Today is the 35th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s speech that launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., almost immediately called "Star Wars" to suggest seeking ballistic missile defenses was a fantasy that would lead to global instabilities.
Moreover, the international arms control community (including within the U.S.), Soviet leaders and others argued that SDI would create an arms race, particularly in space, and bring an end to the possibility of arms control agreements. Most prominent among these criticisms was that the president’s interest in space-based defenses would lead to an arms race in space.
In fact, the Soviets’ actual interests and respect for American technology and technologists actually had the converse effect.
Recall that President Reagan inherited a "hollow force," as then Army Chief of Staff "Shy" Meyer called it — and also atrophying Navy, Air Force — and especially our strategic systems. And he first focused on reversing those trends, particularly with his 'Strategic Modernization Program."
He thus established conditions from which to seek "peace through strength,” as he often argued — and he began negotiations in his Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Talks — eventually the first arms control negotiations ever to reduce nuclear arms, rather than just purportedly to limit their growth.
In October of 1983, the Soviets walked out of all arms control negotiations, when we began deploying our INF Missiles in the homelands of five of our NATO allies — in response to the Soviet SS-20s that began operations in the late 1970s to threaten NATO.
The Soviets then sought (unsuccessfully) to undermine the re-elections of the leaders of these NATO allies — and especially the reelection of President Ronald Reagan.
In what, in my opinion, was one of NATO’s finest moments, all leaders were re-elected.
After that 1984 failure, the Soviets were interested in returning to the negotiating table — and they made clear that their main target in the March 1985 reinstated talks would be the SDI.
I was at the table when they tabled immediately their demand to block President Reagan’s SDI to "prevent an arms race in space." They repeated this mantra over and over again as a precondition for achieving any offensive nuclear arms treaty. And the arms control community echoed this theme around the world, including in the United States.
SDI thus became a major source of our negotiating leverage, producing the first arms control agreements in history to actually reduce nuclear arms.
The other was the president’s commitment to seeking "peace through strength," made clear by the progress of his aforementioned Strategic Modernization Program to reverse the atrophy of our military programs—particularly after the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was signed, committing the American people to a mutual suicide pact, the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine that made a virtue out of our vulnerabilities.
Nowhere was the importance of President Reagan’s commitment to SDI made clearer than when he walked out of his October 1986 Reykjavik meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev demanded that our research on space defenses be constrained to the laboratory in exchange for reduction of nuclear arms that Reagan wanted.
But President Reagan’s commitment to space defenses was simply not negotiable.
Senior Soviet officials and others later said that pivotal moment persuaded the Soviets that they could not compete with U.S. technology — and they began to negotiate seriously toward reducing nuclear arms, which was Reagan’s agenda.
They also recognized that they could not compete economically with the U.S. in pursuing these goals. And we kept marching ahead with our SDI effort — including our research on space-based defenses, even as we completed agreements on offensive nuclear arms that President Reagan sought.
And the Soviet Union dissolved — Britain’s Prime Minister Thatcher memorably said that SDI ended the Cold War without firing a shot.
Moreover, Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, in January 1992 proposed before the U.N. General Assembly that SDI take advantage of Russian Technology and that we together build a Joint Global Defense for the World Community — along with cuts in offensive nuclear arms. This turned on its head the previous Soviet/Russian arguments that SDI efforts would make deep nuclear arms reduction impossible.
Our negotiators were making serious progress on that proposal — which was a variant of Reagan’s position that I advocated in Geneva for five years, and continued to support as SDI Director. At the same time, Yeltsin proposed further reductions in strategic offensive forces.
Regrettably, the Clinton administration took office on Jan. 20, 1993 and immediately reverted to the Cold War MAD doctrine, a mutual suicide pact now with Russia, and claimed that the ABM Treaty was the "cornerstone of strategic stability"
They gutted the SDI effort — as then Defense Secretary Les Aspin memorably stated, they "took the stars out of Star Wars." Thus, the Clinton administration immediately accomplished what the Soviets/Russians could not during the Reagan and Bush-41 years.
Most notably, they not only ended SDI’s most cost-effective missile defense system effort, which was to be based in space, and dispersed its supporting high technology teams to the winds. They continued only the Theater Missile Defense (TMD) systems that began under the SDI.
I recently joined with retired United States Air Force (USAF) LGen James A. Abrahamson—Ronald Reagan’s first SDI Director—to argue that President Trump should revive the space-based interceptor program called Brilliant Pebbles.
In 1990, it became the first SDI concept to be fully approved by the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board to enter a formal Demonstration and Validation (DemVal) phase. An independently developed (by other than SDI) cost estimate for research and deploying 1000 space-based interceptors and operating them for 20 years was $10 billion in 1988 dollars — in inflated dollars, now $20 billion. With today’s more advanced technology being exploited by our adversaries, that most cost-effective product of Ronald Reagan’s SDI system should now cost even less.
As Commander of Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris recently testified, "We’ve been led astray by viewing space as some kind of a fuzzy panda bear thing; I think the Chinese . . . the Russians and others, they view space as the ultimate high ground. They are preparing for battle in space."
Thus, our military leaders comprehend the growing threats from modern missiles now being developed by Russia, China and others. And many are awakening to the benefits of space defenses.
Hopefully, they will waste no time in returning to the centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s SDI vision. It definitely was not a fantasy.
Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Previously, he served as the Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Deputy Assistant USAF Secretary and Science Advisor to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. In the private sector he was Chairman of Applied Research Associates, a high technology company; member of the technical staff of Jaycor, R&D Associates and Bell Telephone Laboratories; a Senior Associate of the National Institute for Public Policy; and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson and a PhD from New York University, all in Mechanical Engineering. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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