President Trump’s recent executive order, “Establishment of the United States Space Force,” represents a major positive turn in U.S. national security policy. In many ways, this new order is as significant as was President Reagan’s famous March 23, 1983 “Star Wars” speech leading to his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that “got the attention” of the Russians — and was cited by many as a basic reason for ending the Cold War.
Section 1 importantly states: “The Department of Defense shall take actions to marshal its space resources to deter and counter threats in space.” Section 3 elaborates: “the United States Space Force should enable prompt and sustained offensive and defensive space operations.”
And now at issue: Framing programmatic and policy actions to protect us from the 1) almost daily new nuclear threats coming from Russia’s President Putin and his generals (e.g., hypersonic threats), and 2) blatant Russian violations of key nuclear arms control treaties.
So how do we best implement the president’s new Space Force executive order, from both policy and systems viewpoints?
In this context, we recall with a strong sense of deja vu, the valuable lessons from the 1970s and 1980s: The ‘70s brought us the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) Treaty and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements — and associated Soviet violations.
Like in this past decade, agreed limits only legitimized major increases in the Soviet nuclear threat. Soviet intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) got bigger and bigger — and carried more and more nuclear warheads, referred to as Multiple Independently-targeted Reentry Vehicles (“MIRVs”).
President Reagan changed the name of the game — he sought “reductions” instead of “limits” — and charged his “Strategic Arms Reduction Talks” (START) negotiators to reduce nuclear arms.
Meanwhile, the Soviets were deploying SS-20 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) threatening NATO and all of Western Europe. So, Mr. Reagan built our own Intermediate Range Nuclear Force (INF) systems — Pershing II IRBMs and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) — and in October 1983 began deploying them in five West European nations with the full support from our NATO allies.
The Soviets immediately “walked out” of all ongoing arms control negotiations and launched an unsuccessful global propaganda campaign (echoed by the arms control community) seeking to defeat President Reagan and leaders of all the NATO INF deployment nations. All were re-elected in 1984.
Highly publicized SDI efforts had begun demonstrating technology to defeat the growing Soviet ICBM and INF threat. President Reagan sought cooperative measures to overturn the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) policies that underpinned Cold War realities. He poignantly asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives, than to avenge them?”
After their failed propaganda campaign, these conditions led the Soviets in March 1985 to join the “new” Nuclear and Space Talks (NST), which restored the START and INF negotiations and initiated the “Defense and Space Talks” (DST), focused on President Reagan’s vision for truly effective strategic defenses - especially those based in space.
While the Soviets emphasized that SDI would “undermine strategic stability and lead to an arms race in space”, many believed their concerns about SDI brought them back to the negotiating table.
Then SDIO director, USAF Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, visited us in Geneva and elaborated anticipated advances with the Soviets. He strengthened our case against Soviet arguments that SDI would precipitate a destabilizing arms race in space, this because our technological edge clearly would assure our ability to cost-effectively counter anticipated Soviet advances.
Perhaps the most important lesson was that SDI planned space-based defenses could intercept Soviet ballistic missiles in their “boost-phase” — as they rise from their launch pads while their rockets still burn and before they could release offensive countermeasures. This capability would neutralize Soviet large MIRVED ICBMs — motivating an eventual agreement to eliminate such systems, at least for a time.
Our case was reinforced by a widely publicized September 1986 “proof-of-principle” experiment: “Delta 180” demonstrated in space that then-existing technology could intercept ballistic missiles in their “boost phase,” long seen as the most effective defense against likely offensive countermeasures.
Notably, current Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin was key in designing and conducting Delta 180 and subsequent SDI experiments in space extending those lessons over 30 years ago —l essons he surely recalls. A month after Delta 180, President Reagan demonstrated his SDI commitment by walking out of the Reykjavik Summit, when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev demanded that SDI limit its research on space-based systems to the laboratory, which would have gutted the most important SDI advancements.
Nevertheless, Mr. Reagan “pocketed” Mr. Gorbachev’s concessions that formed the substance of future INF and START Treaties: Major reductions in offensive nuclear forces, and eventual elimination of highly “MIRVED” ICBMs. However, when these treaties expired, we had not built the space-based defenses that could shoot down highly MIRVED ICBMs.
And, guess what? The Russians have — again — built large highly MIRVED ICBMs that again threaten us. And we are — again — and just as in the early 1980s, recovering from a “hollowing out” of our military capabilities.” Deja vu again.
We should also “go back to the future.” To build — with today’s even more advanced and less expensive technology advanced by the private sector — the space-based interceptors pursued 30 years ago, before former Defense Secretary Les Aspin “took the stars out of Star Wars” in 1993. President Trump’s visionary new space policy directive is exactly the “propellant” this critical work needs.
• Henry F. Cooper, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, and Daniel J. Gallington served in a series of senior national security related positions including the Nuclear and Space talks with the Soviet Union.