Ronald Reagan, one of the most important presidents in American history, advanced a defense policy based on "peace through strength," and "reducing nuclear dangers." In so doing, he dramatically altered the United States' approach to dealing with the Soviet nuclear threat.
President Reagan's successful policies involved not the elimination of all nuclear weapons, but the simultaneous modernization of all legs of America's nuclear Triad in a manner that enhanced national security and strategic stability, while significantly reducing the size of the strategic nuclear arsenals of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He further enhanced America's deterrent by deploying nuclear cruise missiles (SLCMs) on naval ships, and medium-range nuclear missiles and new nuclear artillery in Europe.
Reagan also fundamentally changed the way in which the U.S. negotiates and enforces arms-control agreements. In 1988, his Department of Defense (DoD) submitted a "Report to the Congress on the Analysis of Alternative Nuclear Force Postures for the United States (Unclassified Version)," which contained four possible START treaty force postures, all of which involved having 4,900 ballistic missile warheads and 1,099 accountable bomber weapons. This number of warheads was roughly half of the amount deployed by the U.S. at the time, and those stabilizing reductions were at the heart of the Reagan arms-control revolution. [This report is not available online, but is available from the authors upon request.]
This arms posture vastly differed from that of the SALT agreement process, which had begun in 1972 between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and was scheduled to allow the number of deployed warheads to reach at least 12,000. Of course, the START postures were totally antithetical to the Soviets' proposed nuclear freeze, which would have left a completely modernized Soviet nuclear force in place while the United States nuclear force was "rusting to obsolescence."
Reagan's 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative also revived the moribund U.S. missile defense program of the Carter-era, and began the development of the technologies that today protect the United States against a North Korean nuclear missile attack and defend its forward-based forces and allies against considerable and growing theater missile threats. The U.S. still has a long way to go before achieving a fully capable defense, but it would have none at all if it had remained stuck in the ABM Treaty of 1972, which prohibited a defense of the country – with the exception of a single program to develop no more than 100 short-range interceptors to defend a military base of Minuteman ICBMs.
The 1988 DoD reported cited above stated the following with regard to the Strategic Defense Initiative:
"...if effective defenses prove feasible, the United States intends to alter the strategic relationship with the Soviet Union with a relationship based on a greater reliance on defenses and on less reliance on offensive retaliation.... Furthermore, initial strategic defenses would offer the United States and its allies some protection should deterrence fail, or in the event of an accidental launch.... Finally, given the Soviet Union's record of treaty violations... Defenses will make U.S. security more robust against possible Soviet Union violations of START."
Remember, the world that President Reagan inherited in 1981 was bipolar and very dangerous. Many of the new threats America faces today were already developing then, but they were not considered by most observers at the time as serious threats. The Soviet Union was an ideologically hostile Communist dictatorship in the process of spending itself into oblivion in war preparations made worse by the debilitating effects of socialism.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, then-Russian Defense Minister Colonel General Sergei Ivanov stated that the Soviet military budget in the 1980s reached 40% of its GNP. To compare, peak U.S. military spending in World War II reached 43% of the GNP in one year; it was 10% in the 1950s and declined to 5% under President Jimmy Carter, who created what was called the "hollow army."
Reagan reversed this decline. During his presidency, defense spending peaked at 7% percent of America's GNP. The U.S. used technology to compensate for a massive disparity in the level of effort underway in the Soviet Union. At a critical point in human history, Reagan presented the Soviets with a military challenge that convinced them they could not win, although they never gave up trying. Reagan did not "end history," but he did create the circumstances that ended Communism in Russia and the Soviet empire as a major force in the world.
Faced with a massive Soviet nuclear buildup, Reagan engaged in the most comprehensive U.S. nuclear modernization program since the 1950s. This included programs such as the MX ICBM (later called Peacekeeper), the AGM-86B nuclear ALCM, the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and the Trident II missile.
Pictured: The test-launch of an unarmed Trident II D5 missile from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska off the coast of California. (Image source: U.S. Navy/Ronald Gutridge/Released)
The Reagan administration added the B-2 stealth bomber, SRAM II defense suppression weapons for bombers and tactical aircraft, and the single warhead Midgetman ICBM. While limited compared to those of the Soviets, these programs formed the core of a very effective deterrent.
