Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), the strategic bomber leg of our nuclear triad, and the associated command, control and communications (C3) systems that assured the President could control the nuclear forces should there be a nuclear attack on the United States — especially involving a high altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
Now we are again addressing the atrophying of our nuclear forces — those that were upgraded following those initiatives ~35 years ago, and we also need to improve significantly the ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems that survived the gauntlet posed by those who opposed the SDI efforts. They cut the heart from Reagan’s top priority SDI efforts: space-based defenses.
As President Reagan’s SDI efforts anticipated, our enemies have developed technology that now threaten to penetrate our BMD systems — and for substantially less investment than the cost of our existing defenses, which were focused on the most expensive, least effective BMD system basing concepts. This cost disadvantage has led some of our military leaders to have second thoughts about investing in additional BMD systems.
Click here for the 2008 report of the Independent Working Group (IWG) on “Missile Defense, the Space Relationship and the Twenty-First Century” — especially Chapters 4 and 5 that discussed the political constraints that we perceived over a decade ago were leading to this inversion of the strategy we should have pursued — one that gave highest priority to building space based defenses.
We need to return to these concepts that were central to President Reagan’s vision — as was made clear at the October 11-12, 1986 Reykjavik Summit. Many rightly point out that Reagan rejected an agreement that would have embodied Gorbachev’s concessions on offensive nuclear arms because Gorbachev demanded in exchange that they also agree to gut the SDI program. But the “devil in those details” is important.
That Reagan was disappointed is clear from the below photograph taken as the leaders departed from the summit without agreement.
But generally unrecognized is that President Reagan’s rejection was caused by Gorbachev’s specific demand that would have gutted the SDI research on space-based defenses, which would have banned important experiments we were then conducting in space.
This summit came on the heels of several rounds of negotiations in Geneva, when I was at the table and well understood the Soviet demands that even research on so-called “space-strike arms” be banned — they defined these code words as referring to space-based defenses as well as all anti-satellite systems and space weapons that could be used to attack targets on the ground.
Many attribute Reagan’s walk-out to Gorbachev’s demand that Reagan give up missile defense — but that misrepresents the facts.
It was Gorbachev’s specific demand that all research and experiments on space based defenses be limited to the laboratory — nothing in space, which would have ended important experiments then being conducted to determine if building an effective space-based defense was possible. (Let it be understood that these experiments demonstrated that it was indeed possible over 30 years ago.)
Lest there be debate on this point, click here for the declassified U.S. memorandum of conversation, including just before the meeting broke on October 12:
As it turned out, we satisfied most of our objectives in our talks with the Soviets, and we signed Treaties eliminating Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) in 1987 — that now Russia is violating — and agreeing on major reductions in strategic offensive arms (1991) without accepting additional restraints on our ability to conduct SDI research and development, including on space-based defenses.
Indeed, Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed at the United Nations in January 1992 that we work together to build a “Joint Global Defense” — President Reagan’s position that I had advocated for five years in Geneva. Click here for Michael Dobbs’ January 30, 1992 Washington Post article on Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s announcement on the eve of his trip to New York to tell the UN General Assembly that Moscow could join Washington in creating and jointly operating a global defense system against nuclear attack in place of the Strategic Defense Initiative, while calling for major cuts in nuclear arms.
Unfortunately, we were unable to complete a necessary associated formal agreement before the end of the Bush-41 administration on January 20, 1993 and the arrival of the Clinton administration. And the Clinton administration did not pursue related follow-on negotiations — but returned to the Cold War language of “strategic stability” derived from the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine that made the vulnerability of the American people a virtue and truly effective BMD systems a destabilizing factor to be avoided.
The U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration accomplished what the Soviets were not able to do in the negotiations during the Reagan and Bush-41 administrations: First, Congress cut the funds for the “Brilliant Pebbles” space-based defense R&D during my watch as SDI Director in 1992; and Second, the Clinton administration then completely scuttled all R&D on space based defenses in early 1993 — while imposing major cuts on all other SDI efforts other than for Theater Missile Defenses.
