On March 23 1983, United States (US) President Ronald Reagan gave perhaps the single most celebrated speech of a presidency that was filled with memorable speeches. Reagan, a former actor, was known as The Great Communicator. A Republican, Reagan had come to power in 1981 as a hardline anti-Communist who was determined to re-assert American technological and military superiority after the gradual decline of the previous administration. The previous President, the Democrat Jimmy Carter, came across as a good man who was utterly out of his depth as President. A man who had only achieved the Presidency because the previous incumbent was tainted by the Watergate scandal, Carter oversaw a single term of economic failure caused by the Oil Crisis and the ultimate humiliation of Americans being taken hostage in post-Revolution Iran. Carter was the kind of President who believed that voters were 100% rational and that telling them unpleasant truths was part of the burden of being President. Reagan understood that people need to be inspired, that they sometimes want to be part of a struggle. For him, that struggle was resisting what he saw as the threat of Communist expansion.
Early on in his first term, Reagan’s anti-Communism appeared dangerous. There was an infamous speech to the British Parliament in 1982, where Reagan referred to putting Marxist-Leninism onto the ‘ash-heap of history’. Whilst this did not state that the Soviet Union was itself to be destroyed or dismembered, it was not heard quite that way in Moscow. Reagan backed up this rhetoric with military adventurism. A Nation that was still recovering from the Vietnam disaster a decade earlier wondered if its military strength counted for anything: could it actually be used to advance American interests? Or was it rather what Communist China referred to as a ‘Paper Tiger’? Reagan was willing to use force against what he regarded as Communist influence in Grenada in 1983, whilst increasing military aid to anti-Communist forces throughout Central America. Reagan was also keen to place maximum pressure on the Soviet forces which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Whilst US forces did not openly operate in Afghanistan, CIA operatives were probably there in significant numbers, alongside representatives from Pakistan’s intelligence services. They helped to distribute significant amounts of military aid to the Mujahedeen.
Yet Reagan changed and eventually became a President mostly known as a peacemaker rather than a war-monger. How he got there is the subject of this blog. It is a story that involves one of the more fascinating technical aspects of modern strategic doctrine. It also requires more consideration of a Presidents specific mindset than is usually necessary in considering the United States generally monolithic and inflexible nuclear policy. Anyone interested in this subject should read Lawrence Freedman’s magisterial survey, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (Freedman and Michaels, 2019).
Reagan came to office convinced that Communism had to be actively resisted. This would involve military materiel assistance in places like Afghanistan, hardline criticism of the Soviet regime and perhaps most crucially, expansion of US nuclear forces. The prevailing view of nuclear weapons in the Department of Defense (DoD) had been set by Robert McNamara in the Kennedy administration, in 1961. McNamara did not believe that the actual use of nuclear weapons by the US was at all credible, since no US president would want to get into a nuclear exchange, however limited. This view persisted through the Johnson, Nixon and Carter administrations. Nuclear weapons were still being developed, built and commissioned, but there was less in the way of a serious attempt at working out how they might be used. They had come to be regarded as a kind of insurance policy against any possible future technological or ideological breakthrough, rather than any likely source of a breakthrough themselves. This bred a general sense of malaise in the DoD – it was hard to get enthused about weapons that seemed to have so little utility.
Reagan believed that this was a kind of defeatism that played into the hands of Soviet intentions. It was argued that Soviet expansion in strategic nuclear weapons suggested they were enthused by their possible use. There was indeed expansion in Soviet nuclear forces – whereas North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) militaries tended to replace old system with newer ones, the Soviet practice was to keep the old system in place as well. This exacerbated the sense of a quantitative difference in forces, whilst glossing over the fact that the qualitative advantage inevitably thus tended towards NATO. It was not so much that the Reagan Administration wanted to fight a nuclear war, but more that they wanted to be capable of fighting one and thus to at least appear to be willing to fight one. This meant spending money on new weapons programmes. In 1981, the incoming administration went on a nuclear spending spree, ordering new nuclear capable bombers (the B1B programme) and new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (the MX system), whilst speeding up deployment of the cruise missile and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (Trident) programmes.
