“[T]here’s a time when confluence of thought comes together and now it takes a leader to say, ‘The timing is right. I’m going to move it. And I feel comfortable with my grounds, I feel comfortable the American people will back this as a basic ideological concept. I feel comfortable that the technology is within grasp in 20 years. I feel comfortable that this gives us new hope.’ What else do you need? That’s what a vision is all about. And he had the guts to step out and do it.” ~Admiral James D. Watkins
The Former (now deceased) Chief of Naval Operations made these comments as part of his 1989 recollections on the events that led up to President Ronald Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech that launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). His reflection was included in a thirteen-part PBS series first broadcast in 1989 (as the Soviet Union was breathing its last breath) on the origins and evolution of Cold War’s nuclear competition. Click here for a transcript of the Admiral’s personal recounting of these events in War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.
Admiral Watkins had a much greater role at the creation than is widely recognized — and it should be remembered as we anticipate the thirty-fourth anniversary of the speech that launched what many consider was the initiative that “ended the Cold War without firing a shot,” to quote Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And his timeless reasoning should be considered by President Trump as he now considers how best to build the most cost-effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to deal with the current growing threats to the American homeland.
Admiral Watkins’ views are still critically important to the “Art of the Deal!” Especially since the Navy’s Aegis BMD system is, in my opinion, the most cost-effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) system we have deployed today.
Admiral Watkins was an early advocate in persuading the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support President Reagan’s interest in building truly effective BMD systems — before essentially the rest of the National Security bureaucracy knew anything about the President’s interest and plans. And his support was lasting, even after he became President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Energy when I met often with him, while I served as SDI Director.
I share the view that the support from the Chiefs’ 5-to-0 vote probably played the key role in the President’s decision to act immediately rather than study the potential role further as had been the wish of many of the few who were privy to the President’s planned speech. Members shown below were (standing left to right) Admiral Watkins, Army General Edward C. “Shy” Meyer, Marine General Robert H. Barrow, Air Force General Charles A Gabriel and (seated) Chairman Army General John W. (Jack) Vessey.
After an extensive discussion on the PBS Special of his impressions of the changing political dynamics during his entire watch, Admiral Watkins returned to his views that influenced the deliberations of the Chiefs, their meeting with President Reagan in which they gave their unanimous support to what became his SDI program, and some of the consequences of their important support that ran counter to many in the political community, including among President Reagan’s closest advisors.
Of particular interest is his discussion of the briefing he gave the Chiefs on February 3, 1983, which became the essence of Chairman Vessey’s briefing to President Reagan on February 11, 1983 — and influenced the timing and words of the President’s March 23, 1983 speech. For example, Admiral Watkins reported that the President was taken with the words “to protect our people not avenge them” and directed that these words not be lost in drafting his speech to the American people. Still worthy of consideration by President Trump today!
Admiral Watkins noted that the Chairman, he and only a few others were privy to this important section the President was to include in his overall March 23rd speech, suggested minor changes that were made, and recommended a little more study to determine the exact focus of the initiative. Happily, as the Admiral said on PBS, the President did not wait for the bureaucracy to review this critical insert to his previously interagency-reviewed speech, and the rest is history. He emphasized that the President’s rapid turnaround short-circuited the likely bureaucratic stagnation that would have occurred had he not directed the new initiative be presented as a fait accompli. Indeed, there is little doubt that the bureaucracy would have studied it to death.
To repeat my initial paragraph above — slightly elaborated in Admiral Watkins’ words:
“In my opinion, it was a unique presidential act, and probably quite unusual. I’m sure there are other great Presidents in our history that have struck out independently from their own views. Having listened to a lot of people, the President has been thinking about this for a long time. It’s not a hip shot from the President. As I say, there’s a time when confluence of thought comes together and now it takes a leader to say, ‘The timing is right. I’m going to move it. And I feel comfortable with my grounds, I feel comfortable the American people will back this as a basic ideological concept. I feel comfortable that the technology is within grasp in 20 years. I feel comfortable that this gives us new hope.’ What else do you need? That’s what a vision is all about. And he had the guts to step out and do it.”
To which, I say, “Amen!”
And I hope that President Trump will be informed and encouraged to revive the technology and system concepts pioneered during the SDI era and to take a similar “unique” and “quite unusual” presidential act to revive them.
