Chapter 13 - Strategic Defense: SDI, MAD, ASATs, Civil Defense

Soviet Strategic ABMs and Super-Hardening. Soviet doctrine and programs emphasized robust investment in strategic defenses that included upgraded anti-ballistic missile systems, ASATs, and extensive civil and industrial defense shelters. In further contrast with very limited U.S. hardened non-silo sites, the Soviets built a vast national network of hundreds of super-hardened missile silos, command and control bunkers, and fortified industrial and transportation facilities, including many constructed very deep underground.

The Fatal Choices of MAD: NORAD—1979. Reagan learned from and fundamentally shared critical 1970s U.S. assessments of such Soviet programs. He was notable for his early knowledge and concerns about the threats of Soviet strategic momentum and doctrine, the horrific global implications of MAD, and the resulting priority national security requirement for U.S. anti-missile defenses. His concerns were dramatized by briefings he received (a year and a half before he became president) in the summer of 1979 at NORAD, the U.S.-Canadian North American Defense Command at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. This installation was the single super-hardened U.S. military command site, compared to the many hundreds constructed by the Soviet Union.

At NORAD, Reagan asked his military briefer what the American president could do if notified that Soviet missile launches headed for the United States had been detected by NORAD. He was informed that Soviet land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) flying across the North Pole and Canada would hit U.S. targets twenty-five minutes after launch. Submarine-launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) flying shorter distances in lower trajectories would hit in fifteen minutes or less. When notified, a president would have only minutes to react before the missiles hit their targets. Since the United States was barred by the ABM Treaty and the MAD doctrine from deploying any national anti-missile defenses, he could do nothing to prevent Soviet missiles from reaching their targets and killing millions of people in the U.S. and (by radiation fallout) throughout the world.

MAD’s Fatal Madness. Reagan’s early direct experience with MAD’s fatal madness was confirmed in Pentagon briefings he received as president from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was clear to Reagan that in an acute nuclear missile crisis involving indications of launches, MAD-based hopes for deterrence would already have proved false. The president’s MAD “choice” would be to issue an impossibly late warning to the American people of the impending disaster and/or to order an avenging retaliatory launch of U.S. missiles, killing millions of Russians and spreading radiation globally. It would not matter whether NORAD’s warning indicators were ambiguous or faulty in signaling a Soviet “first strike” attack, or whether missiles had been accidentally launched from Soviet sources or came from a source that was unclear, like a rogue nation or terrorist group.

Reagan understood (as SDI’s critics did not then or to this day) that the MAD reliance on a “nuclear balance of terror” inherently undermined any serious moral and strategic rationales for nuclear deterrence or for MAD-based “arms control” like the ABM Treaty and its linked SALT approach. Sole reliance on U.S. massive nuclear retaliatory strikes for deterrence, rather than increasingly including anti-missile systems in a defense mix, left the U.S. president and the American people no protection and no good choices in a crisis. Reagan thus became increasingly determined to establish a new defense-oriented paradigm for deterrence, defense, and real arms control.

Campaign Platform—1980. The MAD situation Reagan had thought about earlier and directly encountered at NORAD in 1979 and, as president, strengthened his insistence on a U.S. anti-missile defense—i.e.,  a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). His presidential campaign statements included words in his Republican Campaign Platform—1980 that pledged:

to create a strategic and civil defense which would protect the American people against nuclear war at least as well as the Soviet population is protected . . . [and proceed with] vigorous research and development of an effective anti-ballistic missile system, such as is already at hand in the Soviet Union, as well as more modern ABM technologies.6

During the transition between the election and inauguration and in the months after he became president, Reagan discussed missile defenses with individuals like Lt. General Daniel Graham, Dr. Edward Teller, and Reagan advisors Richard Allen, George Keyworth, Martin Anderson, Edwin Meese, and Secretary of Defense Designee Caspar Weinberger. These advisors and others supported what became the non-nuclear, space-based strategic defense research program that marked Reagan’s extraordinary vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative

[Book pg. 301]