The person most responsible for reviving the missile defense program in the face of the Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction, President Ronald Reagan, would have celebrated his 102nd birthday today.
President Reagan would marvel at all the accomplishments of the missile defense program since the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. But he would also be disappointed at the missed opportunities that precluded the development of a truly effective protection against ballistic missiles.
President Reagan would be disappointed that the U.S. is protecting itself only from a limited ballistic missile defense attack, as embedded in the law today. President Reagan’s ultimate dream was to render the threat of ballistic missiles “impotent and obsolete.” In an age when a ballistic missile could reach anywhere in the world in as little as 33 minutes, he knew that it is important to develop missile defenses that would protect all peaceful nations.
Space-based interceptors would provide the best opportunity to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles of almost all ranges. The Clinton Administration, sadly, cancelled the space-based missile defense program in early 1990s and it has not been reconstituted since.
President Reagan would not have sacrificed the missile defense program for the illusionary benefits of arms control. When he met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986, he walked away from Gorbachev’s offer to eliminate all nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S. stopping its pursuit of the space-based missile defense program. President Reagan knew that U.S. and allied vulnerability to a ballistic missile threat is at odds with the government’s constitutional obligation “to provide for the common defense.”
This is the opposite of what the Obama Administration agreed to in the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) with the Russian Federation. The treaty re-established the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive arms and limits missile defenses in some of its provisions. This is very convenient for President Obama, who promised that he will have more “flexibility” in accommodating Russian objections to the U.S. expanding its missile defense capabilities after he was re-elected.
President Reagan would have worked with Congress to provide adequate resources for the missile-defense program. President Obama’s budget request ensures that the missile defense program will fall behind the threat in the coming years. Worse still, the Obama Administration cancelled some of the most promising missile defense programs like the Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and the Multiple Kill Vehicle. President Reagan knew that what matters is the value of what one is protecting—the people, the institutions, the way of life.
However much President Obama likes to liken himself to President Reagan, he is nothing like the man whose birthday America commemorates today—especially not on the missile defense issue.