And then something happened to President Reagan. Every new US President since Eisenhower has gone through a briefing on the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). Today it is simply called the Operations Plan (OPLAN). This sets out the targeting policy of the United States in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. One can only imagine how horrendous this must be. President Reagan knew that in the event of an attack on the US all he could was launch an avenging strike against the Soviet Union. But it is one thing to know something intellectually and another to be confronted with it emotionally. President Reagan apparently did respond to it an emotional way. He was also hit with another emotional impact from viewing the US TV film ‘The Day After’ (ABC Circle Films, 1983), a powerful depiction of exactly how terrible a nuclear war might be. Reagan noted in his diary how depressed the film left him feeling. Having voiced his general dissatisfaction with this state of affairs, some of President Reagan’s advisers informed him of recent technological developments that might provide a way out. This was the beginning of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). Put simply, this was the suggestion that the delivery systems of nuclear weapons, chiefly ballistic missiles, could be defeated. The missiles could be shot down before they reached their targets.
Thus, in his speech of March 23 1983, President Reagan asked:
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?
This was two months before the release of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the third Star Wars film. It did not take the media long to re-christen SDI as ‘Star Wars’.
It is important to realise that the idea of ballistic missile defence was not actually new in 1983. In the 1950’s and 60’s both the US and the Soviet Union had developed Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems, which used very fast Surface to Air Missiles (SAM’s) to hit incoming warheads. However, they had not been that successful, either technologically or ideologically. Technologically, the systems employed were impressive on paper, but could be too easily overwhelmed by the other side simply firing more missiles. Since firing more missiles involved mature, existing technology, it was considerably cheaper than improving the defensive systems. Ideologically, the systems suffered from the fact that they could not tolerate much in the way of failure – it was inevitable that some missiles would get through, and even one nuclear warhead hitting a US city would be a tragedy beyond imagining. All the ABM systems seemed to do in practice was drive another arms race by encouraging the construction of more offensive missiles. The 1970’s also saw the emergence of Multiple Independent Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRV’s) as the new warheads of choice on nuclear missiles. Previously a nuclear missile would have one warhead. MIRV’s meant it might now have 8 warheads, each one of which could hit a different target. This instantly increased the burden on ABM systems and made them seem ineffective. This pessimism around ABM systems led to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which effectively froze the development and deployment of such systems by the US and Soviet Union. Ten years later the technology had changed and offered hope that these problems could be overcome. Interceptor missiles were to be replaced with directed energy weapons, which could hit multiple targets at the literal speed of light.
This was how President Reagan found himself recast as a peacemaker. He had not changed from a Hawk to a Dove, just to a different type of Hawk. Star Wars/SDI would not lead to a US where there was no SIOP. Instead, it would change the nature of the SIOP. Rather than massive retaliation, a US president could respond to a Soviet nuclear attack in a far more limited way. This would involve attacks on Soviet military and Communist party infrastructure, whilst Soviet civilians were largely spared. This would defend both US interests whilst also feasibly leading to the collapse of European Communism itself.
