The Armory: Reagan’s Last Laugh on U.S. Missile Defense

By James Kitfield

For the wizards of Armageddon who devised the nuclear doctrine of “mutually assured destruction,” Ronald Reagan was a heretic. Armies of MAD scientists, engineers, and weapons jockeys on both sides of the Cold War had distilled the complex calculus of nuclear deterrence into an equation that was almost elegant in its simplicity and immorality: strike first; retaliate; repeat until the planet disappears into a mushroom cloud.

The horror of that vision forestalled World War III, but only by leaving the world mired in the detritus of doomsday weapons. Reagan had another idea. In terms more humanistic than strategic, he argued for ending the madness with a defensive system that would render the other side’s weapons impotent. “The human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence,” he said on March 23, 1983, announcing an intensive new research-and-development program to “eliminate the threat” of strategic nuclear missiles. “What if a free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack—that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?”

Not without reason, Reagan’s vision was criticized as utterly unrealistic. Many scientists and liberals at the time laughed off the Strategic Defense Initiative as a waste of countless billions of dollars in service to a “Star Wars” fantasy. And an impenetrable missile-defense dome to deflect thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs isn’t any more feasible today than it was in 1983.

But suddenly a long-term missile-defense plan doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. The 29-year-old egomaniac who runs North Korea is threatening to obliterate U.S. cities with that country’s tiny nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, the anti-American mullahs of Iran are approaching nuclear breakout capability. Now, three decades after Reagan proposed it, no one is laughing about missile defense anymore.

Just consider the Obama administration’s response to North Korea’s threats. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced the deployment of 14 extra long-range missile interceptors to Fort Greely, Alaska, which will eventually bring the total number deployed to 44 (including four stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California). These interceptors are designed for use against the long-range ballistic missiles being developed by North Korea and Iran that might one day threaten the United States. Because of the additional Alaska deployment, the Pentagon canceled the final phase of a European-based missile defense system that would have entailed installing long-range interceptors in Poland.

The Defense Department also announced the early deployment of the transportable Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system to Guam to protect U.S. bases there against North Korea’s short- and medium- range missiles. And U.S. Pacific Command has deployed two Aegis warships, which carry SM-3 missiles capable of intercepting short- and medium-range weapons, off the coast of South Korea. “In today’s strategic environment, stability is greatly enhanced if you have a mix of both defensive and offensive military capabilities, rather than just relying on offensive retaliation,” says Baker Spring, a research fellow and missile-defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

A world in which multiple nuclear-armed states are run by leaders of extremely dubious motivation and temperament, he notes, places a premium on a reliable defense. “When you’re dealing with ‘rogue nuclear states,’ it’s questionable whether the deterrence theory of mutually assured destruction is sound or moral,” Spring says. “If, say, Kim Jong Un decided to attack South Korea with nuclear weapons, how moral would it be for the United States to retaliate by incinerating a lot of North Korean peasants in a nuclear counterstrike?”

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