I am proud that, on High Frontier’s 10th anniversary in September 1991, President Reagan gave General Danny Graham and the High Frontier community great credit for its role in setting the stage for this historic initiative. Click here for his telephone call to High Frontier’s celebration.
In those days, I was serving as SDI Director, and we were making great progress during the George H.W. Bush administration, particularly in moving toward a truly cost-effective space-based BMD system, called Brilliant Pebbles, in the context of an overall Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system concept that I had recommended to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and President Bush — and they had approved.
Brilliant Pebbles had been conceived during USAF Lt. General Jim Abrahamson’s watch as SDI Director, became SDI’s first Defense Acquisition Board (DAB)-approved system to enter the Pentagon’s formal system Demonstration and Validation Phase during USAF Lt. General George Monahan’s watch. I directed modifications, including focusing on the global threat rather than only Russia and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and assuring it could intercept ballistic missiles from anywhere (launched toward anywhere else more than a few hundred miles away) in all their phases of flight, rather than only on “boost-phase intercept of Soviet/Russian ICBMs.”
Admiral Watkins, then Secretary of Energy, was one of my strongest supporters especially for this space-based BMD system. He was very upset when the Democrat leadership in Congress insisted that the Brilliant Pebbles program be degraded from its technically merited system Demonstration and Validation phase back to a research-only status.
Then, all SDI-friendly days ended with the advent of the Clinton administration on January 20, 1993 — and my last day as SDI Director. As I have previously discussed, those who have been consistently against Reagan’s SDI initiative gained sufficient political power to end — at least for the moment — all serious efforts toward Reagan’s vision and objectives, which would demand that we have truly cost-effective space-based BMD systems, such as Brilliant Pebbles. As the former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the new Defense Secretary Les Aspin memorably said, they “took the stars out of Star Wars.”
And nothing has since been done to revive such programs, notwithstanding claims that the BMD programs that have continued haltingly are the legacy of the SDI efforts. They are the bureaucratic legacy, but in name only — since nothing has been done to revive the most cost-effective system concepts from the SDI era (or its supporting technology).
President Trump now has the opportunity to return to President Reagan’s original vision—to “go back to the future,” so to speak.
This revival would fit with signs that at least our military leadership is belatedly recognizing that our current BMD systems cannot keep up with the advances of our enemies in threatening our homeland and space systems with ballistic missile attack. Indeed we need to return to the concepts that so intrigued President Reagan and led him to walk out of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit because Gorbachev demanded that we kill our space-based defense efforts. Many, including yours truly, believe this was the turning point in our negotiations, which led the Soviets to understand they could not compete with U.S. technology and therefore it was in their interest to meet our demands for offensive nuclear reductions.
Meeting that demand was part of Reagan’s SDI vision — which I defended in Geneva for five years in our negotiations with the Soviets (and with our allies and many Americans as well). And which I worked toward realizing before Democrat leaders in Congress and the Clinton administration killed those efforts. Regrettably, no administration since has sought to revive either Reagan’s objective or serious programs to realize it. At least, the George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002 so there is no legal inhibition against building the most cost-effective BMD systems to protect Americans at home and our overseas troops, friends and allies — but political ones remain.
I dealt with these issues last year in some depth in my “trilogy” messages leading up to the 33rd anniversary of Reagan’s SDI speech—click here (“Star Wars, Back to the Future?”), here (The Right Side of the Cost Curve!”) and here (“Reagan was Right!”) for last year’s March 8th, 15th and 22nd messages.
Most recently, I was joined by my Deputy SDI Director, Retired Army Lt. General Mal O’Neill who was left to pick up the pieces after the Clinton administration gutted the SDI program as the Director of the renamed Ballistic Missile Defense organization (BMDO), in urging President Trump to revive a program to build the Brilliant Pebbles system, the best product of the SDI era. We were joined by Dr. Robert Pfaltzgraff, who chairs the Independent Working Group on Ballistic Missile Defense, and USAF Retired Colonel Rhip Worrell who led the Brilliant Pebbles Task Force.
Click here for my related November 30, 2016 message that argued: “President Elect Trump should direct the Pentagon to revive SDI plans for destroying ballistic missiles in their boost phase, shortly after launch — when a ballistic missile is most vulnerable and before it releases its nuclear warheads and decoys. We should not continue depending solely on the more expensive midcourse- and terminal-phase intercept capability.” This message was an elaboration of our November 29, 2016, National Review Article, “How Trump Can Revive Reagan’s Defense Vision,” that can be obtained by clicking here.
