Editor’s note: What follows is exclusively adapted from a longer essay that was published as a part of the Ronald Reagan Institute’s Essay Series on Presidential Principles and Beliefs which is premised on the conviction that President Reagan’s words and ideas hold important lessons for today. You can find more about the essay series here.
At the height of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan had the foresight to call upon the nation to support the Strategic Defense Initiative, later known as the “Star Wars” defense system, to protect the United States from a potential USSR missile attack.
Due to fierce Democrat opposition, our nation never fully built out our missile defense capability and doubled down on nuclear deterrence. We have relied upon our adversaries’ fear that our nuclear weapons could destroy them to deter their use of nuclear weapons against us or our allies. The result has been that our cities and populace remain unprotected from a nuclear attack from Russia or China.
Today, China, Russia, North Korea and Iran continue to invest in technologies to expand their capabilities to hit the United States with nuclear weapons. All four countries have also escalated their threatening rhetoric, indicating their willingness to use nuclear weapons in a military conflict. By expanding their nuclear programs, each has made clear that our nuclear arsenal is no longer a deterrent to their potential use of nuclear weapons.
Concept art shows a hypersonic missile fired from a B-52 Stratofortress off the Southern California coast, Dec. 9, 2022. (Lockheed Martin )
If deterrence is dead, then the concept of mutually assured destruction is obsolete and comprehensive missile defense must be revisited as an essential capability to protect our citizens.
In 1983, Reagan was harshly criticized for his vision, yet in 2023 a layered missile defense system has proven cost-effective and de-escalatory, as demonstrated by the jointly produced and fully functioning U.S.-Israel “Iron Dome.” More federal investments are needed to scale up existing capabilities in the United States to meet the threats from adversaries and rogue states. Unlike in Reagan’s era, threats are now omnipresent and coming from all directions.
In April 2020, Iran successfully launched its first military satellite into orbit. This was a demonstration of Tehran’s advancing capabilities signaling their continued efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can transverse the Atlantic to reach our shores.
A TV screen shows footage of a North Korea missile launch during a news program at the Yongsan Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan. 1, 2023. (Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
In the Pacific, North Korea continues to expand its missile program and has unveiled several new ICBM and anti-ship missiles in recent years, conducting over 90 launches in 2022 alone.
Near-peer threats present a more systemic challenge than attacks from rogue states. Russia’s ICBM force consists of 310 missiles that can carry upwards of 1,189 warheads. Recent assessments indicate the Russians have stockpiled up to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons.
China, however, poses the greatest threat. According to Pentagon analysis, the Chinese Communist Party will likely have a stockpile of nearly 1,500 warheads by 2035 if it continues with its current nuclear buildout and now has more ICBM launchers than the United States. China is also developing a land-attack cruise missile designed to be fired from a launcher disguised as a commercial shipping container.
We only have ourselves to blame. Our current vulnerabilities are the product of conflicting political priorities and our own shortsightedness as missile defense took a back seat to other national issues after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The focus dissipated for the next decade.
After 9/11, the George W. Bush administration revived missile defense with its deployment of ground-based midcourse defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against intermediate- to long-range ballistic missiles targeting Europe or the U.S.
In 2009, the Obama administration scrapped this plan, opting to adopt a short- and medium-range missile defense architecture instead of an ICBM-focused posture. Then it canceled key parts of its own plan, leaving the U.S. and Europe vulnerable to an array of threats and potential nuclear coercion by adversaries.
The Trump administration correctly re-prioritized homeland missile defense as a central component of its National Defense Strategy in 2018.
But despite a war in Europe and the increasing adversary capabilities, the Biden administration has shown a lack of foresight. In its 2021 Missile Defense Review, President Biden ignored our defense industrial base supply chain issues and emerging technologies such as directed energy.
The consequences of these policy decisions are a current missile defense posture that can sense threats from North Korea and Iran but not China or Russia. It employs a variety of ground, air and sea-based sensor systems to intercept at the midcourse and terminal flight phases, but it is not capable of countering the next generation of nuclear threats, some of which are deployable now.
A Russian navy boat launches an anti-ship missile test in the Peter the Great Gulf in the Sea of Japan on March 28, 2023. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
Given advancements by our adversaries, the U.S. and its allies must invest in a modernized, scalable and integrated missile defense system that can sense threats early and intercept them at every stage.
In addition to the sensors that are already in place, we need networked, space-based sensors and radar satellites to track all relevant threats, including hypersonic cruise missiles. We should invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning systems to develop the ability to track and rapidly parse through the information provided by these enhanced sensors to ensure as much decision time and as many interception opportunities as possible.
Finally, projects such as the Glide Phase Interceptor and Glide Breaker show promise in countering hypersonic cruise missiles in their glide phase—the toughest flight phase to intercept. The Biden administration should accelerate this research and testing.
Our adversaries’ advancements require us to invest in scalable, effective defensive capabilities to protect us against any attack from anywhere in the world. With political and financial fortitude, we can protect our sovereignty and citizens. Ultimately, we can achieve President’s Reagan vision of a world free from the threat of mutually assured destruction at the hands of tyrants and rogue actors.