Click here to review this sad history in Don Baucomb’s record of the “Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles.” As former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which cut SDI budgets regularly, and then as Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin memorably stated, he “took the stars out of Star Wars.”
Perhaps there was a rationale for not pressing Reagan’s vision when we were constrained by the terms of the ABM Treaty, which blocked the development and testing space of based defenses — but also of sea-based, air-based and mobile land-based defenses, where the U.S. “powers that be” permitted R&D to continue. And research during my watch as SDI Director already had indicated space defenses could provide global coverage against ballistic missiles of all ranges greater than a few hundred miles — and for far less expense than other basing modes.
But even after President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, neither his nor subsequent administrations did anything to revive developing the key technologies to enable eventual deployment of space defenses, as would have been consistent with Reagan’s vision illustrated at Reykjavik.
Click here for an August 14, 2017 article I coauthored with Retired USAF Lt. General James A. Abrahamson (SDI’s first Director) discussing this history and recommending that space-based defenses should be front and center in President Trump’s announced plans to increase BMD funding. We urged him to emphasize this initiative because many incorrectly believe the needed technology is not available, or that such defenses would be too expensive — e.g., click here for a National Defense article claiming that a space based system might cost from $67 to $109 billion in constant 2017 dollars.
However, a much less expensive cost-effective system called, “Brilliant Pebbles,” was advancing on our watch thirty years ago. Click here for our Wall Street Journal that the Pentagon’s acquisition authorities estimated that system would cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars — now inflated to $20 billion — for full development, deployment, and 20-years operations. It was designed to intercept attacking ballistic missiles in their boost-phase while their rockets still burn, before they can release their decoys and other countermeasures—and throughout their flight, including high in the atmosphere on re-entry.
No other BMD concept promises this global capability any time soon — especially at that cost, and it could have been operational today had it not been “politically incorrect” in 1993. Click here for a November 29, 2017 National Review article that I co-authored with three other knowledgeable authorities discussing how President Trump can revive President Reagan’s vision for truly cost-effective space based BMD systems.
(Co-authors were Lieutenant General Malcolm R. O’Neill, USA (Ret.), who was my deputy SDI Director, Director of the Clinton Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology; Dr. Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr. who is President of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA), Inc., and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and Chairman of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense; and Retired USAF Colonel Rowland “Rhip” H. Worrell, who was Director of the SDI Brilliant Pebbles Task Force, Director of the National Test Facility Joint Program Office, and Vice Commander of the USAF Space Warfare Center.)
Let us hope that the past is prologue and that the Trump administration will restore a serious examination of space-based defenses among those being developed and deployed today. This is unfinished business if we are to realize Ronald Reagan’s vision, embodied in his challenge that energized the scientific community 30 years ago and that he so memorably demonstrated at Reykjavik.
Many believe that Reagan’s commitment to SDI at the Reykjavik Summit was the turning point in ending the Cold War. Amb. Vernon Walters, then our UN Ambassador, told me at the time that Soviet Marshal Akhromeyev said that Reykjavik was a “watershed event.” He ought to have known, as he led the Soviet experts group at Reykjavik.
Regrettably, Reagan’s top priority SDI program ended with the end of the George H.W. Bush administration and has remained dormant ever since — while its associated technology has advanced and is now being exploited by others. It’s time for us to go back to the future!
President Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) identified the existential EMP threat and emphasized a role for missile defenses. Defense Secretary Mattis’ National Defense Strategy (NDS) was silent on the EMP threat, but emphasized BMD initiatives.
Sadly, last week’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was silent on both the EMP threat and an important role for ballistic missile defenses — while appearing to revert to the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the Cold War.
Reportedly, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has returned the first draft Missile Defense Review (MDR) — laying out the Trump DoD’s plans for meeting BMD requirements — to the staff for improvements. Hopefully, the rewrite will rectify the important omissions in the NDS and NPR, including a role for space based defenses.
Topics for discussion at tonight’s Heritage celebration of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Stay Tuned.
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