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The Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Site at Vandenburg Air Force Base, November 19, 2022, Credit: Riki Ellison

Forty years ago today, March 23, 1983, I was awestruck and giddy as a 22-year-old senior student-athlete at the University of Southern California, in the Strategic Defense Studies graduate program, led by Dr. William Van Cleave. The “Thought Leader” in absolute belief, vision, intent and principle of the Strategic Defense Initiative, an emotional speech to the nation that evening by President Ronald Reagan. SDI was a 28-billion-dollar, 5-year research and development investment in missile defense technologies, across all domains. The timing was fortuitous for the beginning of the end of the USSR, enhancing strategic deterrence in developing missile defenses technologies both strategic and tactical, relooking at the stability vulnerability of Mutual Assured Destruction and the start of the withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty and the 1974 ABM Treaty addendum which allowed one deployed missile defense site. The SDI speech presented an altruistic vision of Peace through Strength to defeat Communism and prevent a future World War.

“Tonight, we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks, and results take time. But I believe we can do it.” President Ronald Reagan March 23, 1983 

With college graduation one month away and an International Relations Degree along with Graduate Certificate in Strategic Defensive Studies, taught and mentored by Dr Bill Van Cleave, his graduates and significant influential common thought leaders – this was destiny, and passion for a lifetime career with conviction and residence that has never left. 

The career path was set with an established network of relationships from Dr Edward Teller, Dr Lowell Woods, Dr William Graham, to many others stemming from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 1) for offensive arms control and dual path for defensive arms control with the Russians in 1971. Dr Bill Van Cleave was appointed on President Richard Nixon’s arms control team from 1971 to 1972 and testified against signing the agreements to Congress. In the Presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980, Dr Bill Van Cleave was the senior Defense advisor to candidate Ronald Reagan. From 1979 to 1981, he was a senior Defense advisor to President Reagan and would also be director of the defense transition team for the administration. 

I was heart set and mind set to work in policy for President Ronald Reagan on SDI. The dawn had happened, and the trail forward was in place because of the mentor and professor Dr. Bill Van Cleave and the vast network of USC Strategic Defense Studies graduates and alumnus. Experts such as: Charlie Kupperman, JD Crouch, Dave Trachtenberg, Rob Soofer, Peppi DeBiaso, Ken Harmon, Keith Payne, John Rose and many others knew the space and mission set as utilized their expertise in all domains amplified and exemplified the mission of strategic missile defense. 

Adding to this life purpose, it was my failure the month before at the Dallas Cowboys Combine where I did not meet or qualify on specific analytics to see if I was capable of playing in the NFL and for the Dallas Cowboys. I was told directly that I flunked my physicals and measurements to play Linebacker, which in turn reinforced my academic resolve and passion for International Relations and Strategic Defense Studies schools at USC, which I had entered in 1979 . Having been captivated by lectures from Dr. Van Cleave, he convinced me to switch my initial major of Engineering when entering USC in the fall of 1978. 

Two months later, on April 27th, 1983, and a week or two from Graduation at USC and path forward into the State Department, Department of Defense and the Reagan Administration unbeknownst to me, watched in shock the first NFL draft on TV and on ESPN as my name appeared as the 5th round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers who had recently won a Super Bowl, coached by Bill Walsh and had my USC teammate Ronnie Lott on the team. It was in California and it was a winning culture and Dream to ever have an opportunity to play for them in the NFL. I was just as ecstatic of playing for the 49ers on Defense as I was for President Reagan on Defense. With the knowledge and awareness of the odds of getting a roster spot and playing in the NFL, already having three consecutive reconstructive knee surgeries in successive years at USC, I was going to have fun with it and play for the love of the game as a once in a lifetime dream opportunity not expecting for it to be a career. After a tremendous rookie year as a starting Linebacker for the SF 49ers, and going to the playoffs to the NFC Championship game, I wanted to pursue the SDI dream in the offseason in collaboration of San Francisco Bay Area Aerospace Industry. Dr Bill Van Cleave led me to Huntsville, Alabama to be hired by Julian Davidson who then hired me to Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California to work on the Exoatmospheric Interceptor System, a product of SDI and the second-generation interceptor after the Homing Overlay Experiment (HOE). The ERIS is the previous generation interceptor that the current GBIs in Alaska and California come from. 

It was 1984, as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Dr Lowell Woods, Bill Van Cleave of The Hoover Institute at Stanford, and the San Francisco 49ers were all in Silicon Valley becoming the top of their game in the world. We, as the San Francisco 49ers, had an invincible season with a new technical construct and culture of playing the game of football that was generations ahead of any franchise in the NFL. Bill Walsh and the SF 49ers changed the game of football. We won ourselves to the Super Bowl which was being held in Silicon Valley in Palo Alto at Stanford’s Stadium in January 20th, 1985. It was also President Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Address date to be sworn in as the United States President for a second term. Since this Super Bowl was being played on the same day, President Reagan, former Governor of California, made the decision to move his inauguration to the next day Monday, the first time in history that was done. President Reagan also was the first President to do the coin toss for the Super Bowl and he did it virtually of all things from the White House. Our victory of the Super Bowl on January 19th, 1985 against the Miami Dolphins showed the dominance of the new way of playing the game. Will always remember the thrill in the locker room after the game of invincibility when President Ronald Reagan called Bill Walsh and all of us in the locker room to congratulate us on winning the Super Bowl.

The 1970s and early 1980s were the formative years for critical academic thinking on Strategic Missile Defense that began the momentum for operational strategic and tactical missile defense capabilities for the United States, Japan, and Israel that took twenty years to achieve. With the accumulation of the SDI speech that we recognize 40 years later as an ephiany. The catalyst for this movement was the academic critical thought, leadership, and persistence in the dismantling of the ABM Treaty signed in 1972. It was triggered by development and build of the compliant missile defense site in Grand Forks, North Dakota that went operation in 1974. After four months of operations, it was dismantled by Congress with utter faith of having no missile defenses and fully embracing Mutual Assured Destruction to deter and dissuade nuclear missile threats to the United States. Dr. Bill Van Cleave was a key component and leader of having strategic and tactical missile defense. As the senior Defense advisor, Dr Bill Van Cleave briefed then-governor and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to visit NORAD and our Command & Control for our Nuclear Strategic Force. On July 31st, 1979, Governor Ronald Reagan after visiting NORAD and its base in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado for the first time he stated:

“We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us…We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles.

In great respect and honor of President Ronald Reagan and his Vision and Leadership 40 years ago, aligned with the support of Mrs Nancy Reagan, the United States Congress, the United States Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency, we designed and brought forward to being the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Memorial at Vandenberg Space Base that stands today overviewing the Pacific and the Ground Based Missile Defense Interceptors deployed for testing and operation for the Missile Defense of our Nation.

Mrs. Nancy Reagan, Senator Ted Stevens (center), and MDAA Chairman and Founder Riki Ellison (right) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2006 during the dedication ceremony of the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Site

Click here to view President Ronald Reagan’s speech on the announcement of SDI.

Mission Statement

MDAA’s mission is to make the world safer by advocating for the development and deployment of missile defense systems to defend the United States, its armed forces and its allies against missile threats.

MDAA is the only organization in existence whose primary mission is to educate the American public about missile defense issues and to recruit, organize, and mobilize proponents to advocate for the critical need of missile defense. We are a non-partisan membership-based and membership-funded organization that does not advocate on behalf of any specific system, technology, architecture or entity.