Thirty-six years ago, on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan shook the world with an unexpected insert in a televised speech to the nation. He called on the nation’s scientists and engineers to end the dominance of ballistic missiles by developing effective defenses against them.
He was appalled that his only planned response to a major nuclear attack by the Soviet Union was to retaliate in kind, basically destroying the Soviet Union in response to them destroying us — also with disastrous consequences for the rest of the world.
In response to this so-called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, he famously asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than avenge them?”
Thus was born his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that sought ways to build technologically sound, truly effective defenses against ballistic missile attack.
Notably, his closest partner in those days, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, later observed that “President Reagan’s SDI and his commitment to continue it ended the Cold War without firing a shot.”
She was referring to when Reagan walked out of Reykjavik because Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev demanded that our space technology demonstrations be limited to the laboratory — ending the most effective SDI technology efforts.
The “Left” in America and many around the world (with a few exceptions, like leaders of our NATO partners and others threatened by the Soviet ways) went crazy in initial response to SDI. They labeled it “Star Wars” to reinforce the idea that SDI was a fantasy, a fictional illusion at best, that would cause an arms race that could lead to the end of the world.
The Soviets made these claims while operating the world’s only ballistic missile defenses — that violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited them to a single site, a nuclear-armed Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) still operating today near Moscow.
As was the case in most if not all of their arms control agreements, the Soviets violated the ABM Treaty — e.g., by deploying components in violation of its explicit terms as well as subverting its constraints by giving its air defense systems a nationwide ABM capability.
In spite of opposition from the Left, President Reagan and his allies held firm and the Soviets returned to the negotiating tables they had walked out of when we countered their SS-20 Intermediate Range Force (INF) ballistic missiles to threaten our NATO allies by deploying our own INF systems in the homelands of five of our NATO allies.
I was privileged to lead the Defense and Space Talks (DST) defending Reagan’s SDI efforts against the Soviet challenge echoed by the global liberal Left. We held firm and SDI demonstrated technology that could reach Reagan’s vision — especially based in space. And we achieved the first arms control agreements ever actually to reduce nuclear arms.
Perhaps most notably, SDI’s 1986 Delta 180 experiment (a month before the Reykjavik Summit) demonstrated technology to intercept a boosting missile in space, an experiment conceived by a young Dr. Michael Griffin, then at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), later Deputy SDI Director for Technology and now the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, seeking ways to defeat the hypersonic threat.
Had we continued Reagan’s SDI visionary efforts, which I was also privileged to lead during the George H.W. Bush administration, I have no doubt we would have long ago developed the capability to defeat the hypersonic threat Mike is now confronting.
Indeed, President Clinton’s Defense Secretary Les Aspin famously boasted while gutting SDI in early 1993 that he was "taking the stars out of Star Wars" — and no subsequent administration until President Trump has even come close to reviving those technologies.
We knew how to intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and now need to revive such programs!
Mike Griffin knows how — but so far the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency, recently placed under Griffin (along with the BMD Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — DARPA), has only anemic funding.
Press reports indicate the Pentagon’s proposed funding for 2020 less than about a third of that appropriated by a reluctant congress on my SDI watch for 1993, before Aspin zeroed the most cost-effective BMD system produced in the SDI era (1983-93).
Had we been allowed to continue, we no doubt would have demonstrated technology for a space-based Brilliant Pebbles constellation that could intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase, in outer space, and high in the atmosphere during their reentry phase. We could have countered today’s hypersonic threat to which we now are playing “catch-up.”
As reported years ago, that system was expected to cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars — now about $20 billion in today’s dollars. Much, much, much less than what we have invested in less capable systems — and claimed to be needed by alleged, but apparently uninformed, “experts.”
The Pentagon is again in Reagan’s shadow, seeking to build truly effective space-based defenses, but with an anemic budget. With President Trump’s support, like that Reagan gave SDI, Undersecretary Mike Griffin can lead us out of the shadows to “go back to the future!” Stay tuned!
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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