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Reagan Announces 'Star Wars'

Reagan Announces 'Star Wars'

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On March 23, 1983, in what later became known as his "Star Wars" speech, President Ronald Reagan announces his plans to develop an anti-missile capability to counter the threat of Soviet ballistic missiles and to make these nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."

Ronald Reagan and Star Wars

Peter Kramer tells how the popularity of the sci-fi epic proved timely for Ronald Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

When the special edition of George Lucas's film Star Wars was released in January 1997, the distributor's press book proclaimed:

While Star Wars was a defining event for one generation, it has been embraced by new generations, assuring its place as a timeless epic of grand design and boundless fun.

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23 March 1983: Ronald Reagan launches ‘Star Wars’

For almost the entire Cold War, the USA and the Soviet Union had relied on “Mutually Assured Destruction” (Mad) to protect each of them from a nuclear attack from the other. The theory went along the following lines: "You have nuclear weapons. So do I. If you use your nukes against me, I'll use mine against you. So, let's neither of us use them." That works just fine until somebody does use them.

And it wouldn't be just the combatants whose destruction would be assured. You could pretty much kiss the entire planet goodbye. So, as a survival policy, relying on everybody to keep their cool isn't exactly a good one.

Take the infamous false alarm incident of September 1983. Russian lieutenant-colonel Stanislav Petrov had expected another boring day at the office. His job was to keep a look out for incoming American intercontinental ballistic missiles. That day was to be anything but quiet. All of a sudden, he was presented with flashing screens and wailing sirens. "Nuclear warheads on the way", screamed the Soviet Union's early warning system. Luckily for you, me and everyone else on Earth, Petrov decided it was a glitch. He was supposed to have sounded the alarm immediately. A nuclear missile would have taken only 12 minutes to reach Moscow. As it was, World War Three was avoided and Petrov was sacked.

That incident alone underscored the fragility of the nuclear deterrent idea. And US president Ronald Reagan, thought so too. That's why in a speech on 23 March 1983, just six months before Petrov arrived for work, he announced the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). Gleefully dubbed "Star Wars" by the press, the idea was to construct a defensive system capable of destroying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in space before they could re-enter the atmosphere and hit their target.

The Soviets, however, didn't see it that way. The United States, they feared, was trying to gain a knock-out advantage that would render them vulnerable to attack. No weapon is ever purely defensive after all. Nor did it help that Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire”. The Soviet Union responded by researching a similar system of its own, but, ironically, the massive costs contributed to its own downfall in 1991.

With no clear enemy, President George HW Bush downgraded the plans to national missile defence' (NMD) home and shorter-ranged defence. The Congressional Budget Office reckoned that NMD would cost around $29.5bn between 1996 and 2015. As for satellites shooting down nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in the 1980s, that was always going to be more Star Wars than feasible reality.

35 Years On: Ronald Reagan Announces SDI, or ‘Star Wars’

For those of us who have reached a certain age, it is hard to believe it has been three and a half decades since President Ronald Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, which quickly earned the dismissive sobriquet “Star Wars” (after the George Lucas films of the same name).

Reagan’s introduction was modest and unexpected, coming at the end of a televised address to the nation on the general theme of national security and the defense budget then being considered by Congress.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (or SDI) was not without precedent, however. Winston Churchill had called for defensive weapons systems as early as the 1930s, in the run-up to World War II. One result of the strategic defense debate and subsequent research in that era was radar, which probably saved Britain from total destruction by the Luftwaffe.

There had also been talk about strategic defense from the beginning of the Atomic Age, with pro- and anti- sides alternating pre-eminence from time to time.

In the 1960s, defensive strategic systems were debated and set aside as destabilizing to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). As I wrote in the 1986 book, Promise or Peril: The Strategic Defense Initiative (coedited with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Marin Strmecki, and Peter Wehner), U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara …

… also rejected a U.S. strategic defense system because it would be easily countered by Moscow. The Soviet Union would be forced to respond with an offensive buildup, which would mean that “the risk of a Soviet nuclear attack would not be further decreased” and, if deterrence failed, “the damage to the United States from a Soviet nuclear attack would not be reduced in any meaningful sense.”

To those following strategic issues in the early 1980s, the substance of Reagan’s “Star Wars speech” was not so surprising, even if the timing of it was. Reagan himself was urged by Edward Teller, known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” to promote and initiate defensive systems as part of the overall U.S. national security strategy. Retired General Daniel O. Graham had been pushing a concept he called “High Frontier,” which used off-the-shelf, kinetic technology to knock incoming missiles out of the sky.

In summarizing and introducing an excerpt from Reagan’s SDI speech in Promise or Peril, I wrote:

With President Reagan’s address to the nation on March 23, 1983, the Strategic Defense Initiative became the focus of the U.S. debate over strategic policy. Although much of the speech was devoted to resisting uts in his defense budget, in his conclusion the President offered an alternative to traditional U.S. nuclear strategy. “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” he asked. Although “deterrence of aggression through the promise of retaliation” had worked well, Reagan rejected the idea of indefinitely basing U.S. policy on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.

