The Way Forward Is Up


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In 1983, Ronald Reagan gave a monumental speech declaring his administration’s intention to build and place space-based missile defense systems in low Earth orbit. The United States and the Soviet Union, at that time, were locked in a seeming eternal struggle for global ideological supremacy. When the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear weapon in the Kazakhstan desert in 1949, that conflict took on an apocalyptic tone—now both the United States and Soviet Union had the ability to annihilate each other at a distance, in a matter of hours.

As time progressed, the Soviets ramped up their nuclear arsenal. They also looked to a newfound strategic domain for greater supremacy: space. By 1962, the Soviet military space program was in full swing. Things such as space-based laser systems, military space stations, and orbital nuclear weapons were already well established research areas in the USSR.

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Meanwhile, the United States was beginning to buy into the self-destructive notion of deterrence through Mutual Assured Destruction. The basis for this fundamentally flawed assumption was that the Soviets were rational actors who viewed both the world and nuclear weapons in the same apocalyptic ways that we did. Yet, as official Soviet military doctrine from that era outlinesthe Soviet Union not only thought nuclear warfare was winnable (whereas American policymakers had convinced themselves nuclear warfare was unwinnable) the Russians also had a preemptive nuclear warfare doctrine.

The United States spent nearly two decades trying to convince the Soviets that our nuclear arsenal was only a threat if they decided to challenge the United States. Meanwhile, the Soviets sought new and innovative ways to overcome American nuclear supremacy. Not only did they continue to augment and modernize their nuclear arsenal, but they continued looking to space for a way to break the West’s encirclement and defeat capitalism.

The only saving grace at the time was the fact that America’s economic health was fundamentally sound whereas the Soviet economy was tragically decrepit. By the 1980s, however, the Soviets were feeling triumphal following America’s great “malaise” caused by our internal struggles over Vietnam, America’s desire for arms control agreements (that the Soviets happily signed and then ignored), and the flailing Carter presidency.

When Reagan entered the White House, however, everything changed. Reagan viewed the Communists not as just another state with a different worldview—as so many Leftists and elite Republicans did—but through moral lenses and, therefore, with an understanding that their regime was evil. Reagan’s mission, then, was not simple peaceful coexistence. It was the rollback of Communism and the inevitable defeat of the Soviet Union, whether through peaceable means or, more pointedly, through force of arms.

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Reagan was not a creature of the rarified Washington establishment. He did not buy into the groupthink about deterrence, safety through arms control, and Mutual Assured Destruction. Reagan understood that the Soviet threat was inherently offensive and could not be defeated with the United States assuming a purely self-defensive posture. He could not abide measures or policies that ultimately negated America’s considerable economic and scientific advantages. So, instead of looking to Mutual Assured Destruction to prevent a nuclear conflagration, Reagan began to look to space for a better, more strategic solution. If Soviet nuclear arms were keeping America from fully exerting its justified will, then the United States had a moral duty to reach up toward the stars and use space—the ultimate high ground—to America’s strategic advantage.

Thus, missile defense—or as it was derisively called by its opponents,“Star Wars”—was born. It was in this moment that Reagan began to break the Soviets’ back. Reagan envisioned that America would pour its considerable economic might and scientific advantage into this revolutionary project; much as it had with the Manhattan Project during World War II. Upon completion, Reagan reasoned, America would have created the world’s first real defense against nuclear weapons.

Overnight, then, the United States would move beyond what Reagan correctly believed was the immoral and, truly, mad stance of Mutual Assured Destruction toward the proper policy of “Mutually Assured Survival.” Reagan believed that once the Soviets saw how advanced American defenses were, they would be more than willing to meet American demands for mutual nuclear disarmament, and the world could go on in peace, free from fear of nuclear annihilation.

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Ultimately, the project had mixed results. While the intended result of defeating the Soviet Union was achieved, the technical feasibility of the project was still years off.

Yet, with Reagan’s announcement, he set off a chain reaction both within the Kremlin and throughout America’s policy and scientific communities. The Soviets tried desperately to keep pace with America’s military developments, but this attempt ultimately broke them. Meanwhile, in spite of not actually achieving a working space-based missile defense, American scientists did begin the research into new space-based technologies that are finally coming to fruition today.

Today the United States faces nuclear threats on several fronts. These nuclear threats—particularly the cases of Iran and North Korea—are every bit as evil as the Soviet Union was. Thankfully, and for the time being, their reach is mostly regional. But as we saw over the July 4 holiday weekend with North Korea, should they be allowed to continue developing nuclear arms, these threats will multiply, and threaten the world. The problems on the Korean peninsula may already be beyond containment. However, with Iran (as well as with China and Russia), the threats can—and should—be contained. As I note in my recent risk assessment on space weapons at my website, The Weichert Report, the historical model of containment (as it was practiced in the Cold War) will prove insufficient, however, given today’s technology and the the fact that our rivals are wily adversaries who routinely use asymmetric means to threaten America’s perceived military dominance.

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