Ronald Reagan is owed an apology.
In 1983, President Reagan gave a speech in which he called for the development of a missile-defense system. The project was called the Strategic Defense Initiative, but Democrats and their media cheerleaders mocked it as “Star Wars,” its announcement coming, as it did, shortly after Reagan’s equally detested “Evil Empire” speech. Reagan laid out a broad vision for a long-term investment in technological development, possibly involving everything from satellites to lasers.
Reagan’s critics especially hated the lasers. They thought he was just a goofy old man who’d spent too much time in the movies.
In a recently authored memo, the Pentagon’s chief weapons-tester (the acting director of Operational Test and Evaluation), upgraded our current missile-defense system from “limited capability” to “demonstrated capability.” This followed a successful test of the system, in which it was used to intercept and destroy a dummy intercontinental ballistic missile. The small change in wording represents a big change in confidence.
A missile-defense system is a textbook public good, which is to say, non-rivalrous and non-excludable in consumption: If a missile is stopped from hitting San Francisco, the benefit is not apportioned according to user fees. It is also a long-term project necessitating substantial investments in basic science, which means spending a great a deal of money following a great many promising ideas to a great many dead ends, which is how a great deal of science is done. Put another way: Developing a missile-defense system is precisely the sort of thing that the federal government exists to do. It is the opposite of the “free false teeth” school of government.
The path from “Star Wars” to the current system was not straight — there was never any good reason to suppose it would have been. Big ideas about space-based laser shields were displaced by an old-fashioned engineering approach: hitting an inbound missile with a faster outbound missile. The Clinton administration changed the name of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in an effort to cleanse the stain of Reaganism from the project. It is now the Missile Defense Agency, which is an avis very rara indeed: a federal agency that is generally regarded as both responsible and effective. It would like $8 billion in the next budget to continue its work. We ought to oblige — how much would we be willing to pay if we could somehow undo 9/11?
“Would it not be better to save lives than to avenge them?” Reagan asked. “Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are. Indeed, we must.”
Stopping missiles from hitting American cities is good in and of itself.
SDI was mocked in the pages of the New York Times as an expression of “anti-Communist paranoia.” As recently as 2000, Alan Brinkley wrote in the Times that SDI represented a “convergence of political crisis and scientific hubris.” Senator Ted Kennedy made killing SDI a priority, and Senator John Kerry called the program “a cancer.” They were wrong, of course, and wrong in part because they misunderstood Reagan’s motivation. They caricatured him as a warmonger, but he was in reality the great peacenik of his time. He was horrified by the then-current thinking about nuclear deterrence, which went by the evocative acronym MAD — “mutual assured destruction.” Of course pushing the Soviets into a technological-development race that their backward economy could not sustain was tempting, but there is no need to be too clever about it: Stopping missiles from hitting American cities is good in and of itself.
The same critics who scoffed at “Star Wars” are scoffing at its progeny now. Echoing those who chided Reagan for seeking to move beyond MAD, Eric Gomez complains in The Diplomat that “expanding the quantity and quality of U.S. homeland missile defense systems could prompt negative countermoves by other nuclear powers.” Alex Locke, writing in Business Insider, points out that a state with a sufficiently large arsenal of missiles could overwhelm our interceptor system with decoys. That’s all true, and beside the point. A missile-defense system is a defense against one kind of threat. That it is likely to be an imperfect defense against that threat and that it is not a defense against every other kind of threat is not much of an argument for scrapping it.
The politics are worth considering, too. North Korea is a basket case, something from the political oddity shop, but attention must be paid to it because it has a nuclear weapon or three. Missile defense changes the math for would-be nuclear-blackmail artists: The costs of developing nuclear capability and missile capability remain the same, but the benefits go sharply down. And not every scenario involves a confrontation with a nation-state: The situation in Pakistan points to the very real possibility of non-state actors’ getting control of nuclear-capable missiles. Being able to block one missile or a dozen missiles would be in that case very valuable. But that is not a capability that can be developed overnight. It has been decades in the making.
What’s been accomplished is remarkable, but there remain improvements to be made and innovations to be explored. In August, military officials announced that they believe they are on the verge of a new technological breakthrough that could change the missile-defense model radically: Lasers, of course.
May the Force be with them.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.