In calling for this shift, he advocated, not simply a limited defense of U.S. strategic forces, but a total population defense so that “free people could live secure in the knowledge that … we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies.” The President challenged the scientific community, “those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

The rhetoric of Reagan’s speech echoes that of Winston Churchill … during the British air defense debate of the 1930s.

Thirty-five years on, the Strategic Defense Initiative is no longer front-and-center in discussions of foreign and defense policy. The Cold War ended more than 25 years ago, arguably because of Reagan’s insistence on pursuing SDI. Yet the technologies developed under the SDI umbrella — if under different names and through different specific programs — affect strategic and tactical planning in an era when international terrorism is seen as a greater threat than ICBMs. It certainly affects the approach the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia take toward Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and its nuclear sabre-rattling (and tweets in response to that).

Ronald Reagan’s announcement of what came to be called “Star Wars” was a coda to a routine speech on defense policy, but it came to define a decade.

The late Rick Sincere was a senior contributor and “The Score” editor and on-air talent for Bearing Drift from 2011 until his death in November 2019.

What the Left and Right Still Get Wrong About Ronald Reagan

James Graham Wilson works in the Office of the Historian at the Department of State, and is the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptation, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Cornell University Press, February 2014) The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.

Episode 22 of CNN’s Cold War series features a clip from Spitting Image, a British satire featuring grotesque puppets purporting to take us inside the Reagan White House. “Ronnie! You’re not dressed up scary for Halloween!” declares the first lady. “Nance! If John F. Kennedy were alive today, he’d be younger than I am. I’m 75 years old and I’ve got my finger on the button! I just couldn’t think of anything more scary than that! Trick or treat, fellers!” The president then lobs a grenade into the room. [Starts at 6:25]

The Spitting Image parody sums up what Reagan’s critics saw as his attitude toward nuclear weapons. The title of the episode -- “Star Wars” -- refers of course to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which Reagan announced in March 1983. Reagan hated this sobriquet, adopted by his critics, because the president regarded SDI to be fundamentally peaceful, and he also believed that Americans would never exploit its defensive advantages. His supporters covered their ears for that last part they figured the real purpose of SDI was to squeeze the Soviets into submission.

Critics and Supporters got Reagan wrong when it came to nuclear weapons and “Star Wars.”

From 1985-88, Reagan engaged with the Cold War adversary to try to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and SDI/ “Star Wars” was the central component for this grand vision. Incredibly, for someone who previously expressed uncertainty over whether its leaders could be trusted on anything, Reagan proposed to share the technology with the Soviet Union, and even mused about putting it in the hands of the United Nations.

“The president stressed that he was prepared, once any of our SDI programs proved out,” read the minutes of a September 20, 1985 meeting of the National Security Council declassified and on file at the Ronald Reagan Library, “to then announce to the world that integrating these weapons in our respective arsenals would put international relations on a more stable footing.”

“In fact,” the president went on to say, “this could even lead to a complete elimination of nuclear weapons. We must be prepared to tell the world that we were ready to consult and negotiate on integrating these weapons into a new defense philosophy, and to state openly that we were ready to internationalize these systems.”

Reagan grew even more passionate about sharing SDI after he met the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Geneva in November 1985. “We should remember the principle of sharing SDI at the deployment stage,” the president told his team on February 3, 1986. “As we continue to develop SDI we need to find a way for SDI to be a protector for all -- perhaps the concept of a ‘common trigger’ where some international group, perhaps the UN, could deploy SDI against anyone who threatened use of nuclear weapons. Every state could have this guarantee.”

No U.S. leader but Ronald Reagan could have gotten away with saying these things. Who could conceive of a more extraordinary prospect than an American president sharing a nuclear shield with the Soviet Union? Someone who wanted to vest America’s national security in the United Nations, perhaps, while the world embarked upon eliminating nuclear weapons. Reagan proposed doing the first one, hinted strongly at the second, and contemplated these schemes just three years after calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

“I do not understand the reasoning behind your conclusion that only a country preparing a disarming first strike would be interested in defenses against ballistic missiles,” Reagan wrote Gorbachev on February 16, 1986. The United States had never borne ill toward anyone, the president insisted: after World War II, the United States had not sought to expand its territory -- when it had the power to do so. In every letter to Soviet leaders, and in each meeting with them, Reagan repeated this example of how the United States had disarmed and acted defensively after World War II.

At Reykjavik in October 1986, Reagan proposed Gorbachev a deal. Both sides would begin reducing nuclear stockpiles. The United States would construct SDI and share it with the Soviet Union. SDI would provide insurance so that both sides stuck to their commitments to disarm. Then, after both sides had dismantled their nuclear arsenals, they would keep SDI to protect them from a madman such as Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi, for instance, should he ever get the bomb. The ultimate goal was a world without nuclear weapons.

Even after Gorbachev rejected the deal, Reagan pressed to share SDI with the Soviets. "Why can't we agree now that if we get to a point where we want to deploy we will simply make all the information available about each other's systems so that we can both have defenses," the president asked his national security team on 8 September 1987. "I don't believe that we could ever do that," Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger responded.

