Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative: Worth the Money or Too Little Too Late?

President Ronald Reagan’s Address on Defense and National Security on March 23rd, 1983, proposes new ideas for the security and defense programs in the United States with regards to nuclear weapons. As Reagan argues, it is better to save lives than avenge them, and emphasizes the importance of continued defense spending. In many ways, the address is a quintessential Reagan speech, reiterating the importance of deterrence and trying to sway public opinion using powerful rhetoric, but he goes further to propose new ideas and challenge previous policies. Reagan’s proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative at the end of his speech, also known as “Star Wars” disrupts the previous strategy of mutually assured destruction. Ultimately, Reagan’s address reinforces his actor persona, seeing that the SDI technology appears unrealistic and creates a false sense of security for the American people.

Reagan attempts to justify government spending on the weapons program by giving statements like “cuts mean cutting our commitment to allies” and “the United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor.” He argues although he came to Washington “with the intention of lowering government spending,” this spending is absolutely necessary, and he even talked to specialists and other officials to justify the budget. It is clear Reagan is trying to convince the American people to support him, offering up arguments that he is bringing “a new hope for our children” and going to “make America strong again” (an interesting foreshadow of Trump’s popular slogan). Reagan was perhaps worried about public opinion and implemented the Strategic Defense Initiative following growing hysteria created by the filming and eventual release of the movie The Day After and growing concerns of a nuclear attack by the Soviets.

Reagan’s SDI proposal advocates for the development of technology that could, in theory, be directed from satellites, airplanes or land-based installations to shoot down missiles. He describes potentially using lasers, particle and projectile beams and other new forms of technology. While the idea was great in theory, and Reagan suggested it would take time to develop such technologies, the program appears unrealistic and beyond the capabilities of scientists at the time. Furthermore, the program would have been incredibly expensive, and may not have even been that efficient. This speech reinforces Reagan’s actor and storyteller role as a president, and seems to be a way to try to help Americans recover from their fears.

Some questions I had after watching this speech, and hopefully others can respond to are as follows:

While congress eventually decided to end the initiative and not pursue the program Reagan suggested, should they have continued to try to find a way to develop the technologies to actually be able to shoot down missiles, or was it not worth the money or time? And is Reagan’s devotion to military spending justified, or is the billions of dollars the government has subsequently poured into the defense program too much? — Adrienne

9 thoughts on “Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative: Worth the Money or Too Little Too Late?

  1. In response to Reagan’s speech and your response, I did a little outside research on the speech and its results. While you write that the speech was intended to create a sense of security among the American people, and I imagine that that was the thought behind Reagan’s decision to advocate for missile blocking systems, I found it very interesting to learn that this speech was and is viewed as problematic for the opposite reason. Many at the time were afraid that this speech would (re-)ignite an arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because it would drive each country to build up their own defense system and in turn create weapons which could evade detection and be unable to be stopped by the other country’s shields.

    The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists notes, however, that it is ironic that very little has actually resulted from all the talk from former political leaders about blocking attacks. The Pentagon is still fairly unsuccessful about blocking missiles–I remember over this past summer, when there were several North Korean missile scare, reading that only about 60% of missiles are successfully stopped by United States technology capabilities.

    Finally, the Bulletin also notes that speeches like this often serve more symbolic than practical purposes, and that the speech was probably intended, as you note, to comfort Americans rather than actually lead to policy changes. The Star Wars speech was likely a messaging technique, as Reagan so commonly used, to build confidence among Americans and posture against the Soviets.

  2. I think it was an ineffective strategy to continue to develop defensive technologies against missiles after their failed under Reagan. When Congress originally approved funding for Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, it soon became clear that the envisioned laser systems simply did not work. Reagan framed the technology in an incredibly convincing manner in his speech. A key moment is when he posed the question, “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” However, the gap between the world he envisioned and reality was very wide. It is now 2018—35 years after Reagan first made his speech and the technology has still not been successfully developed.