Reagan's planned U.S. strategic nuclear force was eventually reduced by 85% in terms of warhead numbers under the Moscow Treaty and the New START Treaty between the United States and Russia. But while a fully modernized strategic deterrent could have been built even at these lower warhead numbers, many systems -- such as the Peacekeeper, the Advanced Cruise Missile, the nuclear capability of the B-1 bomber, the B-2 bomber (stopped at 20 planes rather than 120) and the SRAM II program -- were terminated by subsequent administrations.
We believe that while Reagan would have adjusted our nuclear deterrence requirements downward at the end of the Cold War, he never would have allowed a more than 20-year gap in U.S. deterrent modernization or never would have allowed Russia to get a 10-fold advantage in non-strategic nuclear weapons.
The current dangerous Russian 10-to-1 advantage in non-strategic nuclear weapons is largely the result of the unilateral Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) of 1991-1992. According to General (ret.) Colin Powell, in his autobiography My American Journey, when he proposed the unilateral elimination of U.S. nuclear artillery, all four service chiefs of staff of the armed forces opposed it. Powell also said that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) policy staff, from "Wolfowitz all the way down," as well as then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, "rejected my proposal." According to Powell, President George H.W. Bush "began pushing us for more fresh thinking on arms control." The "fresh thinking" involved important but unilateral nuclear weapons reductions without: (1) legal obligations to secure complimentary Russian cuts; (2) verification measures; or (3) Congressional approval of the cut in American nuclear forces.
Indeed, most of the weapons that were pulled out of Europe and dismantled as a result of the PNIs -- including ship-launched cruise missiles -- had been built and put there by the Reagan administration. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review confirms reports going back to 2004 that, "Russia is in violation of its...political commitments that directly affect the security of others, including... the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives." These eliminated America's battlefield nuclear weapons and many other nuclear capabilities, while Russia violated its reciprocal pledge to do the same.
The PNIs have contributed to the current security crisis in Europe, as well. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea 2014, NATO Deputy Commander Lt. General Sir Adrian Bradshaw stated that the NATO rapid deployment force must be armed not only with conventional weapons, but also with the same weapons that Russia has. Thanks to the PNIs, tactical nuclear weapons exist in the Russian Army but not in that of the U.S. Perhaps, if the Reagan non-strategic nuclear deterrent existed in Europe today, even in much smaller numbers, Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have said in 2014, "If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too."
Reagan took deterrence of nuclear war very seriously. He saw both nuclear weapons and missile defense as part of America's deterrent strategy and as a hedge against arms control violations. His nuclear modernization programs were not created to finance the military industrial complex, as some have alleged; the modernization effort was undertaken for deterrence purposes. The Soviet nuclear threat was very real. In fact, it was even worse than we thought at the time. Since the end of the Cold War, significant portions of the Warsaw Pact war plan have become available online, and as a result, we know that the Soviets planned on a large-scale first use of nuclear weapons against NATO in support of a ground offensive designed to win and conquer Western Europe. It exercised this capability in its war games. In 2005, Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said, "The objective of the exercise on this map is to take over most of western Europe -- all of Germany, Belgium and Denmark."
In January 1983, in his annual report to the Congress for Fiscal Year 1984, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stated, "If we are to maintain a responsible nuclear deterrent against attacks on our allies, as well as against nuclear attacks on the United States, we will need to continue to exploit our comparative advantage in technology." Since that time, however, the United States has allowed the deployed technology to regress through program terminations, the retirement of some of the most of advanced of the Reagan-era nuclear deterrent systems and the complete lack of modernization. Due to the underfunding of the Defense Department during the presidency of Barack Obama, the Pentagon warned that the U.S. was losing its lead in technology -- and not merely nuclear technology. The Obama administration left office with a military in a condition of degraded combat readiness. In contrast, the Reagan administration left office with a military that in 1991 demolished Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's army in four days of ground-fighting and a subsequent decade of relative peace.
Today, Russia and China not only have massive nuclear modernization programs, but also precision nuclear missiles, while the U.S. does not. Russian deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons on its strategic missiles was reported in the Russian state media as early as 2008. In 2016, the Obama administration told Congress that the Chinese had announced the existence of a nuclear version of the DF-26 IRBM, which would give China "...nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets."
Who would have believed in the 1980s that this was going to happen? Who would have believed that the U.S. government, in 2010, would list the deterrence of nuclear attack as the third of five nuclear weapons-related objectives? The answer is: anyone who understood the significance of America's foolishly abandoning Reagan's sensible and realistic policies on nuclear deterrence.
Let it be a cautionary tale for the current administration in Washington.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.