Governments and populations have expressed concern about the possible wider utilization of nuclear weapons since the first ones were used in an effective means to end the war with Japan in August 1945. Within a few short years, all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States — were developing nuclear warhead capabilities. They collaborated in 1968 to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, in an attempt to prevent further proliferation. The NPT came into effect in 1970 when sufficient members of the U.N. had signed onto the restrictions of the treaty.
Despite the hope that a treaty could prevent further proliferation, scientists and engineers involved in the program recognized that while the treaty might slow proliferation, it would not stop it. Instead, considerable effort was devoted to the development of theories of deterrence in the hope that the possession of sufficient numbers of nuclear warheads together with the ability to deliver them to the territory of potential enemies would prevent use of these systems because of the threat of overwhelming retaliation.
These concepts led to the acquisition of thousands of warheads by the Soviets and the United States, and a standoff referred to as MAD, or mutual assured destruction, evolved. This established policy did not satisfy Ronald Reagan when he became U.S. president. In March 1983, he introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, in which he suggested that advancing technology could be harnessed to develop a strategic defense that could intercept attacking missiles before they could deliver their warheads.
While offensive systems have improved, making the task of intercepting incoming missiles more difficult, defensive systems have remained tactical rather than strategic. Improvements are being made, and others are planned, but the gap between offensive and defensive capabilities appears to have broadened toward offensive.
We were both heavily involved in the advancement of the SDI program, while recognizing that neither the NPT nor the SDI could solve the problem of world security in the longer term. In a commentary published by Defense News in September 2003, we noted that despite international agreements designed to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, both areas remained growth industries.
There was every likelihood that unscrupulous nations and even terrorists would acquire these systems. The theories of deterrence that the U.S. and others had relied upon for so long have since been usurped by nations long considered third-world countries. North Korea provided an example by claiming to have a nuclear capability, thus providing itself an insurance to prevent the U.S. from taking military action against the government as we had against Iraq in March 2003.
We noted that it was strange that reputable scientists and congressional leaders refused to acknowledge that proliferation had made us all far less secure in this multipolar world. We considered that missile defense might provide an interim response, but it was equally important that studies should be initiated on survival in this new environment.
Three years later in another commentary in Defense News, it was noted that while proliferation had continued, there had been little improvement in meeting the prime objectives of missile defense — a capability of intercepting attacking missiles of all ranges — thus providing protection for the U.S., for allies and for deployed forces. No new thinking had been advanced for secure survival in a multipolar world in which the unthinkable might be fast arriving.
In an attempt to change the reliance on the failing policy of preventing further proliferation, it was suggested a measured assured response strategy, or MARS, needed to be developed. We’ve also proposed that as other nations recognize the inability of the leading world powers to work cooperatively to prevent further proliferation, they have in effect been offered a lifeline to their own deterrent strategy by acquiring a nuclear capability.
Drastic new thinking had to be introduced to change the direction of proliferation.
Four years later, the situation had deteriorated further as the Obama administration attempted to introduce the concept of the elimination of nuclear warheads, a laudable concept that to the initiated appeared to be unachievable.
Reports in May 2010 noted that a recently released Nuclear Posture Review placed greatest emphasis on preventing further proliferation — a policy that was failing in plain sight.
We are now approaching 2020, 37 years after President Reagan introduced SDI. Despite expending at least $300 billion on the program now managed by the Missile Defense Agency, the prime objectives of the Reagan initiative are nowhere close to achievement. This failure is due principally to a lack of policy guidance to aim for the above-mentioned prime requirement of intercepting all missiles of all ranges regardless of their launch point.
With available technology, this prime objective could only be achieved with space-based interceptors, a strategy that has been studiously ignored. Thus, the interim solution of providing some security through missile defense remains unachieved, while the longer-term concept of changing from MAD to MARS remains totally dormant. All in all, it’s a very sad reflection on multiple U.S. administrations that have failed to provide much-needed leadership.
Stanley Orman is the founding director general of U.K. participation in the Strategic Defense Initiative program. Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Eugene Fox served as deputy director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.