In December 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces. The president never gave up trying to get an agreement to reduce strategic ballistic missiles (START) before the end of his presidency. He instructed his team on February 9, 1988: “the bottom line is you’ve got to go for the gold.”

Reagan delivered the same message to Gorbachev that he gave his own advisors behind closed doors. In other words, sharing SDI to help scrap missiles was not a ploy. On this matter his critics and supporters got him wrong. In dreaming of a world without nuclear weapons, Reagan got it right.

A look at President Reagan’s Star Wars program, 33 years later

Thirty-three years ago, the Star Wars program was easily the most elaborate and complex defense system ever conceived.

“I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete,” President Ronald Reagan said on March 23, 1983. The speech announced the creation of a new missile defense called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which quickly became known as Star Wars.

It envisaged a vast network of laser-armed satellites, air-based missiles, and ground-based interceptors missiles and electromagnetic railguns. These would be used to intercept incoming nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union and other enemies, all coordinated through advanced sensors linked to supercomputers, and protect the United States from direct nuclear attack. By being able to neutralize at least most of the incoming nuclear warheads, the U.S. hoped to show the Soviet Union that any potential nuclear confrontation was hopeless.

Graphic of how SDI would work.

The United States and the Soviet Union had flirted with anti-ballistic missile systems in the past.

The U.S. developed the Nike Zeus series of missiles in the early 1960s, which had some ABM capability, and the Soviet Union installed similar missiles around Moscow as protection against limited nuclear strikes. Neither could begin to effectively cope with large-scale nuclear attacks, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 strictly limited the number of missile interceptors allowed. The U.S. closed its only missile defense system, called Safeguard, in 1976 after it had only been in operation for a few months and at enormous expense. But by the early 1980s, concerned with advancements in Soviet missiles, the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff revisited the idea, and presented it to Reagan. The idea of a defensive measure to nuclear war beyond simply building more nuclear warheads appealed to to the president.

The technical hurdles for a defense shield like Reagan proposed would be on a scale exceeding any defense project attempted before. The majority of the technology involved, such as weaponized lasers and electromagnetic railguns firing projectiles at extremely high speeds, did not even exist yet and might not be developed for decades. It entailed hundreds, if not thousands of advanced satellites and radars to even begin to aim all the weapons required to make a dent in the Soviet’s vast arsenal. Reagan himself admitted that SDI could easily take until the end of the century to be put into place.

The skepticism towards the program was intense from the beginning. Besides the clear violations of the ABM treaty such a system would represent, it would also extend the arms race even deeper into space.

Swarms of hunter-killer satellites and space-based lasers would be a frightening new frontier, and the Soviet Union would almost certainly try to respond in kind. The projected costs of the system ran into the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the inevitable cost overruns would balloon the Star Wars program to a huge percentage of the U.S. military budget. In the event of an a nuclear attack, unproven technology would have be coordinated on an unprecedented scale and work perfectly the first time. The hurdles involved were well-nigh insurmountable. Nevertheless, by 1987 more than $3 billion was being appropriated annually by Congress to start developing the technology, roughly $6.5 billion in today’s dollars.

There has been much debate about what sort of affect the Star Wars program had running up to the end of the Cold War, but there is little doubt that the Soviet Union took the program very seriously, and were genuinely concerned about an expanded arm’s race which had immense costs they could not begin to afford. But by the end of the Cold War, a missile-defense system on the scale of SDI was still a pipe-dream. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea was scaled back to a much more limited system capable of defending against small-scale strikes.

The simple fact was that the program was never going to be feasible against as many weapons as an opponent like the Soviet Union could put into play. By 1986 the Soviet’s had over 40,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled, including nearly a thousand ICBM’s with up to 10 warheads a piece that could shower and overwhelm any target within 30 minutes of launch. Soviet submarine’s armed with nuclear missiles could get close enough to U.S. coasts that their payloads could strike hundreds of targets faster than any conceivable system could detect and intercept them. Even if SDI could stop 90 percent of the Soviet’s warheads, the 10 percent that made it through would leave the United States in radioactive ruin.

Though scaled back, development on weapons envisaged in Star Wars continued throughout the 1990s. Its legacy can be seen in today’s Missile Defense Agency. The MDA has cost more than $100 billion since 2002, and the test results of its missile interceptors have been decidedly mixed.

After more than three decades of advances in technology, however more modest our nuclear defense program is now, it still might not be any more realistic than its Cold War forebears.

They Called It Star Wars

President Ronald Reagan surprised friend and foe alike with what came to be known as the “Star Wars speech” on March 23, 1983. It was a short insert added to the end of an otherwise routine presidential address on the defense program.

President Ronald Reagan addresses the nation from the Oval Office on March 23, 1983. The SDI portion of his speech, added at the last minute, provoked strong reactions from the press, foreign leaders, the scientific community, and the nation. (White House photo)

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our soil or that of our allies?” Reagan asked.

He called on the nation’s scientists “to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete” and announced a long-term research and development program with the “ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles,” a formidable task “that may not be accomplished before the end of this century.”

The next day, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called it “misleading Red Scare tactics and reckless ‘Star Wars’ schemes.”

The “Star Wars” label stuck, even after the program was named the Strategic Defense Initiative.