    The Lewis & Hippel and Union of Concerned Scientists articles focus on the deficiencies of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) policy began under George W. One of the main issues with the defense systems was the lack of rigorous testing and comprehensive oversight that the systems required. Perhaps if those things had been provided, the systems would be more successful. However, the fact remains that since 2002, billions of dollars have been spent on systems that do not live up to their promises. I found the $40 billion GMD system to be the most jarring, due to its overall success rate in extremely controlled conditions of ~50%. (Lewis & Hippel 6) Even with the systems that are slightly more effective under testing conditions, they are still very vulnerable to countermeasures. (8)

    The other concern that is raised with the investment in systems is their potential to lead other countries to further develop their nuclear arsenal in response. Russia for example, has been unwilling to “reduce firther [sic] the number of its nuclear deterrent warheads or to consider taking its missiles off hair-trigger alert.” (8) Investing in the systems is thus counterproductive. By investing in the systems, the U.S. government increases the threat of nuclear war, which the systems would be unable to live up to their purpose and prevent.

  3. Thirty-five years and tens of billions of dollars after Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, the US still faces the challenge posed by strategic ballistic missiles. The history of missile defense since 1983 is characterized by decreasing spending and budgetary limitations. SDI was intended to deal with thousands of incoming warheads, while President George H.W. Bush’s GPALs (Global Protection Against Limited Strikes) originally sought to defend against 200 warheads or fewer, and the national missile defense program aims to cope with a few to a couple dozen warheads at most. The US and its allies currently only have small systems that provide some defense against a piecemeal ballistic-missile attack launched from an unsophisticated opponent. Robert Farley, of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce wrote that, “the US completely lacks the capability of defeating a determined attacked by a sophisticated adversary.” Although I believe that missile defense should be a part of US military capabilities, I do acknowledge the costs of missile defense spending.

    With the current limitations of technology and budget, defending the US against a major Russian ballistic missile attack is currently not feasible. There is no reliable and affordable defense that could protect America against a Russian ICBM. In addition, offensive ballistic missile technology is far more advanced that that of missile defense. Adding fourteen more Ground-Based Midcourse Defense interceptors would require the Pentagon to spend about $1 bill. The costs favor the offense, as adding fourteen more warheads would be substantially cheaper. Basically, every dollar spent on national missile defense is one dollar less for strategic nuclear modernization or conventional forces.

  4. When considering the effectiveness of missile defense and whether or not it justifies the cost, I think it is important to consider what they are defending against. For instance, Israel has invested heavily in its Iron Dome system to counter short range missile launches from its neighbors. While expensive and not 100% effective, the system has saved Israeli lives, and the Israeli government has thus far continued to invest. However, it is worth noting that the missiles that the system fires in order to intercept attacks are more than twenty times more expensive than the ones that they shoot down. The same applies for America’s Patriot Missile system, which has been modified to have limited capacity to target ballistic missiles. However, thus far both systems have largely been used to defend against less effective, lower cost, and/or non-nuclear weapons. The United States has also developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system designed to shoot down short to medium range ballistic missiles.
    Since these are the closest existing systems to effective anti-missile systems, they serve as interesting case studies in determining whether they could be applied in a broad scale for nuclear weapons. On one hand, it is unlikely in the near future that any systems could provide reliable defense against a nuclear strike. Since most important strikes involve multiple targeted attacks designed precisely to guarantee success, the cost of building and maintaining such systems would be exorbitant to say the least, to say nothing of the cost of actually using them. A major justification for the Iron Dome system is that it only targets missiles that are deemed a significant threat. However, any nuclear weapon is a significant threat. The question is whether the cost is justified given the odds of success.
    Another consideration is the long term strategic impact that such changes would have on nuclear posture. Effective anti-missile systems would remove the flexibility of modern arsenals because the only way to guarantee a successful strike would be through target saturation. I cannot personally say whether this is a bad thing, but it certainly represents a risk that countries are forced to overreact in limited warfare situations. I would argue that effective anti-missile systems are a good thing because they give defense an advantage in the offense-defense balance. The threat of a long, protracted conflict, even non-nuclear can act as an effective deterrent. However, it also means that the costs of miscalculation are higher because if conflict broke out it would be more destructive.
    A final consideration is whether or not it is even feasible to develop reliable and cost-effective anti-missile systems. Even trying might be futile.

