Now is the time to enact Reagan’s vision of missile defense
With its frequent missile tests, including a dramatic one that flew over Japan, North Korea is signaling that it may be willing to use its nuclear weapons. The United States, in response, has shown force: flying plans near the North Korean coastline, carrying out mock bombing drills and bringing a carrier strike group.
One hopes these military signals will cause Kim Jong-un to stand down, but the United States should take action now to prepare in case disaster does eventually strike. U.S. strategists need to internalize the idea that missile defense should be a key element of protecting American territory.
It may seem obvious that a robust missile-defense system that could protect American cities would be a net good. Yet before policymakers and strategists can embrace anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems fully, they’ll first have to reject Cold War thinking. The sentiment that ABM could be destabilizing is what prevented the United States from investing heavily in ABM systems during most of the Cold War. Strategists claimed that if an ABM system could destroy a ballistic missile before it hit a city, then leaders would be far more likely to launch nuclear missiles at-will.
ABM systems did have limited support during certain periods of the Cold War. President Richard Nixon actually sold the U.S. Army’s Safeguard Program to the American people as a response to the Chinese nuclear threat. He then used Safeguard as a bargaining chip in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviets, eventually signing the ABM Treaty of 1972 that limited both the Soviets and the Americans to two sites each. Strategists were thrilled. They thought that by putting limitations on ABM sites and preventing a defense system buildup, the United States and Soviet Union would not enter a new arms race and could instead pursue stabilizing arms-control talks.
As a Cold War defense hawk, President Ronald Reagan rejected the idea that leaving millions of city-dwelling Americans vulnerable was a good or moral strategy. Strategists could pontificate about deterrence and strategic vulnerability, but a miscalculation or mistake in the nuclear weapons world could leave millions of Americans dead. The solution, to Reagan, was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an ABM system that could destroy an ICBM before it ever had the chance to harm Americans.
As a nuclear abolitionist, Reagan wanted to pursue a path to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. As a realist, he believed abolitionism may never be complete. The nuclear genie was out of the bottle, and countries would always need some sort of defensive system in case of a disaster, a madman or a rogue state. To Reagan, SDI would serve as that defense.
Famously, at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, considered completely eliminating nuclear weapons. SDI remained the point of contention; Reagan refused to sacrifice his vision for protection of the American people, even if that meant passing on his ultimate goal of abolishing nuclear weapons.
Today, the U.S. nuclear posture is aligning with Reagan’s vision for protecting the United States via ABM systems. However, even as U.S. nuclear strategy is increasingly incorporating missile defense as a vital element of our posture, the U.S. budget has not reflected a strong commitment to ABM systems. It’s thrown some money at ABM development, but the budget should be increased to assure that Hawaii, Alaska and the West Coast are protected.
The strategy is aligning with technology as never before. On July 30, 2017, the U.S. military announced that it successfully tested the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) ABM system off the coast of Alaska. THAAD detected and then intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile launched from a plane, showing that the ABM system potentially could be used in the case of an intentional or accidental ballistic missile launch.
Strategists should also encourage progress on Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), the only system capable of defending against missile attacks on the U.S. homeland. Critics long thought it is impossible to “hit a bullet with a bullet” but, in fact, GMD has conducted successful intercepts in tests with increasingly greater levels of complexity. After intercepting, in May, a simulated ICBM launched from the Marshall Islands, Boeing CEO Leanne Caret concluded that GMD could now protect the homeland against a North Korean attack.
Reagan’s goals are finally being realized.
Strategists’ assumptions about the stability of mutually assured destruction held during the Cold War, but there’s no guarantee it will continue to hold during the North Korean nuclear era. Kim Jong-un could be that leader that tries to use nuclear weapons. ABM systems will only get better as they receive more research and development funding and as more tests are conducted. The United States should finally reject the theories that led strategists to conclude that Americans should be left vulnerable and invest now in missile defense.
Image by Everett Historical