The National Interest | September 29, 2017
By Dave Majumdar

In recent weeks, Russia has conducted a number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests with experimental payloads that are designed to penetrate advanced missile defenses. The idea is to ensure that Russian nuclear weapons can reach their targets even in the event that their targets are protected by a missile shield—even if such a defense system does not currently exist.

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The only other option for the Russians to defeat a full-up missile shield would be to increase the number of offensive weapons—which would overwhelm any defenses. Indeed, Reagan was well aware of Soviet sensitivities in this regard when he first began negotiations with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. According to former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, the two sides came very close to a deal to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether at the Reykjavík Summit in 1986—the only sticking point being the SDI or Star Wars program.

“One thing should have been clear from the beginning of the SDI debate: there was no possibility that any country could devise an impenetrable missile-defense shield so reliable that it could be counted on to repel a massive retaliatory attack,” Matlock wrote in his book Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.

“The best that any conceivable strategic defense could do was to intercept a small number of missiles, perhaps launched by accident or by rogue governments, or to eliminate a sufficient proportion of a large salvo to make it impossible for an enemy to plan a disabling first strike with confidence. In other words, a successful system might degrade an adversary’s offense even if it was less than 100 percent effective.”

Had that been clear to all concerned in Reykjavik in 1986, the world might have turned out to be a quite a different place than the we live in.