There were two problems with this ambitious vision:
The first, was that it was not seen as a defensive system in Moscow. If the US was now to be largely immune from Soviet missile forces, then what was to stop them from initiating a nuclear exchange themselves, secure in the knowledge that the Soviet response would be blunted? Second and perhaps even more troubling for the Reagan Administration, was that the technological problems refused to be solved. Whatever actions the defence took were incredibly expensive and could never hope to approach 100% reliability. The Soviet Union could build more missiles and overwhelm any defensive system. There were also other means of deploying nuclear warheads against US interests – cruise missiles would hide at low level as they approached their targets. It was one thing for a President to announce that nuclear weapons would be rendered obsolete if the US spent enough money on the problem. But once development of the systems began, it soon became clear that nuclear weapons could not be rendered obsolete. Voters proved to be unwilling to support huge spending on systems that promised only marginal improvements in their chances of survival. The SDI ideology only worked if it could make large, definitive promises about nuclear weapons, but the technology simply could not back these up. There was also a feeling on the political left that Reagan’s peacenik credentials were not to be trusted and he might go off on some nuclear backed crusade if the technical problems could be solved. This was exacerbated by an unfortunate statement from Thomas K. Jones, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces. In a 1982 interview with Robert Scheer of The Los Angeles Times, Jones suggested nuclear war was not something he, and by extension the Administration, were that worried about. Asked about how civilians might survive a nuclear war, he stated “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top… It’s the dirt that does it… If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”
As Reagan began his second term in 1985, SDI/Star Wars did not look like it would deliver its earlier promise. Yet geopolitical events conspired to compensate for the disappointing technology. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was a reformer who believed that the terrible economic performance of the Soviet state, its inability to match the West’s technology and its over-reliance on massive defence spending to keep its population under control, all meant that Communism was unsustainable in its current form. Gorbachev never argued for the end of Communism, just its modification. He pursued the twin policies of Perestroika, a series of political and economic reforms meant to improve the economy of the Soviet Union and Glasnost, a new era of transparency and openness on behalf of the Government. What this meant for the West was a Soviet Union that wanted to slash military spending. The best way to do this safely was by ensuring Western cooperation. This took the form of arms control agreements. Gorbachev, Reagan and Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush negotiated the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty’s (START I and START II). The most famous of all these agreements was the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which got rid of an entire class of weapons in a defined theatre of operations. At the 1986 Reykjavík Summit, both sides seriously entertained the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons completely. For Gorbachev this would be dependent on the US abandoning SDI. Reagan was unwilling to concede this and the talks ended.
The complete abandonment of nuclear weapons was never as likely as critics of Reagan’s Reykjavik stance suggested. For one thing, this was not a policy which other NATO member states could agree with. NATO needed nuclear weapons to make up for their numerically inferior conventional forces. The other main problem was that nuclear weapons were a global problem that could not be solved solely by the superpowers. The British and French operated their own independent nuclear deterrent systems. The US had never been happy with this, arguing that the US weapons should be enough. The British and French had further sought to justify their systems by arguing that they were not solely directed at the Soviet Union, but were also designed to protect other national interests, interests the Americans might not share. This would still be true, even if the US and the Soviet Union were able to get rid of their weapons. In the Pacific theatre, China had a sizeable and growing nuclear stockpile. It might conceivably be possible to persuade Britain and France that their systems were no longer needed, but this seemed highly unlikely with respect to China.
Nonetheless, Reagan, an apparently dangerous Hawk when elected to office, was President of the United States when large numbers of nuclear weapons were destroyed. The atmosphere of the Cold War changed and it seemed like peaceful co-existence was possible again. The momentum of arms control that was started under Reagan and Gorbachev carried on through the Bush and Clinton Administrations, before it ended under George W. Bush in 2002.
The event that triggered this was US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty of 1972. SDI had not actually completely gone away. It had morphed into National Missile Defense (NMD). The transition from SDI to NMD involved two fundamental changes of approach, that were both technological and ideological. First, NMD was only designed to defend against small scale missile attacks on the US. These envisaged a so-called ‘rogue state’ or terrorist group developing a long-range missile and equipping it with a Nuclear, Biological, Chemical or Radiological (NBCR) warhead. ‘Rogue state’ is an unhelpful term that implies the state is irrational and cannot be deterred from aggression by the threat of nuclear response. Lists of rogue states often include Iran and North Korea, yet it is hard to see when they have ever acted irrationally. Supporters of NMD nonetheless argue that a rogue state might threaten the US, whilst a terrorist group would launch an attack with no warning. Because these threats or attacks would only involve at most a handful of missiles, the technological problems were much reduced. This also made the ideological arguments easier, this resulting in the second fundamental change: SDI had been an exclusively Republican project, whereas NMD was supported by the Democrats as well. This meant that it actually had a chance of being deployed, whereas SDI depended on the highly unlikely circumstance that the Republicans would control the White House and the Congress for at least 20 years.