SDI was developed through political channels with minimal input from the Department of Defense. Most scientists and technocrats, in and out of government, regarded it as far-fetched. Ridicule from the academic community and the news media set the tone for the clash that followed.

Thirty years later, it is difficult to separate the history of SDI from partisan interpretation, which accounts for much of what has been written about it. Reagan’s enemies portray him as a simpleton and SDI as a fantasy. Reagan’s admirers hold SDI to have been a masterstroke, pivotal in ending the Cold War.

SDI concurrently challenged two mainstays of Cold War strategy—mutual deterrence and arms control—both of which sought to contain and manage the nuclear standoff but did not offer any hope of eliminating it.

SDI is usually depicted as a bolt out of the blue, but it did not begin from scratch. The Pentagon had been engaged in ballistic missile defense since the 1950s. Among the successes was an Army Nike-Zeus rocket that intercepted a warhead launched by a Titan missile. The Sentinel anti-ballistic missile system to protect US cities was canceled in 1969 in favor of the Safeguard ABM designed to defend US Minuteman missile silos.

By then, the scientific community and most of DOD had lost faith in ABM solutions because of the technical difficulties and potential destabilization of the arms race. In 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara embraced the strategy of MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction, which was a bargain basement version of deterrence.

The US retreated from the previous goal of strategic superiority and instead sought nuclear parity with the Soviet Union. This was to be achieved through policies of détente and arms control. The SALT I agreement froze strategic ballistic missile numbers at existing levels and the ABM treaty—negotiated as part of SALT—limited each side to two fixed ground-based defense sites. Arms control treaties did not slow, much less stop, the Soviets, who swept past parity to superiority in ICBMs.

According to oft-told tales, Reagan got his idea for SDI from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, “Torn Curtain,” or perhaps from a visit in 1979 to North American Air Defense Command at Cheyenne Mountain AFS, Colo., where he supposedly learned for the first time that the US had no defense against ballistic missiles.

In fact, Reagan had been interested in ballistic missile defense since the 1960s. When he was governor of California, he received an ABM orientation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco at the invitation of physicist Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and a strong ABM advocate. Caspar W. Weinberger, who was with him in California, said that back then Reagan spoke regularly “about how a defensive system could indeed inhibit, and ultimately operate to prevent, further development of more nuclear weapons.” Reagan assailed MAD during the 1976 presidential election campaign and again in a speech to the Republican National Convention.

Reagan did not understand the science of missile defense and the quality of the advice he was getting was spotty—but he was not a newcomer to the issue, nor was he as clueless as his detractors claimed.

President Reagan meets Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986. The two leaders very nearly agreed to eliminate all strategic ballistic missiles by 1997—the thought of which left US defense strategists aghast.(ITAR-TASS photo)

SDI broke sharply from old-style missile defense in which incoming warheads were shot down by rockets from the ground. By the 1980s, ABM advocates were pushing various space-based solutions. The most exotic proposal was Teller’s vision of an X-Ray laser powered by the explosion of a nuclear device in space.

The leading prophet of the new approach was retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who called for battle stations in space, launching kinetic weapons that would destroy their targets by collision. In 1981, Graham and industrialist Karl R. Bendetsen set up an organization called the High Frontier Panel that subsequently moved under the institutional umbrella of the conservative Heritage Foundation. High Frontier conceived of 432 satellites or orbiting “space trucks,” each with 50 miniature homing devices to intercept ballistic missiles in the post-boost phase. Teller joined forces with High Frontier, even though his ideas differed from Graham’s.

Pentagon analysts did not think much of High Frontier’s agenda, declaring the underlying technology to be “one view graph deep” and “unencumbered by practical engineering considerations or the laws of physics.” There was also apprehension that the proposal might weaken support for such strategic force modernization programs as the Air Force’s Peacekeeper ICBM and the Navy’s Trident SLBM.

However, High Frontier had access to the White House through some of its politically prominent members. At the invitation of Edwin Meese III, counselor to the President, and George A. Keyworth II, White House science advisor and a protégé of Teller’s, High Frontier made two presentations to Reagan.

In March 1982, Graham laid out his thoughts in “High Frontier: A New National Strategy,” published by the Heritage Foundation. “I think it is the propitious time for the Administration to cut across the parade ground and get in front of the parade we are creating,” he said.

By then, fissures had developed among partners of High Frontier, but it did not matter. Reagan had taken possession of the concept. Keyworth set up a special panel of the White House Science Council to evaluate the possibilities. Its recommendations were lukewarm and Reagan added them to the rest of the advice.

Few senior administration officials knew about the new strategy until just before Reagan delivered the “Star Wars” speech on national television. He had, however, discussed the general idea with Secretary of Defense Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The speech insert was drafted by Robert C. McFarlane, the deputy national security advisor, with science advisor Keyworth looking over his shoulder. Reagan reworked the draft in his own handwriting. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and a few others managed to tone it down, but not by much.

For a while, the program was called “Defense Against Ballistic Missiles” before it was named “the Strategic Defense Initiative” in a presidential directive in January 1984.

