President Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative

The ballistic missile issue did not go away. The Soviet Union accelerated its deployment of ballistic missiles in the early 1970s. Toward the end of the decade, the Committee on the Present Danger and other Republican-oriented groups began to talk about a “Window of Vulnerability,” the potential that the growing number of Soviet missiles could fire a disarming first strike at American land-based missiles. Few questioned why the Soviets would want to launch a nuclear war to disarm the US land- based missiles, given the existence of the fleet of American ballistic missile submarines, which would surely survive to destroy the Soviet Union in retaliation. Nevertheless, the Republicans brought the issue forward and argued for a compensating buildup of US forces. America’s unpreparedness became a major feature of the 1980 presidential campaign. The spectacular failure of an American military operation to rescue American diplomats held hostage for more than a year in the US embassy in Iran reinforced the nuclear fears, supposedly showing the decline of American military power during the 1970s at the hands of President Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Congress.

Ronald Reagan won the presidency and with him came the “Reagan buildup,” a significant increase in defense spending intended to repair the damage of the so-called “decade of neglect.” The buildup included a plan to renew US strategic forces by reviving the B-l bomber program, purchasing Trident submarines with highly accurate D-5 ballistic missiles, and deploying the land-based MX Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The program intentionally omitted an increase in spending for ballistic missile defense (BMD). though the president and many of his supporters were on record as favoring BMD. The controversial Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 had limited such defenses to a single complex, and in 1975 the United States had decommissioned its North Dakota site unilaterally. Reagan’s political advisors rejected a BMD initiative because of its highly controversial nature and because the military could not point to any significant technical progress in missile defense research, despite a few billion dollars a year of investment.

The Reagan buildup, especially its strategic weapons component, drew determined opposition from arms control advocates. Instead of challenging specific projects as they had in the past, this time the arms controllers sought to limit all US nuclear weapons programs. They established the Nuclear Freeze Movement to find public support for their idea." In the spring of 1982, the Freeze began to gain traction through referenda declaring nuclear-free zones, often at the local level even though no mayors had control over nuclear arsenals. In June, the movement held a large rally in New York City that supposedly drew a million attendees. At the same time, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference was drafting a statement drawing on the Just War tradition that would declare the mere possession, not just the use, of nuclear weapons to be immoral.34 Such an action was particularly troubling to the administration because Catholics made up a third of the population, and several key members of the administration were prominent Catholic laymen.

Real trouble for the administration started in the fall, when the Senate began to consider deployment schemes for the MX missiles. Analysts were certain that the MX missiles would be key targets for a Soviet first strike, if one were to be attempted, so the Senate debated several basing schemes to deal with that possible threat. One would have placed the missiles on mobile carriers that would try to confuse attackers by moving around a network of protective shelters. Another would have placed the missiles on rail cars that would constantly move. And a third, called appropriately if disparagingly “Dense Pack,” would have jammed a number of MXs tightly together, most likely causing attacking missiles to get in each other’s way during a Soviet strike. In the end. no plan satisfied, and the Senate rejected funding for the MX, the first time Congress had ever refused to support a strategic nuclear weapons program. This outcome was not quite what the Nuclear Freeze called for, but it was a big step, and one that caused great alarm in Reagan’s National Security Council. Members feared that this defeat would mark the end not only of the strategic weapons modernization plan but also of the entire Reagan buildup.3'

The Deputy National Security Advisor, Bud McFarlane, led the effort to counter this outcome by reviving the missile defense program. If the Democrats rejected offense, then the administration would promote defense. There had been no technical breakthrough. On the contrary, a routine although secret review of missile defense technology conducted by the administration’s science advisors found the same old obstacles to effective missile defense: detection, tracking, targeting, and non-nuclear destruction. Nevertheless, the McFarlane team quietly prepared the way for an announcement of a program to develop and build defenses. The secretary of defense and other key officials were not informed of President Reagan's plan to announce a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) until just before its insertion in a March 23, 1983, televised speech on the defense budget. As one of its supporters, Admiral James Watkins, the Chief of Naval Operations, would later say in defense of SDI. “Isn’t it better to save lives rather than avenge them?”36

Not everyone agreed. Many Democrats immediately attacked SDI as wasteful and dangerous. Others wanted it banned because it might undermine the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), the prevailing view that Admiral Watkins attacked. Senator Ted Kennedy attempted to ridicule SDI by calling it “Star Wars” after the popular science fiction movie. Although academic specialists, many self-designated, joined in the ridicule of missile defense, the public seemed to love the idea of defending America from missile attack. In fact, many members of the public believed that effective defenses already existed.

Advocates never told a coherent story in support of SDI.3 SDI was just research; no, it was to be deployed - and soon. It was to be nuclear, non-nuclear, and antinuclear. The United States would share the technology with the Soviets, but we would never give up an advantage in missile defense. The program would be cheap, but it also had to be bought no matter the expense. And some saw SDI as a boon for space technology. Most important, though, its advocates were passionate, making SDI a key part of the Republican creed. There was religious fervor on both sides.

Meanwhile, the services seemed to hide from it, preferring offense to defense and fearing that SDI would take a big share of their acquisition budgets. For their part, the Soviets tended to treat missile defense as a reality, apparently having more faith in the prowess of American technology than did most American academics. Books and conferences poured forth, exploring the soul and soundness of SDI.

The administration, as some advocates noticed, did not actually seem to be particularly interested in acquiring missile defenses. Its leaders gave many speeches promoting SDI, but they took little action to establish a viable program or allocate significant resources.38 The budget for missile defense increased not much more than did the overall defense budget. It was a priority only in rhetoric. By keeping SDI in the news, however, the Reagan administration took attention away from its strategic systems renewal efforts. It managed to acquire most of what it had sought in terms of offensive forces: Trident submarines with D-5 missiles, more secure communications, improved warning systems, and even 50 MXs, which replaced older Minuteman ICBMs in existing silos. If its purpose was to defend the Reagan buildup, SDI was very successful. Getting the programs the administration really wanted took precedence over getting missile defense.3'3

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