NBC News reports that The United States military’s Missile Defense Agency launched an ICBM from a test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. The MDA then launched an interceptor missile from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The interceptor shot down the ICBM high over the Pacific, a first of its kind accomplishment meant to send a signal to North Korea that its missile development effort is being conducted in vain. The interception and destruction of the ICBM were long in coming and could not have come at a better time.

The Strategic Defense Initiative

An effort to develop an ABM system in the 1960s had run into opposition from congressional Democrats opposed to defense spending. President Richard Nixon ended such efforts with the ABM Treaty with the Soviet Union that limited the deployment of such systems. On March 23, 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative with the goal of making nuclear tipped ICBMs obsolete. The idea was that a multilayer defense using laser weapons in space would make a massive nuclear attack on the American homeland ineffective. The SDI effort was derided by Democrats as “Star Wars.” The effort, while it never deployed a single weapon, created lots of research and development.

It also incentivized the Soviets to become serious about arms control.

After the Cold War

With the end of the Cold War, President Bill Clinton downgraded missile defense efforts, renaming the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and revived missile defense efforts with a view toward stopping an attack from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.

President Barack Obama slowed down development of a missile defense system, canceling the deployment of a facility in Eastern Europe designed to defend against an attack from Iran. R&D continued on a more modest defense that had been conceived during the Reagan SDI-era.

North Korea and Iran current threat

The ongoing effort by North Korea to develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States plus a more long-term threat from Iran has placed the issue of missile defense back in focus.

Sea-based systems using Aegis and airborne lasers are being developed as well as long range land based systems such as the one just tested. The immediacy of the threat has muted traditional Democratic opposition to missile defense. It looks like Reagan’s long ago dream of making nuclear-tipped missiles obsolete is starting to become a reality.