The Vital Role of Policy: Or "What Happened to Ballistic Missile Defense?"

By Fox, E.; Orman, S. | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Vital Role of Policy: Or "What Happened to Ballistic Missile Defense?"


Fox, E., Orman, S., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


It is quite likely that President Reagan himself failed to recognize how fundamentally he was changing accepted political thinking when he made his now famous SDI announcement in March 1983. Throughout most of the period of the Cold War, governments had become accustomed to the nuclear stand-off usually referred to as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Meaning of course that if either side were to use nuclear weapons, it could unleash such overwhelming retaliation from the other side, that all life on this planet would be endangered. The prospect may have been too awful to contemplate, but it is one that we all had to live with, and as the years passed the conviction grew that MAD was indeed a means of avoiding nuclear war. Thus when President Reagan suggested that there was another way of dealing with this situation, he totally disrupted accepted political thinking, and the policy staffs of most governments give the impression/hat they have not yet recovered from the shock.

Few members of the public are forced to contemplate the awesome responsibility placed on a Commander-in-Chief, if he were ever informed that an enemy had launched a missile at his homeland. If that enemy is known to possess nuclear weapons, it has to be assumed that the attacking missile is so armed. At that point MAD has failed and without a missile defensive system, there is no longer any way to prevent major destruction; the only responsive advice available, is to launch a counterstrike. It was this type of scenario that led President Reagan to seek other ways of dealing with the situation that could buy the decision maker more time to explore alternative options more fully, and possibly avoid plunging the world into chaos. To the vast majority of the American public the statement that in 1996 there is still no capability of intercepting even a single offensive missile launched against a U.S. city is ludicrous. Some will be vaguely aware of the ongoing debate about whether the priority should be on something called Theater Missile Defense (TMD), as opposed to National Missile Defense (NMD), but few would believe that after spending close to $ 50 billion over 13 years, there is still no defense deployed. Nonetheless it is all too true, and likely to remain so for a further 5 to 10 years.

This article examines the activities that have led to the present position and reviews what will have to be done to prevent yet further deterioration of the situation.

The Role of Policy

It is almost too simplistic to suggest that without a clear policy programs will flounder. Yet despite the obvious truth of such a statement, the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense programs have proceeded without clear policy guidelines for several years. There appear to be at least five criteria which have to be met to enable any democratic nation to move forward effectively with a major new defense effort. These are; an undisputed recognition of a threat, a military requirement to counter the threat coupled with the necessary technical capability, public and government support for the activity, a financial commitment to complete the work, and freedom to proceed under existing international treaties. In the area of BMD the only nation that has met these criteria is Israel, and there is every likelihood that they will be the first nation to deploy a non-nuclear missile defense system. They have reached this position faster, and at considerably less cost than the U.S., by choosing a single policy and sticking with it.

In contrast the U.S. work has been subject to regular substantial changes of direction without being able to settle into a well established program. The Strategic Defense Initiative was initially a research program designed to ascertain whether it would be feasible to defend against the vast number of warheads that could have comprised an attack by the Soviet Union. As the research developed it was recognized that the engineering associated with the directed energy systems, the only means capable of dealing with such an attack, would take far longer to develop than the 10 or so years first estimated. …

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