Reagan's SDI Vision Today

March 23, 2008 marks the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s landmark speech at the zenith of the Cold War, in which he proposed what became known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, to protect the United States of America, her allies, and her vital interests from ballistic missile attack.

In that speech he unveiled a vision for the research, development, and ultimate deployment of a defensive, non-nuclear missile defense shield that would give us the means to intercept and destroy strategic nuclear missiles and render the threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union impotent and obsolete.

Speaking with that gentle but confident persuasiveness that would set him apart as the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan rejected the specter of mutual retaliation and stood alone among Washington bureaucracy in the belief that our security is based on the ability to meet all threats, and that peace must be preserved through strength.

He knew that developing this revolutionary capability of ballistic missile defense would not be an easy or short-lived task. He said, "It will take years, perhaps decades of efforts on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs; and as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response.”

It seems that every revolutionary new idea or stride toward greater human freedom is marked first by resistance and ridicule, and President Reagan’s daring SDI proposition was no exception. Indeed, American intelligentsia berated the idea that America should abandon its policies of appeasement and accommodation, and embrace a policy toward Communism as clear, simple, and unapologetic as what Ronald Reagan stated in four words:

“We win, they lose.”

Hundreds of millions of people now live in freedom because of his clarity and courage.
Less than nine years after Ronald Reagan gave his Evil Empire and Strategic Defense Initiative speeches, marking the beginning of what would become the United States’ ballistic missile defense program, the entire world stood in stunned wonder and witnessed the dissolution of the once unshakeable Soviet Union.

Yet, in every Congress since President Reagan first proposed SDI, amendments have been offered in the annual appropriations process that would weaken the program or strip funding from missile defense altogether. If not for the severe funding cuts and downgrades during the Clinton era, the United States ballistic missile defense system would doubtless be much stronger today. 

Thankfully, in 2001 President Bush wisely withdrew from the archaic Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and missile defense research and development truly leaped forward.

Today, missile defense is not only the last line of defense against a launched nuclear missile, it is our first line of defense against nuclear proliferation because it devalues nuclear programs in general as offensive military assets. This point is impossible to overstate in an age of Jihadist terrorism.

A terrorist or rogue nation is much less likely to pursue or seek to obtain nuclear capability if it knows the United States possesses the ability to defend itself and its allies against ballistic missile attacks.

At one time, the idea that the U.S. could build a layered shield capable of defending all 50 states from an intercontinental ballistic missile attack was considered both absurd and technologically impossible.

For instance, little more than a decade ago, the concept of Ground Based Midcourse Defense, capable of intercepting an enemy missile outside the atmosphere at its highest trajectory, was considered ‘far term’ and highly improbable. Despite the skepticism, GMD was put on operational alert in 2006 when North Korea tested their long range missile technology. We are now coming close to finalizing negotiations with our friends in Poland and the Czech Republic to field another GMD site capable of protecting Europe, the U.S. and our forward deployed forces from missile threats from the Middle East.

Only weeks ago, on February 21, 2008, we witnessed a missile defense asset accomplish a national security space mission, when a Standard Missile-3 fired from the USS Lake Erie intercepted a disabled satellite traveling in orbit at over 17,000 miles per hour; and President Reagan’s prophetic vision — once labeled “Star Wars” by his detractors a — was once again vindicated before the world.

Under the vigilant and dedicated leadership of the Missile Defense Agency and the United States Armed Forces, ballistic missile defense technology continues to be developed, tested, and operationally deployed by the United States and our allies.

Now more than ever, it is vital that this Congress continues to advance the vision of a layered ballistic missile defense system capable of defending land, sea, air, and space against rapidly evolving missile threats in a now multi-polar world.

Congress must fully fund the Missile Defense Agency’s request for conceptual studies of a space test bed.  It is critical that we bridge the imaginary gap between missile defense and space if we are to gain the optimal vantage point for maintaining strategic dominance of land, air, sea, and space. 

Until the day when we have the systems in place to intercept all missiles, in all phases of flight — including boost-phase and space — there is still work to be done in developing and fielding a truly effective missile defense shield.

President Reagan was well aware that the cost to build and maintain such a shield would be great. 

But in his SDI speech of 25 years ago, he asked a vitally important and salient question about America’s national security policy: “Isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war?” His question may be more relevant today than it was then.

May we of this generation honor the legacy of President Ronald Reagan, whose courage and commitment to protect the peace and national security of America not only hastened the demise of the Soviet Empire but transformed our strategic defense policy and gave us the means to ensure that America remains the beacon of hope, strength, and human freedom in the world for generations to come.