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Reagans military legacy and debt { June 8 2004 }

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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 June, 2004, 22:55 GMT 23:55 UK
Reagan's military legacy
By Nick Childs
BBC Pentagon correspondent

The state funeral for former President Ronald Reagan will see the US armed forces rendering full honours to a former commander-in-chief to whom they owe a considerable debt.
Much of the current conventional firepower of the US is a legacy of the Reagan years.

Programmes like the B-2 stealth bomber and cruise missiles were either started or got a considerable boost from the Reagan military build-up of the early 1980s.

That build-up also brought improved investment in personnel and training after cutbacks during the 1970s, particularly under President Jimmy Carter.

But while most military analysts agree that this has had lasting benefits for America's conventional forces, there was considerable waste along the way too.

Projects like taking World War II battleships out of mothballs and modernising them were of dubious military value.

And, under the weight of burgeoning budgets, the build-up petered out in the mid-1980s. President Reagan never did build the 600-ship navy that was his goal.

Arms control

Whether all his conventional spending hastened the end of the Cold War remains hotly debated, as does the Reagan legacy on nuclear arms control.

His initial reluctance to hold disarmament talks with Moscow may have held up the process.

Critics say he was not interested in - and did not understand - the detail of arms control.

His supporters say he was just not interested in talks for the sake of talking, and needed an effective partner in Moscow, who eventually emerged in the shape of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty the two of them agreed was the first to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.

'Star Wars'

Perhaps most controversially there was Mr Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative, revealed in a speech in 1983, to create a shield against nuclear missile attack.

It was known popularly as Star Wars.

Characterised as dangerous science fiction by its opponents, as the technological straw which finally broke the Soviet Union's political back by its staunchest supporters, it has a modern descendant now in the current US president's more modest but also controversial missile defence programme.

The debate continues to simmer over both its feasibility and advisability.

Despite these debates, the Pentagon has already acknowledged its debt to the 40th president.

Its most modern aircraft carrier is just embarking on its first operational cruise. It is called the USS Ronald Reagan.

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