Reagan never explained his vision of SDI in any detail, and he described it in different ways at different times. In his memoirs, he said, “I never viewed SDI as an impenetrable shield.” However, he told visitors to the White House in 1985 that SDI “may soon be able to protect our nation and our allies from ballistic missiles, just as a roof protects us from the rain.”

He frequently returned to his original theme, declaring that SDI would render nuclear weapons obsolete and form “a shield that could prevent nuclear weapons from reaching their targets.”

Sometimes he said emphatically SDI was not an add-on to traditional strategy. “We’re not discussing a concept just to enhance deterrence,” he said. The goal was not disrupting a Soviet first strike on US missile fields. “Our research is aimed at finding a way of protecting people, not missiles,” he said. On the other hand, he also said that SDI would free us from “exclusive reliance” on conventional deterrence and he once called it “an insurance policy that the Soviets will live up to arms reduction agreements.”

Within the Cabinet, Weinberger was the most enthusiastic cheerleader for SDI and Shultz the most frequent critic. Weinberger, Shultz said, “continued to urge the President to take steps beyond what was remotely feasible on SDI” and that “Weinberger’s zeal for SDI, which far surpassed our present ability to deploy, had needlessly stirred up a potentially devastating resistance to the entire SDI program.”

Reagan, surrounded (from left) by Gen. Robert Herres, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice President George Bush, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, holds up a bumpersticker to show support for SDI during a 1987 meeting with the Joint Chiefs. (Bettmann/Corbis/AP photo)

SDI moved into a new phase with creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in the Pentagon in April 1984. Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, the director, reported to the undersecretary of defense. Thereafter, the main spokesman for SDI was Abrahamson, not Reagan.

Abrahamson rounded off the sharp edges of SDI, which began to sound less and less like the original version. SDI would be in addition to—not instead of—deterrence, which remained the “fundamental policy.”

SDI would not be leakproof, an “Astrodome over the United States.” It would begin as a technical feasibility study with hopes of reaching full-scale engineering in the 1990s and deployment around 2000.

At first, directed energy weapons—lasers, or particle beam devices—looked more promising than kinetic weapons, but that changed as the study progressed. Kinetic energy projectiles, which did their damage by impact, emerged as the weapons of choice.

The first of these to come to prominence was “Smart Rocks,” small rockets housed in orbiting satellite “garages” that could detect a missile launch and calculate a collision trajectory. It was superseded by “Brilliant Pebbles,” in which the projectiles were smarter and smaller. The Pebbles did not need a garage to do their thinking for them.

“Under this program, a large number of very small satellites would be placed in space—perhaps several thousand in all,” Weinberger said. “Each of those satellites would hold one small interceptor, probably weighing no more than 20 pounds. On alert, the satellites would open their heat-seeking eyes, locate enemy satellites from thousands of miles away, fire their own rocket motors, and crash into their ballistic missile targets.”

SDI’s reliance on space-borne systems did not set well with the Army, which had been the leader when ballistic missile defense was a ground-based mission. Now the Air Force was moving to the forefront.

The Russians were also disturbed. “The Soviets were particularly vehement about space-based defenses,” Weinberger said. “They at least hinted that they would let us deploy ground-based defenses if we agreed to ban all weapons from space.”

Soviet leaders took SDI seriously and worried about it. Yuri Andropov called it a plot to disarm the Soviet Union. Politburo meeting minutes surfacing years later revealed that Mikhail Gorbachev was obsessed with SDI.

Because of his “Rearm America” program, amplified by SDI, Reagan went to the October 1986 summit conference at Reykjavik, Iceland, in an enhanced bargaining position.

To the amazement of onlookers, Reagan and Gorbachev came close to agreeing to eliminate all strategic ballistic missiles by 1996. The deal fell through only because Reagan refused to meet Gorbachev’s demand to confine SDI “to the laboratory.”

Defense strategists were aghast. “In Western strategy the nuclear deterrent remains the ultimate and indispensable reality,” said former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger. “Yet at Reykjavik the President was prepared to negotiate it away almost heedlessly. By contrast, the Strategic Defense Initiative was treated and continues to be treated as if it were already a reality (‘the key to a world without nuclear weapons’) instead of a collection of technical experiments and distant hopes.” Schlesinger’s judgment was that “Reykjavik represented a near disaster from which we were fortunate to escape.”

Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor, took a similar view. “We dodged a bullet,” he said. “That’s the one good thing about SDI: It kept an agreement from being made.”

Columnist Charles Krauthammer disagreed. “The Cold War was won in 1986 at Reykjavik,” he said. “It kept American missile defense alive and made Gorbachev understand that nothing would stand in its way. The United States under Reagan was prepared to press its massive technological and economic advantage over the Soviet Union to achieve strategic superiority. Failing that, the United States would simply bleed the Soviets dry in any strategic competition.”

For Gorbachev, SDI trumped all else. He left Reykjavik in a weakened position. Reagan was phenomenally lucky. The US strategic deterrent survived the summit, Reagan’s advantage in negotiating with Gorbachev increased, and public approval of SDI soared to 73 percent.

“If this project is as big a waste of time and money as some have claimed, why have the Soviets been involved in strategic defense themselves for so long, and why are they so anxious that we stop?” Reagan asked.

