'Darth Vader's' Advice on Missile Defense

On Tuesday, “Darth Vader” Vice President Dick Cheney explained that to make the Democrats’ 3 a.m. presidential crisis calls unnecessary,  we need to move forward with President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 plan to neutralize the threat of ballistic missiles. 

At a Heritage Foundation dinner celebrating the 25th anniversary of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (then labeled derisively as “Star Wars” by Sen. Ted Kennedy)  keynote speaker Vice President Cheney began by saying, “Well, if we’re going to talk about Star Wars, we might as well invite Darth Vader.” 

Last fall, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said, “You can always tell when the Republicans are getting restless, because the vice president’s motorcade pulls into the capitol, and Darth Vader emerges.” Darth Vader, a fictional character from the movie Star Wars Universe, is the brutal head enforcer of the Galactic Empire’s rule.

Cheney used the opportunity to jab at the Democrats’ recent television campaign ads concerning who voters would want to answer the White House phone if a crisis occurs in the middle of the night.  “In the ongoing political campaign, there’s been discussion recently about 3 a.m. phone calls,” Cheney said.  “We all hope that a commander in chief never has to pick up the line and be told that a ballistic missile is headed toward the United States.”

That was also one of Reagan’s nightmares which explains the ballistic missile defense proposal.  On March 23, 1983, President Reagan asked the American people “Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability?”

Reagan was referring to the strategic calculus of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the nuclear strategic doctrine that prevailed at the time between the United States and the Soviet Union.  He called such thinking a “… sad commentary on the human condition.”  Rather than rest our security on“… instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack,” the president rightly suggested we ought to have the means to “… intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil.”

That evening the president challenged the scientific community to “… turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

Predictably, the New York Times labeled SDI a “pipe dream” while others criticized Reagan’s vision as potentially disrupting the MAD strategic doctrine.  Complicating this argument was the fact that MAD only covered intentional nuclear attacks not accidental launches, rogue launches or launches by non-state entities.

The Reagan proposal’s impact was far reaching and positive, however, confounding the Soviets and accelerating our victory in the Cold War.  When President Reagan met Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, “Gorbachev demanded that the United States commit to never deploying SDI.  Reagan refused,” Cheney said.

The vice president explained that there was “simply no way the Soviet Union was going to defeat an America so confident in its purposes, and so determined to defend itself against nuclear terror.”  Cheney believes Reagan’s SDI vision places him “among our greatest presidents.”

Since 1983, SDI has morphed through a variety of technologically challenging ground-based and space-based approaches to protect the U.S. from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. 

Reagan’s SDI vision of “… ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war” remains the central thrust of the Bush administration’s anti-ballistic missile effort.  The threat from ballistic missiles is growing.  The vice president explained that in 1972 only nine countries had ballistic missiles.  Today, at least 27 countries have missile arsenals. These include some that are hostile and actively support terrorist groups. 

He specifically cited three that threaten America.  North Korea is “… developing an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] with the potential of striking American mainland with a nuclear warhead,” Cheney said.  Iran “continues to develop technologies that could lead to its building an ICBM capable of striking the U.S. in the next decade.”  Syria receives “assistance from North Korea in building up its missile forces” and Iran has used Syria to build-up the terror group Hezbollah’s “sizable rocket force” which threatens Israel.

This backdrop bolster’s the Bush administration’s urgent effort to defend America against credible ballistic missile threats.   Those efforts began in 2000 with then-candidate Bush’s promise to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

President Bush followed through on that promise by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and unleashing our scientists in 2001 to protect America.  One of the signatories — the Soviet Union — no longer existed.  Bush like Reagan rebuffed his protesting Russian counterpart saying America would “… reduce the danger of nuclear war,” as Reagan promised.

Vice President Cheney told the Heritage audience that the Bush administration has lived up to its promise to provide a missile defense.  The Patriot anti-missile system which was first successfully used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War has been radically improved and today it is deployed across the world defending both US and allied interests.  Our Aegis combat system, an integrated single ship weapons system, has proven effective in tests and recently succeeded in bringing down a dying satellite, the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-21 Radarsat. 

In 2004, the Bush administration deployed 10 interceptors to launch sites at Vandenberg AFB, California and Fort Greely, Alaska.  These missiles are linked to a rapidly growing network of ground and space-based sensors. 

Cheney explained that the administration is pushing for the deployment of a limited interceptor and radar system in Europe to counter the growing Iranian threat.  This effort, predictably, has run into Russian resistance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denies the existence of an Iranian threat and protests that our proposed system threatens Moscow’s own deterrent.  The US, to no avail, has tried to accommodate Russian sensitivities by offering to work with Moscow’s military on missile defense and  to share an early-warning center as well as various technologies.

Next week, Russian leaders will host top US officials seeking to ease Moscow’s concerns.  That meeting will pave the way for next month’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Bucharest, Romania, where Bush and Putin are expected to discuss the issue.  In preparation, Bush should re-read the transcript of Reagan’s 1986 meeting with Gorbachev.

“It’s plain to see that the world around us gives ample reason to continue working on missile defense,” Cheney explained.  “We all hope that a commander in chief never has to pick up the line and be told that a ballistic missile is heading toward the United States.”  The Bush administration must continue its missile defense effort to include one in Europe and as “Darth Vader” Cheney said, so the next president has the best tool to “blow that missile out of the sky.”