If President Trump will right this sidetrack of the past quarter century, we may still reach the objective identified in Admiral Watkins’ concluding thoughts from his 1989 PBS interview referenced above:
“Fifty years from now, I think that the American people and allies will look back and state that no matter what the rationale was for the President’s courageous statement in 1983, that it was better to defend our people than avenge them, that out of that a better world came, and we’re still going to be at peace, providing we keep moving down the road of strategic defense in a logical, evolutionary way, aggressive, going after a product of our strength working against the Soviets’ weakness. And I think the Soviets will respect that.
“I think they can join the game, and that we can begin to focus, then, on other bilateral, multilateral relationships, which can improve the situation around the world, and maybe the enemy of the future will be someone, an irresponsible person, holding a nuclear weapon, which the Soviet Union and the United States can join together and finesse through a defensive system, that says, ‘You ain’t going to make it with that system.’ And so, it no longer can be used for political blackmail and leverage in the world. It’s overtaken by events. It’s an antique to put in your museums now.
“And, sure, we have new problems perhaps in controlling warfare, because now we’re in space, we have space sensors and satellites moving around, and all sorts of things, and manned space stations going around. We’re learning much more about the world we than ever learned before, and the outer world. We’re really moving into space in a big way. I think all of that can be a step in the right direction and can bring the United States and Soviet Union together.
“ I think [we’ll be] there, and I think we’re going to see that as the glue that may have been bounding the nations much closer together. That’s my own optimistic outlook. I think it’s that important.”
I share Admiral Watkins’ hopes — they were President Reagan’s, too; and I defended them for five years as President Reagan’s Ambassador and Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks. We actually had the objective nearly in our grasp when then Russian President Boris Yeltsin basically said yes in his January 1992 address to the United Nations General Assembly by proposing that SDI take advantage of Russia’s technology and together we build a joint global defense.
But we muffed that ball in the latter days of the Bush-41 administration and the nation (and our overseas allies) completely abandoned Reagan’s field of play when the Clinton administration again declared U.S. allegiance to the MAD doctrine of the Cold War as the “cornerstone of strategic stability.” Terrible regression.
If we can get back on track, Admiral Watkins’ hopeful end can still come to pass. If it does, it never could have happened without his insights and without General Vessey’s leadership that brought the Chiefs together and gave President Reagan the means to move ahead with one of the most important, if not the most important, initiatives of his presidency. I share British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s view (and that of others) that SDI bought an early end to the Cold War without firing a shot.
For an “insider’s” discussion of the evolving political and bureaucratic scene that led up to and included Admiral Watkins’ important early contribution, I’d recommend Ronald Reagan’s close counselor and Attorney General Edwin Meese’s memoir, With Reagan: The Inside Story — click here for selected excerpts of interest.
Back up a page or so from where this link opens and you’ll see that High Frontier’s founder, Army Retired Lt. Gen. Danny Graham, was there in 1981 as the new President and a number of his close advisors were contemplating how to seek an alternative to what the President called the “pell-mell pace” of the nuclear arms race based on the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, that he hated. He wanted a “Mutual Assured Survival” strategy instead.
Click here for Amazon listing for Ed Meese’s book. And again, click here for an audio of President Reagan’s telephone message complimenting Danny Graham and High Frontier on its 10th anniversary in 1991, when I was SDI Director enjoying the benefits of those with the foresight to begin that important program. Proud we are, but our job is not done.
We stand on the shoulders of visionaries like Ronald Reagan, Admiral Watkins and General Danny Graham — and others who have charted and worked toward ways for us to realize the fruits of their aspiration.
As we think about the anniversary of Reagan’s historic March 23, 1983 speech, we should commit to finish the job — and the recent actions of North Korea, and less visibly Iran, make clear that we need truly cost-effective BMD systems now.
Truly, President Trump should fulfill ASAP his campaign promise in Philadelphia:
“We propose to rebuild the key tools of missile defense, starting with the Navy cruisers that are the foundation of our missile defense capabilities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. As we expand our Navy toward the goal of 350 ships, we will also procure additional modern destroyers that are designed to handle the missile defense mission in the coming years.”
President Trump was right to emphasize making Aegis BMD all it can be, and his initiative also should reinstitute an expedited program to begin deploying a modern Brilliant Pebbles system within five years. I’m certain Admiral Watkins would agree that space-based defenses are needed “to handle the missile defense mission in the coming years.”
What can you do?
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