In Reagan’s second term, SDI encountered fierce headwinds. Funding was cut severely as the government struggled to meet the budget ceilings directed by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act.

ABM advocates feared the bureaucracy was slow-rolling SDI with the intention of killing it off once Reagan left office. Aided by supporters in both houses of Congress, advocates called for early deployment of SDI, beginning with whatever increments of the program were technologically mature. The Senate Armed Services Committee directed the Pentagon to look at “stand alone” elements that might be ready in short term, including defense of troops and allies abroad against tactical ballistic missiles.

SDI Driving Technology

Reagan did not want SDI split up into increments. “I know there are those who are getting a bit antsy,” he said, “but to deploy systems of limited effectiveness now would deter limited funds—or divert them—and delay our main research.”

Another problem centered on Brilliant Pebbles. It was undeniably a space weapon and thus presumed to be prohibited under the ABM treaty, which would have to be reinterpreted or abrogated before the system could proceed. The Administration argued that the treaty was ambiguous, leaving open the possibility of emerging “ABM systems based on other physical principles.”

Weinberger and other officials wanted a “broad” rather than “narrow” interpretation, claiming that the treaty exclusion would apply to kinetic SDI weapons. Congress did not agree and blocked funds for any SDI tests that violated the traditional interpretation of the treaty.

SDI had its moments. In one demonstration, a Delta rocket upper stage rushed and rammed another Delta upper stage in near-Earth orbit. The Air Force chief scientist acknowledged SDI was driving the technology for space sensors, space communications, and other areas important to the armed forces.

However, time was running out for SDI as originally scoped, mainly because the Cold War was ending. In his State of the Union address in 1991, President George H. W. Bush redefined SDI to include and emphasize theater missile defense. His program was dubbed “Star Wars Lite.”

The Lingering Legacy

In 1993, the Clinton Administration downgraded SDI, renamed it “Ballistic Missile Defense,” and reassigned it to a lower organizational level in the Pentagon. Brilliant Pebbles was canceled and the Administration promised to abide by the narrow interpretation of the ABM treaty.

At a news conference, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin declared jubilantly that, “Today we are here to observe another point of passage, which is the end of the ‘Star Wars’ era.”

Ballistic Missile Defense made something of a comeback in the late 1990s when North Korea fired a Taepo Dong missile 1,000 miles across Japan into the Pacific Ocean and the Clinton Administration became concerned about the acquisition of missiles by rogue nations. In 1999, the National Missile Defense Act called for the defense of US territory against limited ballistic missile attack. The United States withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002.

Today, US ballistic missile defense consists mainly of ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California and the Navy’s ship-based Aegis missiles. The Obama Administration in 2009 canceled ABM defense sites in Eastern Europe and in 2012 shuffled the Air Force’s Airborne Laser off into organizational oblivion after it shot down a ballistic missile in a boost phase during a demonstration.

It’s not much, but ballistic missile defense has managed to outlast not only the USSR and the Cold War but also the ABM treaty and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which was disbanded in 1999. Strategic nuclear deterrence has persisted as well, although the numbers of weapons and delivery systems have diminished considerably.

In all, the United States spent about $30 billion on SDI. In 1993, Abrahamson and Henry F. Cooper, the last director of SDI, published an accounting for the funding. Of the total, 24.3 percent went for kinetic energy programs, 26.1 percent for sensor programs, 22.7 for directed energy programs, 16.4 percent for systems analysis, integration, and analysis, and 9.5 percent for other work. Much of this would have been spent anyway, pursuing the same technologies elsewhere in the Department of Defense, they said.

Abrahamson and Cooper noted that in January 1990, the Five Year Defense Plan was reduced by $167 billion as a result of the ending of the Cold War. To the extent that SDI was a factor in bringing that about, the nation got a good return on its investment.

Always a Long Shot

Looking back with 30 years of hindsight, there are valid points on both sides of the issue. Reagan exaggerated the feasibility of SDI, and it is true that he did not understand the science. But his opponents skip over the fact that numerous persons with full scientific credentials believed in BMD and SDI. As for exaggeration, there were plenty of others—arms control enthusiasts, for example—who overpromised by a wide margin.

Funding and momentum for SDI slackened within three years of Reagan’s speech. “I am convinced that if we could have secured adequate funding from the Congress, we would have been able to deploy the first phase of an effective defense system by 1993,” Weinberger said.

SDI was always a long shot, but Reagan acknowledged this. In the Star Wars speech, he laid out a long-range goal, presented as a hope. It might be compared to President Kennedy’s proposal in May 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. That statement was 20 days after Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in Freedom 7, in which the capsule reached a maximum altitude of 116 miles. Neither Kennedy nor anyone else understood the science and technology of a moon landing.

In later years, George Shultz, whose State Department had often sought to temper enthusiasm for SDI, speculated on why Reagan’s programs frequently worked out better than the critics predicted.

“Well, maybe he was a lot smarter than most people thought,” Shultz said.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor. His most recent article, “Air Strike at Osirak,” appeared in the April issue.

