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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2004

The genius of 'Freedom Man'

HIS enemies, and many of his friends (including me) failed to appreciate the genius of Ronald Reagan's strategy for defeating the Soviet Union.

I was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during Mr. Reagan's second term. At the time, there was considerable debate within the administration and (especially) on Capitol Hill about the wisdom of going forward with procurement of the B-2 Stealth bomber.

I was against it. The B-2's ostensible job was to roam around the Soviet Union after nuclear war had started, looking for Soviet rail mobile missiles to bomb. Since the Stealth was estimated to cost upwards of $120 million a copy, I thought the money could be better spent on weapons that might keep the nuclear war from happening in the first place.

But I didn't understand what that "dumb cowboy" did.

"His strategy was to spend [the Soviets] to death," said retired Vice Admiral J.D. Williams. "It worked."

The B-2 was an integral part of this strategy. The rule of the thumb is that it costs about three times as much to defend against a bomber as it does to pose the threat, and no defense is ever completely leakproof.

There are means of detecting a Stealth, but they require major investments in technology.

The Soviets, moreover, would have to spend as much to guard against 10 B-2s as against 100, a fiscally impossible task.

President Reagan's plans for missile defense were another nail in the Soviet Union's financial coffin.

As a practical matter, it was technically impossible in the 1980s to construct a "leakproof" defense against Soviet missiles. There were just too many of them. And we couldn't have afforded to build such a defense, even if it were technically feasible.

But even a partially effective defense would deprive the Soviets of the confidence that they could launch a disarming first strike.

Two to three nuclear warheads need to be targeted on a missile silo to be sure of taking it out. But a disarming strike on our retaliatory capacity had to be timed to the microsecond, because of the problem of fratricide (the detonation of the first nuclear warhead destroys or knocks off target subsequent warheads). If we would be able to take out just a few Soviet warheads, lousing up the sequence, the fratricide problem becomes essentially unsolvable.

To retain the threat of a disarming first strike, the Soviets were faced with a technological challenge they didn't have the ability to meet, and a financial challenge they didn't have the resources to pursue.

Mr. Reagan compounded their problems by authorizing Bill Casey, his wily CIA director, to sabotage the Russian economy. The Soviets in those days were stealing as much western technology as they could, because their own sclerotic system was unable to keep up. Mr. Casey let them steal software that contained hidden malfunctions, software that was used in the natural gas pipeline the Soviets were building to Western Europe.

"The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion ever seen from space," wrote former Air Force Secretary Thomas Reed. The Soviets lost their chief source of hard currency, and had to wonder ever after if there were Trojan horses in other technologies they were stealing from the West.

Mr. Reagan engaged the Soviets indirectly by supporting anticommunist resistance movements in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique.

And Mr. Reagan engaged the Soviets morally by calling the "evil empire" by its right name. This appalled western intelligentsia, but it resonated with ordinary people the world over.

In his final address from the White House, Mr. Reagan told the story of a sailor, patrolling the South China sea, who came upon a boatload of refugees, hoping to get to the United States. "Hello, Freedom Man," one of them called out.

Ronald Reagan has left us for the real "shining city on a hill."

Farewell, Freedom Man.



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