If the United States faced limited strikes — a few dozen nuclear-armed missiles — America’s missile defenses would have a much greater chance of deterring or blunting such threats, as opposed to the complaint that missile defense would just start an “arms race”. Pictured: The guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald launches a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) as a part of a joint ballistic missile defense exercise, on October 25, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
President Ronald Reagan envisioned a future with a highly survivable and modernized nuclear arsenal, markedly lower warhead numbers reduced through verifiable arms control, and the eventual deployment of robust missile defenses. The goal? To vitiate a nuclear-armed adversary’s ability to disarm the USA through a massive nuclear strike and to defeat any small or limited attacks from rogue states or terror groups.
All three, particularly missile defenses, are vitally important even now, some three decades after the end of the Cold War — especially given Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use a limited number of nuclear-armed missiles against the United States and its allies and to do so early in a crisis or conflict. This has been described by General John Hyten, now Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as an “escalate to win” strategy, requiring both a robust US and allied nuclear deterrent as well as effective missile defenses, similar to the strategy of the late President Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan Build-Up
The first and most important, part of the Reagan policy was to build upgraded land-based missiles. These included the Peacekeeper ICBM, a new B1 and B2 bomber force, plus an and upgraded B-52 bomber with advanced cruise missiles, 18 new Ohio-class submarines and complimentary C-4 and D-5 submarine-based missiles. All these old and deteriorating forces are now still the backbone of US strategic nuclear forces, primarily because it has been some 38 years since the Reagan modernization effort was approved by the US Congress and no new nuclear forces have yet come into the force.
Reagan apparently hoped to use the leverage of both the current nuclear modernization and future missile defense as leverage to secure 1) reduced nuclear forces in the USSR; an elimination of key Soviet missile threats to the US mainland, and an elimination of all Soviet SS-20 medium range missiles from Europe and Asia.
Against most common assumptions, Reagan achieved all elements of these plans, most detailed in NSDD’s or National Security Defense Directives completed by his National Security Council staff. The odds of accomplishing these goals at that time were daunting.
The Soviet Challenge
First, the US faced massive Soviet deployments of new nuclear weapons. Second, world-wide Soviet aggression that had “flipped” more than a dozen nations, from Nicaragua to Afghanistan, to the Soviet camp in the 1970-80 decade, and third, growing terrorism especially in Europe, which threatened the unity of NATO, the key bulwark against the USSR.
The Soviets’ internal deliberations, later revealed, reflected the belief that the world’s “correlation of forces” had, in Moscow’s view, significantly moved in the direction of the Soviets. In addition, the Soviets used the anti-war movement in both Europe and the United States to push a nuclear freeze of US nuclear forces, which at the time were either obsolete or rusting to obsolescence, contrary to Soviet forces, which had finished being modernized.
Reagan succeeded. He secured: 1) the elimination of thousands of Soviet INF nuclear-armed missiles in Europe and Asia; 2) the beginning of a massive 80% reduction in deployed Soviet (now Russian) strategic nuclear forces; 3) the completion of a US force-wide nuclear modernization plan; and 4) preservation of the US missile defense research and development programs, long sought, by the Soviets and then Russians, to be terminated.
This Reagan plan achieved two historically unprecedented objectives: first, a massive reduction in Russia’s deployed strategic nuclear arsenal, from an estimated nearly 12,000 Soviet strategic deployed warheads in 1983, to “officially” a force today of under 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads; and second, beating back the “nuclear freeze” and establishing that modernization — even of a reduced US nuclear force — was totally compatible with arms control.
Reagan’s Missile Defense Achievements
While Reagan’s third objective, building a robust missile defense of the continental United States (CONUS) as an integral part of America’s defense strategy, has not been fully achieved, the US has built significant regional missile defenses, including upwards of 2,000 US and allied missile interceptors, in addition to the 44 Alaska- and California-based interceptors to protect CONUS.
This Reagan plan includes complimentary missile defense deployments from US allies, including Israel, Romania, Poland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Denmark, many of which are now solidly in the missile defense business. Although most of these defenses are to shoot down what most American experts describe as medium and shorter-range ballistic missile threats that generally cannot reach US territory, for most of our allies, the missile threats are aimed at their homelands and thus deemed “strategic.”