1988: Reagan Abandoned, Mocked by Hardline Conservatives

As the end of President Reagan’s final term approaches, conservatives and hardliners have radically changed their view of him. They originally saw him as one of their own—a crusader for good against evil, obstinately opposed to communism in general and to any sort of arms reduction agreement with the Soviet Union in specific. But recent events—Reagan’s recent moderation in rhetoric towards the Soviets (see December 1983 and After), the summits with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev (see November 16-19, 1985 and October 11-12, 1986), and the recent arms treaties with the Soviets (see Early 1985 and December 7-8, 1987) have soured them on Reagan. Hardliners had once held considerable power in the Reagan administration (see January 1981 and After and Early 1981 and After), but their influence has steadily waned, and their attempts to sabotage and undermine arms control negotiations (see April 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, May 1982 and After, and April 1983-December 1983), initially quite successful, have grown less effective and more desperate (see Before November 16, 1985). Attempts by administration hardliners to get “soft” officials such as Secretary of State George Shultz fired do not succeed. Conservative pundits such as George Will and William Safire lambast Reagan, with Will accusing him of “moral disarmament” and Safire mocking Reagan’s rapport with Gorbachev: “He professed to see in Mr. Gorbachev’s eyes an end to the Soviet goal of world domination.” It will not be until after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall (see November 9, 1989 and After) that conservatives will revise their opinion of Reagan, in the process revising much of history in the process. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 143-145]

Reagan Announces 'Star Wars' - HISTORY

President Ronald Reagan had a fancy name for it — Strategic Defense Initiative. S.D.I. His detractors dubbed it a “Star Wars” project. The idea was to militarize space: install a series of orbital satellites or platforms that would have the capability of detecting, intercepting and destroying incoming ICBMs. In particular Russian ones. Reagan was inspired by the announcement of a powerful, concentrated x-ray beam – a laser – and went on the air to propose his new vision.

On this day, March 23, in 1983, what was supposed to be a a routine “state of the Cold War” speech turned into a forum for Ronald Reagan to wax poetic on his grand vision. “I call upon the scientific community who gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace,” he said, “To give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

Nobody – up to and possibly including the President – quite knew that meant. Technology to give form to his vision was not only not possible during that time, it was not even in research. Befuddled White House aides quickly assured members of the press and assembled politicians it would be a very long-term project, but few went along with it. The idea was so futuristic, and the proposed costs so astronomical, that hardly anyone wanted to invest the resources. In the end, Reagan’s grand vision was scrapped for infeasibility.

The Strategic Defense Initiative — The Other “Star Wars”

On March 23 rd , 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, signaling a massive paradigm shift in U.S. policy on nuclear policy. Dubbed “Star Wars” after the 1977 movie, SDI represented Reagan’s rejection of Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD had fostered an uneasy peace during the Cold War as neither the U.S. nor the USSR attacked the other knowing that it would in turn be the target of a massive nuclear retaliation annihilating it (and much of the planet). By extension, so the argument went, a weapons system that could deflect most of an opponent’s nuclear barrage would undermine MAD by making that country feel more protected and thus potentially more likely to at least consider launching an offensive attack.

For that reason, many in U.S. government, including high-ranking officials at the State and Defense Departments, did not support SDI they were also not consulted before the surprise announcement. As designed, SDI would use space-based lasers, particle beams, satellites, and other “space-age” weapons, in contravention of the Treaty on Outer Space, to shoot down ballistic missiles before they reached their targets. Given its utter complexity and reliance on unproven technology, SDI was viewed by many as unrealistic. Nevertheless, the announcement sent shock waves throughout the world.

This account was compiled from interviews done by Charles Stuart Kennedy with: James W. Chamberlin in 1997, a Special Assistant in Space Matter for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) Aloysius M. O’Neill in 2008, a member of the State Department’s Office of Strategic Technology Affairs Philip Merrill in 1997, a Defense Department Counselor Ambassador Thomas M. T. Niles in 1998, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Roger G. Harrison in 2001, the Political-Military Counselor in London.

Craig Dunkerley, who handled NATO issues in the State Department’s European Affairs Bureau, was interviewed in 2004 Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci was interviewed in 1997 Dr. William Lloyd Stearman, a member of the National Security Council, in 1992 and Ambassador Rudolph V. Perina, a political officer at the U.S. Mission NATO in Brussels, interviewed in 2006. Also used is the account of Ambassador Maynard Wayne Glitman, Deputy Negotiator on the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty negotiations, who was interviewed by James S. Pacy in 2001.

Read other Moments dealing with negotiations and with the USSR/Russia.

“SDI was based on President Reagan’s very deep aversion to nuclear weapons”

CHAMBERLIN: Star Wars, SDI, or the Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to defend the U.S. from missile attack, particularly from the Soviet Union. It envisaged a very sophisticated system that would stop thousands of missiles within only a few minutes after launch, detection and warning. It was a clear violation of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty. It was the bane of my existence….It was a serious threat to the ABM treaty, as well as the Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

MERRILL: I remember watching a nationally televised Presidential speech….Tacked on to the end, and totally unconnected to the rest of the remarks, were ten minutes of argument proposing a national program to research and develop defensive technologies. All of us were surprised but also pleased because at long last the grip of MAD [mutual assured destruction] on the nation’s nuclear posture had been opened if not broken. The next day the New York Post headline read “Star Wars to Zap Red Nukes.” Star Wars it became.

