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Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) speech in 1983 launched a program to eliminate the threat posed by a nuclear attack and set the groundwork for today’s missile defense system. On March 19, The Heritage Foundation and the George C. Marshall Institute co-hosted an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of this speech.

Moderator Kim R. Holmes, distinguished fellow at Heritage, noted that 30 years following President Reagan’s speech on his visionary idea, despite growing worldwide threats from ballistic missiles, the United States still does not have a comprehensive ballistic missile defense system.

Two expert panels included strategic defense analysts from the Reagan Administration to the present. They discussed the challenges of protecting our nation and how a ground- and space-based missile defense system is needed now, more than ever.

Ambassador Henry Cooper, President Reagan’s chief negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks, who successfully defended SDI in negotiations with the Soviet Union, recalled how Reagan had expressed doubts about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). He stressed the importance of continuing to focus on the growing threat of ballistic missiles instead of depending on arms control treaties to protect the U.S. “We abide by the agreements we make,” the ambassador warned. “Those who don’t wish us well don’t.”

Ambassador Cooper is known for his work on the pro-missile-defense group High Frontier, which played a key role in developing the framework for SDI programs. Both Cooper and Sven Kraemer, director of arms control at the National Security Council from 1981 to 1987, argued that the 9/11 attacks underscored the need for global missile defenses, which are essential for achieving Reagan’s central theme of “peace through strength.

General Henry A. “Trey” Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency, explained how the cancelled missile defense site in Poland would have provided a much-needed “shoot-look-shoot” capability to the United States East Coast.

Asked why missile defense is not a more central tenet to the protection of the nation today, Lee Edwards, Heritage’s distinguished fellow in conservative thought, answered, “It is a question of leadership. The reason there is a missile defense at all today is because of Ronald Reagan.”

Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, citing the accelerated interest in the world toward building missile defenses, warned that “we are not where we need to be.”

Ambassador Robert Joseph, senior scholar for the National Institute for Public Policy and special assistant to President Bush for homeland defense, agreed, noting that while vision is essential, it is certainly not sufficient. To succeed, the nation must win the intellectual debate over missile defense first.

Senator Mike Rogers (R–AL), chairman of the important Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, concurred, stating that President Obama has not made protection of U.S. territory through missile defense a priority. Senator Rogers supports the testing of the controversial boost-phase intercept missile for feasibility.

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R–NH) called SDI “a great national undertaking,” saying it was “achievably necessary to protect the American people, especially in light of recent threats emanating from North Korea.” Senator Ayotte charged that investments have to be made now against future threats, adding, “Let’s get ahead of the threat, as Reagan said. If we wait for a threat to fully emerge, it will be too late.”

Heritage’s Baker Spring laid out for the audience how, if President Obama gets this issue wrong, it could be devastating to the nation.

The principles that Reagan laid out in his 1983 speech are an important legacy to this country. As General Obering stated, “We need a comprehensive, layered defense, balancing near-term capabilities with future development.” According to The Heritage Foundation, the best comprehensive plan for a new missile defense would improve the current Aegis sea-based system, integrate elements of existing radars and ground- and sea-based missile defenses, and develop and deploy space-based defenses.

Jordan Harms is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.