  5. Adrienne, I enjoyed reading your post. I did some research on the timing of the speech which was in March of 1983. The Republicans had recently lost seats in the house due to the 1982 recession and the Democratic replacements had just entered office and found themselves in the majority. Reagan also must have been considering his re-election the following year as well as the geopolitical climate of the time period. It is clear in Reagan’s speech that he is trying to justify the financial costs of such a program during the time of recession and the way that he does that is by using moral arguments such as invoking allies. He even mentioned the recent improvement in military technology as evidence that the technology could continue to improve. If I were an America during this time, I would have likely found this rhetoric to be effective and perhaps this rhetoric could have been just as effective at intimidating the Soviets. Thus, the effectiveness of SDI would not be in its technological innovations but rather its political intimidations.
    The increase in the defense budget does not seem justified in retrospect especially considering how the increase in the defense budget led to a decrease in safety net programs that increased the income inequality in the US. However, it did need bipartisan support and during this time period it might have seemed reasonable.
    The question now becomes would these scare tactics of having lasers and the ability to shoot down missiles be effective at deterring our enemies or was the SDI the only example where this could happen? I look forward to discussing these things with my classmates.


  6. This speech serves as an important reminder of why it is so important to look at the intersections of science and politics/policy. There are two main issues at play here: one is the science and technology behind defense and its ability (or lack thereof) to keep up with adversaries’ offensive arsenals, and the other is the rhetoric surrounding national security and power. My classmates have brought up the importance of the timing of this speech (as Paul mentions: just after Republicans had lost seats in the house, Reagan most likely looking ahead towards reelection), and it can seem absurd that political strategy and campaigning can play a role in how the public is addressed regarding nuclear warfare.

    It is important to think about who Reagan’s audience is. He is not addressing a group like the Union of Concerned Scientists – he is addressing the American public at large, and this public does not necessarily want to know the specifics. The public wants to be reassured that its country has the most advance nuclear defense mechanisms in the world, and that they can go about their daily lives feeling safe and secure, and maintain faith in their government to take the necessary measures to develop and continue advancing defense methods and technology.

    How policymakers and scientists should be addressed, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Any attempt to exaggerate the United States’ defense capabilities can lead to dangerous misinterpretations and missteps. As Alan mentions in his blog post, having a poorly-regulated missile defense system in place is problematic in its own right, considering that it can give a false sense of security and affect US nuclear strategy.

    Missile defense systems should continue to be researched and pursued, but the channels of communication and regulating systems must be updated. As the Union of Concerned Scientists report conveys, the GMD system has gone on for too long without serious cost-benefit analysis and rigorous testing. The public doesn’t need to know about every step in this process, but politicians cannot continue neglecting oversight of defense systems.

  7. Adrienne, thanks for your blogpost. In response to your question, I’d argue that Congress made the right decision. Reagan’s arguments in favor of SDI were problematic, and it seems as though building second-strike capabilities combined with diplomacy was a better alternative.

    Reagan’s argument in favor of the SDI rested on two key points:
    (1) Missile defense technologies were clearly distinguishable from offensive military capabilities, which would therefore reduce the need for adversaries to further develop their own technologies in an arms race. In other words, the SDI could help the US and USSR overcome Robert Jervis’s “security dilemma.”
    (2) The SDI would lower the adversary’s expected reward of launching missiles, since an effective SDI could reduce the likelihood that an adversary’s missile hit its target. This would give the adversary less incentive launch its missiles.

    Both of Reagan’s key points are problematic. Regarding Reagan’s point (1), I do not doubt that SDI or other ballistic missile defense (BMD) technologies like THAAD could be distinguishable from offensive capabilities. Yet, even if the USSR could identify SDI technologies as defensive, so long as the US continued building other offensive weapons (which it would likely want to do as back-up before its SDI became effective), the USSR would still have reason to further expand its own. Even if the US did not build more offensive weapons, the USSR may already have had an incentive to further expand its own missiles program to increase the likelihood that it could wipe-out America’s silos in a first-strike. Hence, it doesn’t seem like the SDI would eliminate an arms race between the US and USSR.