When President Reagan announced in March 1983 that the Strategic Defense Initiative would begin a major research effort to build missile defenses, the USA and Russia were party to the 1972 ABM Treaty, which prohibited such defenses (except for a minor deployment around each nation’s capital.) The US was therefore limited to research and development only, and unable to build serious missile defenses until 2003, when then President George W. Bush ended US compliance with the ABM Treaty.
At the time President Reagan announced Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the nuclear and missile threat to the US was growing. By 1981, the Soviet Union was in the process of deploying upwards of 12,000 long-range nuclear warheads on highly modern missiles, bombers and submarines, most aimed at the United States, compared to a level around 2,000 when the SALT 1 treaty was had been signed by the Soviet Union and United States in 1972.
The only other adversary nation with ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States at the time was China. However, the US intelligence community consensus in 1983 was that China had not much more than 20-60 nuclear warheads available to be deployed, with only a fraction of those on long-range ICBMs capable of hitting the United States.
Even a limited or small missile threat to the US, however, animated Reagan in his various summits with Gorbachev. As Reagan repeatedly reminded the Soviet General Secretary, banning missile defenses between the US and Russia — which Gorbachev repeatedly insisted that the US do — was all well and good.
Even if Reagan believed the Soviets would never fire a long-range missile at the US — which he certainly did not believe — what about the long-range missile threats against the United States from China? Certainly, given such threats, the United States had the right to build strategic missile defenses, making any deal to forgo missile defenses with the Soviets an absurd proposition.
Strikes against CONUS might also involve short-range missiles, especially if deployed near the US periphery by allies of Russia and China. While Iran, for instance, has ballistic missiles reportedly with a range of no more than 2,000 km, they could reach the United States if deployed in, say, in countries such as Venezuela, with which Iran has reportedly sought to work jointly on military matters, including deploying ballistic missiles. Submarines, too, could approach US shores and launch short range missiles against CONUS as well.
Are Missile Defenses Compatible with Arms Control?
Critics of missile defense, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, continue to claim that if the US builds missile defenses, the Russians will simply build more offensive weapons to overcome those defenses. In reality, however, once President Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty and built even a limited missile defense of CONUS, the US and Russia signed two new nuclear treaties — the Moscow Treaty in 2003 and the New START Treaty in 2010 — that reduced deployed nuclear weapons on each side from 6,000 to 1,550, a 75% cut. So, US missile defenses do not block nuclear arms cuts.
Future Nuclear Challenges
Even though US diplomacy and arms control have dramatically reduced first the Soviet, and now the Russian, nuclear arsenal, it is nevertheless likely that the US will face limited, smaller nuclear strikes, not just from rogue actors such as North Korea or Iran, but from Russia.
Why? Putin has adopted a new strategy of using only extremely limited nuclear strikes in a crisis: he seems to understand full well that a massive nuclear strike against the United States would trigger an equally massive retaliatory strike by the United States, and that it would result in unacceptable amounts of the incineration, or the “Armageddon option” — senseless and achieving nothing and therefore the least plausible outcome of a crisis.
If the United States faced limited strikes, however — a few dozen nuclear-armed missiles — America’s missile defenses would have a much greater chance of deterring or blunting such threats. That kind of US capability would markedly increase (not decrease) deterrence. Missile defense would actually help deterrence as opposed to the complaint that missile defense would just start an “arms race”.
The Value of the Reagan Legacy
When President Reagan came into office, the US nuclear deterrent was nearing obsolescence. There was no consensus on how to modernize the US deterrent, the “nuclear freeze” was gaining favor, “détente and peaceful co-existence” were the watchwords of America’s Soviet policy, and missile defense was deemed forbidden. Even worse, what was described as “arms control” in the SALT 1 and 2 treaties was just an agreement between the Soviets and the United States largely to build-up US nuclear arsenals as it was already planning to do even without the arms treaties.
What then is the lesson to be learned?
The strategic legacy we have inherited from Reagan is all the more remarkable given the strategic chaos the country was in when Reagan first came into office. He reversed the weakness he inherited, and despite the passage of three decades, his policies have endured.
Reagan left an open window of consensus to 1) modernize the US nuclear deterrent, 2) seek future arms control that includes limiting all nuclear weapons, including China’s, and 3) deploy more robust missile defenses especially in the near term and refuse to negotiate away America’s current and future missile defense capability.
If these three “Reagan” factors can be preserved, the US may indeed remain safe from nuclear conflict. As these policies keep the US safe, hopefully its leaders will realize how well Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength” worked.
Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He also is a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent studies at the US Naval Academy. He was also for 22 years, the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation.
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