Wednesday, March 12, 2008

SDI After 25 years

Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation notes that March 23rd will be the 25 year anniversary of an amazing speech by President Ronald Reagan, who proposed a complete revamping of the American strategic posture during the height of the Cold War.

The President announced a strategic policy change from the idea of Mutally Assured Destruction (MAD), where potential conflict between the two competing sides of the Cold War was being prevented by the fact both sides would be destroyed in a strategic missile exchange, to instead focus on a posture in which America committed to developing defensive technology to shooting down these weapons and preventing their detonation, which would likely cause the end of civilization. In effect, each nation's citizenry was being held hostage at the time by its opponent. Reagan rejected that idea. One fear at the time was a period of heightened tension might cause an accidental exchange, which could then lead to an all-out escalation. The president was confident that old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity would solve the technical hurdles given time and proper resources. Deploying even a limited defensive system might be able to prevent such an accident, and would also have the added benefit of greatly complicating the efforts of the attacker from destroying military and civilian targets.

The president's proposal to change the equation greatly aided the end of the Cold War by imposing a huge new economic pressure on its cold war opponent, the Soviet Union. Its leaders realized that nation would have to develop a countervailing such system itself or greatly add to its nuclear arsenal to overwhelm a American defensive system, neither of which it could easily afford given its backward Communist economic system. America wound up winning the cold War almost by default as a result.

Condescendingly dubbed "Star Wars" by the media at the time, the President's Strategic Defense Initiative was ridiculed as being a technically impossible waste of money. Heritage had already initiated a study before the president's announcement, authored by US air Force General Daniel Graham titled High Frontier, which I purchased in book form at the time. In short, it proposed just such a system, and the study addressed many of the criticisms made of the proposal. One might think this may no longer apply given the Cold War has eneded, but it appears clear to me it is more relevant than ever given the world political climate. America still has enemies wishing to do it harm. Spring notes:

"It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the basic rationale behind SDI collapsed with the end of the Cold War. In the post-Cold War world, ballistic missile and nuclear proliferation and a multi-polar strategic environment make President Reagan's preference for defense over the threat of retaliation more relevant, not less so. It is indeed the foundation for a "truly lasting stability." "

There were three core principles in play to both the study and the speech, and I think them still very applicable. The first was a refusal to accept the vulnerability of US citizens to nuclear weapons. The second was for the United States to negotiate and operate from a position of strength in international politics and economics. Third, it recongnized the US would never be safe as long as its enemies could use space as an avenue of attack.

The success of these developments today is unquestionable, given the ability of the US to shoot down a malfunctioning satellite just days ago, as well as successful missile interceptions in the first Gulf War over 15 years ago. In my view, the development and further deployment of a layered strategic missile defense system is certainly in the strategic interest of the United States, and will be for the forseeable future as more nations gain access to missile and fissile technology.

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