“A new hope for our children in the 21st century”

Tomorrow afternoon (Monday, February 7th, 2011), the first Monday in February, President Obama will deliver his Fiscal Year 2012 Presidential Budget to the Congress. This is the opening act of our annual budgetary tango, with copious debate over the coming months of the necessary trades between programs.

On March 23rd, 1983, a few weeks after President Reagan presented his Fiscal 1984 budget to Congress, he gave his famous “Star Wars Speech” to a national televised audience. Although “Star Wars” was the derisive name opponents used to mock the fantastic nature of the President’s vision, President Reagan’s speech was singularly focused on restoring American military strength and credibility — and to “… pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the [nuclear] weapons themselves.”

Ironically, unlike President Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University that was fully focused on the seemingly-impossible challenge of putting a man on the moon (and Rice defeating Texas in football), Reagan’s “… call [to] the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents … to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete” warranted only a couple of sentences in an otherwise lengthy speech.

Rather, this speech was part of “…a careful, long-term plan to make America strong again after too many years of neglect and mistakes,” and (when coupled with President Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando just two weeks prior) was a deliberate escalation of Cold War rhetoric.

President Reagan was rightfully concerned that the defense budget had been “trimmed to the limits of safety” by Congress. This decay of U.S. armed forces led Reagan “…to improve the basic readiness and staying power of our conventional forces, so they could meet – and therefore help deter – a crisis.” But his confidence in the logic of deterrence had limits. The Star Wars Speech presented to the world Reagan’s realization that deterrence based solely on commensurate offensive capabilities was fallacious.

“Over the course of these discussions, I have become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence…. Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them? 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!”

The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO, precursor to today’s Missile Defense Agency) was founded the following year, 1984. Reagan realized the complexity of the task, noting in his speech that it “… may not be accomplished before the end of this century.” Yet the U.S. Army PATRIOT terminal defense system performed admirably in early 1991 during DESERT STORM, and today’s U.S. Navy Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) has been used to destroy a failing satellite (Operation BURNT FROST, February 2008) as well as form the future foundation of land-based European missile defense and our nation’s “Phased Adaptive Approach”.

The magnitude of the technical challenge caused many to blanche in 1983, and to ridicule the President. Yet today’s successes would never have been possible if President Reagan had not had the faith to “… [launch] an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.”

For that, we have “… a new hope for our children in the 21st century.”

Crossposted to Wizards of Oz

2 thoughts on ““A new hope for our children in the 21st century””

  1. Shane,

    Great post – since you have been involved in this area for a significant part of your professional career, and you studied physics under Edward Teller, how would Teller view the evolution of strategic defense from the original vision that he and Reagan shared?

  2. I think Teller would have been disappointed with the progress in non-kinetic capabilities. Hans Bethe was right when, after a visit to O Group at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in 1983, when he critiqued the X-Ray Laser as having profound engineering challenges to overcome. But the improvements in booster technologies have made Ascent-phase intercept a reality, and the amazing precision afforded by our C4ISR architecture (linking X-band sensors with communication grids to decision centers) means that today we have a reliable defense against limited (or accidental) launches.

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