    Regarding Reagan’s point (2), I do not question that a successful SDI could reduce the adversary’s expected reward of launching BMs. Nonetheless, as Lewis and Hippel (as well as Rachel and Tatiana’s posts) have shown, a successful BMD system takes substantial costs and most saliently, has YET to be developed. A SDI can only reduce the adversary’s expected reward of launching BMs if it ACTUALLY works (again, currently it DOESN’T). Moreover, so long as the adversary’s costs to build BMs are still lower than the expected rewards, it would still have an incentive to build such BMs. Given the greater ease with which the non-democratic USSR could harness military resources at the time, it seems as though “low costs” in building BMs might very well have been the case.

    Hence, overall, it does not seem logically apparent why the proposed SDI would provide deterrence and stability to the US/USSR relationship at the time. Even today America’s BMD is not effective, and as aforementioned, EVEN IF it were effective, a BMD system might not actually provide deterrence. Given that the US could more successfully produce OFFENSIVE equipment for second-strike purposes–and that second-strike capabilities could deter the USSR from launching a first-strike–it seems that the smarter decision (with limited resources and time) would be to focus on fortifying offensive, second-strike capabilities. American second-strike capabilities could bring the Soviets to the negotiating table, and combined with diplomacy and verification, could lead to mutual disarmament. Concentrating on SDI might eventually do the same, but would have less guarantees (it is more difficult to make a successful SDI than a successful second-strike missile.)

  8. As Adrienne pointed out, this speech evokes Reagan’s persona as an actor and most likely places his political objectives at the forefront rather than presenting a fair metric of the threats facing America and the most defense. Like others have mentioned, I agree that this speech promotes a false confidence in SDI technology that may be dangerously deceptive to the American people. However, I do think that this speech is a piece of political thinking that may in fact present novel ideas concerning America’s approach to military matters. If one accepts Reagan’s approach to America’s global position as true doctrine and not merely political posturing, then it seems that he is presenting a vision for an America that maintains military might for defensive purposes without being an aggressor; it may be that this stance has never truly been realized but I think it is an interesting one nonetheless.

    More broadly, I think that this speech exposes an important flaw in the American political system which is that civilian involvement and leadership in military and defense matters exposes this realm to the whims of the current political leadership, and it has become increasingly acceptable to exploit military infrastructure, personnel, and strategy for political gain. Paul suggested that the political climate of the era may have had to do with Reagan’s rhetoric in this speech. Although it is important to have civilians in military leadership to prevent the development of unchecked power, one also wonders about the dangers of politicians’ manipulation of military related issues. Particularly when issues of national defense are at stake, it seems concerning that one single person through a speech could present a new outline for American policy, specifically one that relies heavily on technology that is not fully developed or reliable. I think it is important to consider ways to promote effective civilian voices in defense with a focus on minimizing the exploitation of life and death decisions and strategies for political gain.

  9. Adrienne, I thought your blog post was spot on. I too latched on to Reagan’s clearly deliberate projection of confidence, particularly in the video of his speech. As we have clearly examined time and time again in lecture, attempting to solve problems like nuclear proliferation and nuclear defense nearly always involves dealing in hypotheticals, meaning that the kind of certainty and confidence that Reagan exudes is entirely put on for his audience. It would be unfair to ascribe this characteristic of false bravado to Reagan alone, however. While he was certainly had the aid of his actor background as you rightly point out, it seems to me that every president in modern history who has needed to carefully curate their televised persona has chosen the route of acting consistently self-assured, even when talking on topics which are inherently uncertain.

    I personally go back and forth on whether I think that this is an absolute negative of the office of the presidency, or really any leadership position within the government. On the one hand, we often want and need leaders who appear utterly fearless and assured on the topics that frighten us most, who will employ Churchillian rhetoric to cause us to believe in ourselves and in our country as well. However, there is no question that such big talk is undoubtedly misleading, and that it continues to keep the American public at arms length from the important discussions that are really being made. Too often, this strategy has been used not for the good of the country or its citizens, but to reinforce public opinion as you yourself note with your acknowledgement of the Day After film release. I therefore see this projected confidence visible within the Reagan speech as perhaps an unavoidable facet of the modern presidency that can be both constructive and destructive depending on the character and intentions of the orator.

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