President Ronald Reagan proposed in March 1983 that the US scientific community develop the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. He hoped to shift the international security environment awav from a balance of terror, which was then commonly referred to as mutual assured destruction, to a more reliable deterrent strategy.
The then-Secretary of State was so unsettled upon hearing of the President's forthcoming speech that upon entering the Oval Office to preview the president's remarks, he exclaimed, "Some darn fool is trying to sell you on missile defense, Mr. President."
The reaction of the media and the academic community to the President's March 1983 speech was also one of incredulity. The Hartford Courant in an editorial described the idea as "Star Wars," a phrase quickly repeated by a number of senators who announced their opposition to the President's plan. Shortly thereafter, a prominent group of nuclear physicists warned that US missile defenses would cause a war between the United States and the USSR. they contended that missile defense would "upset detente." By 1984, then presidential candidate Walter Mondale made opposition to missile defense a central plank in his campaign against Reagan. And even as late as 2000, the Democratic Party platform opposed what they termed "an ill-conceived missile defense system" that would plunge the United States "into a new arms race".
A Thousand Interceptors
Now, some thirty years after the 1983 speech, the United States has deployed over 1,000 missile interceptors of all kinds, from the Army's Patriot and Theater High Altitude Defense, to the Aegis Standard Missiles aboard Navy cruisers. In addition, silo-based ground-based interceptors were deployed in Alaska and California on alert to defend against long range ballistic missiles from such nations as North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Allies from Japan, England, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Israel, Denmark, Spain, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Holland, Italy, and Taiwan have built complimentary missile defense systems and radars, or are working closely with the United States to do so in the future. Plans for this decade alone might bring the number of worldwide allied missile defense interceptors to over 1,500 and likely closer to 2,000.
Emerging Technology and Challenges Ahead
Reagan's hope to destroy "missiles as they come out of their silos" remains a key hurdle. According to retired General Uzi Rubin, the former director of the Arrow missile defense program in Israel, early interception from the sea, against both North Korean and Iranian rockets, would be doable with greater interceptor speeds. This is one of the future goals of the US European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), a plan to deploy greater technological capability over time, including faster interceptors than the current ship-based Standard Missile.
Space-based systems including sensors could also work, especially those developed during the Reagan and Bush administrations. They are highly effective. When combined with the current ground and sea-based systems, such defensive capabilities could, as a March 1992 report to Congress stated, "contribute to the deterrence of intentional limited strikes by undermining their military and political value." Space systems also avoid the need for prior allied country agreements to base ground systems in their country.
More importantly, the report correctly predicted the significant growth of ballistic missile threats in the Persian Gulf area and the need to move beyond seeing missile defense almost entirely through the prism of arms control and strategic stability with Moscow. And this new rocket laden landscape we face also features alliances between terror groups and states, such as the one between Hezbollah and Iran. The former is armed with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles of varying ranges, primarily from Iran, Syria, North Korea, and China. …