National Missile Defense has been deployed by the US, under the auspices of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), formally established in 2002. This programme has thus been a success, at least in the political sense that it has finally led to real hardware being deployed. Whether it is a technological success remains unknown. The system suffers from the weakness that its success cannot really be judged in anything less than the highly fraught circumstance that an attack is launched. Claims that it is a success because it functions as a deterrent are weak: as suggested above, states that were enemies of the US were probably already deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation. Terrorist groups might not be subject to the rationale of deterrence, but the chances they would be able to acquire both of the necessary technologies (ballistic missile and nuclear warhead) without any of the US intelligence agencies noticing seemed slim. The overall problem with NMD is the suspicion that it was designed in reverse: normally a military capability is designed to meet an identifiable military problem. NMD seemed to be a capability that could not meet the original problem for which it was designed, namely a massive Soviet attack on the US. This problem seemed to have in any event disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Yet there had been some technical successes and a lot of money had already been spent. If no system were deployed, this money would be wasted. The ‘solution’ was to find a new application for the technology and thus spend even more money. If you can see the holes in this logic, you are not alone. Thus, NMD emerged as a system that could always do exactly what it was expected to do, whatever that may be at any given time. For example, if an interceptor test revealed that the system was not accurate enough, then the MDA simply redefined the accuracy requirements downwards.
Today it is Russia that is inferior in conventional forces. Russia has long opposed NMD. They are worried that it will potentially lead to a system like the original SDI, ending the security provided by their nuclear weapons. Russia is also concerned with NATO’s expansion on their Western flank. These two trends have combined with the US desire to station MDA systems in Poland. Russian actions in Ukraine may have been directly influenced by this. We can be reasonably confident that NMD has contributed to changes in the international legal obligations of the US and Russia – in 2019, over 30 years of progress in arms control treaties stopped and went into reverse. The US and Russia terminated the INF treaty. In 1992 the Treaty on Open Skies had been concluded by the US, Canada, Russia and around thirty other European states. The Treaty was a confidence building measure, which allowed state parties to send aircraft to overfly the territory of other state parties to ensure they were meeting their international law obligations, chiefly in arms control. In 2021 the US and Russia withdrew from the Treaty, rendering it largely useless. There is one significant arms control treaty still in force – the 2011 New START treaty will now operate until 2026, assuming that neither side decides to abandon it in the light of the deterioration of US-Russia relations caused by the 2022 Russian military operation in Ukraine.
Both the US and Russia are modernizing their nuclear forces, with particular emphasis on the emerging category of hypersonic weapons. The United Kingdom has announced expansion of its planned nuclear forces. Without the impediments of any kind of treaty restrictions at all, other states have developed nuclear weapons and their stockpiles are growing. The ‘nuclear club’ is, in order of accession, the United States (1945), The Soviet Union/Russia (1949), the United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), China (1964), Israel (undeclared, latest probably 1974), India (1998), Pakistan (1998) and North Korea (2006). Concern about Iran developing nuclear capability blinds us to the reality that the club is already larger than it first appears: there are many so called ‘nuclear threshold states’, who have the technology to develop the weapons very quickly, but choose not to for political reasons. Brazil, Japan and South Korea are often given as examples. Japan and South Korea also have space launch vehicle technology, which is essentially the same as that needed for ballistic missiles. In 1996 the International Court of Justice delivered its advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, based on a request from the United Nations General Assembly. There are many problems with the reasoning therein, but these are eclipsed by two simple observations: First, this was only an advisory opinion. It was not legally binding. Second, since the opinion was delivered, in 1996, three more states have joined the nuclear club. The advisory opinion has clearly not had the impact the General Assembly might have hoped.
I would like to conclude with a personal observation. I was eight years old in 1984, during one of the worst periods of tension in the Cold War. In the Summer, my family travelled to Poland for my cousins wedding. The process of getting there and life in Poland were exactly as we had expected it to be. Travelling across the Iron Curtain was very difficult and life in Poland was grim. Shortly after we returned, the BBC broadcast the TV film Threads (BBC, 1984). Threads is an unrelentingly grim depiction of a nuclear attack on the City of Sheffield. My father had been in the Royal Air Force and we lived near many air bases. I have always had an amateur interest in military aviation. In short, I was terrified of nuclear war.
Today, I am terrified again.