Few people now will recall when U.S. President Ronald Reagan introduced missile defense in his Strategic Defense Initiative speech in March 1983, that it was met with worldwide criticism. Despite the false claims that he was starting a new arms race and was undermining mutual assured destruction, he succeeded in establishing a program that has spent over $200 billion in the past 37 years. Despite this, it does not yet provide the level of protection envisaged by the president, and recent changes to the program outlined by Patty-Jane Geller will not get missile defense right, as claimed in a Defense News commentary.

By proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, the president was seeking a way of avoiding the necessity of possibly being called upon to launch a nuclear counterstrike in response to a Soviet attack. He was also seeking a non-nuclear defense, vastly different to the early defenses that America and the Soviets had developed in the late 1960s, both utilizing nuclear defensive weapons to destroy an incoming nuclear attack.

The American Safeguard system was soon dismantled, but the Soviet nuclear-based defense was retained and is still operated by Russia.

Much of the opposition to SDI at the inception was the fear that America already had the ability to deploy an effective defense and could quickly become a dominant super power. Allies feared that their security that remained under the shelter of America’s extended nuclear deterrence might cease once American territory was protected.

The Soviets on the other hand feared that America, with an effective defense, could be free to preemptively attack them. All misconceptions, but the Soviet concern was sufficient to contribute toward the fall of the Soviet empire as it attempted to rival the SDI program.

The program soon revealed that without speed-of-light weapons like space-based lasers or other particle beam interceptors to destroy attacking objects, there was no way to defeat a massive Soviet attack.

Nonetheless, to get closer to President Reagan’s objectives, it would still be essential for a defense to be capable of intercepting attacking missiles from wherever they are launched at all stages of their flight. This need for a layered defense is a recognition that intercepting an attack in stages enables the defense to approach a higher degree of effectiveness.

After Reagan left office, successive U.S. administrations concentrated on terminal — often referred to as theater defense. This represented the least complex task of a layered defense through use of ground-based interceptors that could destroy attacking warheads as they approached their intended target. The thinking was that this limited capability could be extended by the development of longer-range and higher-flying interceptors to interact in the midcourse of their flight. These ground-based interceptors were supplemented by ship-based systems that could be forward-deployed, as could other land-based systems if deployed on allied territory closer to expected launch points.

Despite these successes, early interception during launch phase has been neglected.

What does it take to destroy an ICBM?

An animation from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency shows the steps involved in intercepting and destroying and intercontinental ballistic missile.

The ability to intercept targets during the early stages of flight cannot be overstressed. Modern missiles can carry multiple warheads and also deploy penetration aids that can confuse defense sensors. During the ascent phase, these warheads and decoys remain under the protection of a shield on the missile to prevent their being overheated during passage through the atmosphere.

The capability of intercepting the missile during the ascent phase has two enormous advantages: There is only one target, and after interception all the radioactive debris would be returned to the point of origin. Once the missile reaches the outer level of the atmosphere and dispenses its payload, the defense has to cope with multiple potential targets. And the even if successful, the radioactive material may fall on allied territory. If the interception is very late in the trajectory, the material could contaminate the target area in America.

The development of an overarching architecture also represents an essential step on the route to an effective defense. Unfortunately, this requirement was not pursued from the start. Instead, the three services with the resources were allowed to develop their own sensors and interceptors, and follow their own procedures. Attempts to achieve compatibility later have not been successful.

There are reports that Israel has achieved an integrated system that can cope with a broad spectrum of targets, from maneuvering ballistic missiles to simple drones. This will be a national system and include intercepting strategic missiles, cruise missiles and short-range threats — which is terribly important because systems designed to deal with specific threats can share data and hand off targets to different tiers of the defense.

Another outstanding example of neglecting critical deficiencies is that the formation of a new military organization, Space Command, included no mention of the need to develop space-based interceptors for strategic defense. A development program called Brilliant Pebbles was in progress but was canceled by Congress in 1993, and the need for a space-based component has been ignored since; this, despite the total civil and military dependence upon satellites that could be protected by such a system.

Russia and China work assiduously on systems to attack our orbiting capabilities. The lack of forward thinking in this area is beyond stupid. Our opponents have been developing systems to incapacitate or destroy the satellites on which we are so reliant, while we refuse to develop a capability that could significantly enhance our strategic defense and help protect our satellites.

We still rely on deterrence for our security, but as proliferation of nuclear warhead capabilities continues, we would be more secure if our ability to avoid nuclear war was to be reinforced by an effective defense. Deterrence can be effective when applied to rational opponents such as Russia and China, possibly less so with Iran and North Korea, and totally ineffective against a nonstate organization that might be offered offensive systems at some time.

An effective defense coupled with deterrence enhances security, and there is no reason the United States should lack such security. It is time the administration and those in Congress faced these realities and supported the long-overdue and delayed development of an effective missile defense.

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.