Q: There was no consultation within the government on this issue?.

NILES: There certainly wasn’t. SDI was based on President Reagan’s very deep aversion to nuclear weapons and to the MAD doctrine. You saw it again in October 1986 at the Reykjavik Summit with President Gorbachev during which President Reagan advanced the idea of the total elimination of nuclear weapons, which Gorbachev accepted. The stumbling block then was President Reagan’s insistence that SDI continue.

In 1983, as today, missile defense, whether it is SDI or some other program, was based on a confluence of two philosophical views: 1) an aversion to nuclear weapons and 2) a theological hostility to arms control, which focuses on the 1972 ABM Treaty.

President Reagan was motivated by his aversion to nuclear weapons, and the people at the top of the Department of Defense — civilians, not uniformed military — who were responsible for the details of SDI, to the extent there were any, were motivated by their ideological hatred of arms control and the ABM Treaty. As far as I know, the State Department was out of the picture.

Keep in mind that, at least in theory, SDI represented a fundamental shift in United States defense policy, taken without consultations with our Allies. Although ultimately we were able to work things out with the Europeans on SDI, so that they were able to participate in some development contracts, the damage was never fully overcome.

At the beginning, the Europeans saw SDI as a serious threat to NATO itself because if, hypothetically, the United States were able to achieve a security system that would protect us against Soviet ballistic missiles, what did this say about our nuclear guarantee for Europe, which at least in theory was designed to protect them against the overwhelming Soviet preponderance in armored forces in Central Europe?

The Europeans saw SDI as an indication that the United States, at least theoretically, was interested in backing away from this commitment to Europe and building a “Fortress America,” with this high-tech system that would protect us, but not them.

The proposal was seen in Europe as changing American nuclear policy without consulting the Allies with whom the policy had been developed. It was a real bombshell. The “evil empire” speech to the religious broadcasters, which came a week or 10 days before the SDI announcement, was likewise seen as a sign of something strange going on in the United States, not that the Europeans thought that the Soviet Union was a nice place, or that the Soviet leaders were nice guys. But, the using the term “evil empire” in public struck them — even [British Primer Minister] Mrs. Thatcher — as being a little heavy.

“The announcement was a total surprise to everyone working on the issue”

[The Reagan announcement] was a total surprise to everyone working on the issue, at least at my level. I had had some inklings from NSC [National Security Council] staff that they wanted to keep their options open, but I don’t know if they knew about SDI or were just reflecting a general Republican policy that opposed space arms control. Some senior officials may have known before Reagan’s speech, but the people in the bureaucracy were all surprised. Certainly in ACDA [Arms Control and Disarmament Agency], most people were upset about it that is an understatement — they were outraged.

HARRISON: The Star Wars speech [took] our bureaucracy and theirs by surprise, and it changed 35 years of nuclear strategy overnight. It showed the power of a popular president who knows what he knows. A lobby group called High Frontier had produced this cartoon of laser platforms in space destroying nuclear warheads. It looked like a good idea. Complete fantasy at the time, and a complete fantasy now as far as that goes. It had great political appeal and Reagan was a great politician, maybe the best certainly since FDR, a man who knew what would appeal. If it appealed to him, it would appeal to the electorate, and it did.

But it didn’t appeal to the people who had laboring in the vineyards for years to build or limit weapons in keeping with existing nuclear strategy, and now found their assumptions – particularly the assumption that defensive measures were really offensive in effect, since they would prevent retaliation and therefore encourage preemption — overthrown. Defense, in short, would invalidate mutual assured destruction. MAD was all bloodthirsty, awful, academic nonsense of course, but Reagan was the first President to question it. MAD just didn’t make sense to him.

DUNKERLEY: SDI became a major issue because it constituted a new and potentially significant direction for U.S. defense policy – one with implications not just for the relationship with our strategic adversary of that time, the Soviet Union, but no less for the fundamentals of our security relationships with allies and friends in the context of deterrence.

That is to say, how might SDI impact perceptions of stability, or instability, within a structure of mutual assured deterrence that had grown up with our primary adversary? How might SDI come to affect hard-won political and military credibility of the structure of extended deterrence that had been built up at the core of NATO strategy over the years? Those were tough questions.

The concept of SDI at that most initial stage was at a high level of abstraction with considerable political symbolism and many practical uncertainties. Therefore one of the immediate tasks, at least from the perspective of those working such issues at State, was to develop a better sense of its potential substance and strategic direction in the face of a host of immediate questions and anxieties on the part of the Allies let alone the Soviets. Within the EUR [European Affairs] Bureau at least, we spent a good deal of time during this period, both in interagency debate and consultation with the allies, seeking to explore what SDI could come to represent in the context of Alliance strategy and to build support for the notion of constructive cooperation in that direction.

At the same time, both Secretary [of State George] Shultz and President Reagan had been sending out signals, even well before Gorbachev’s rise, that indicated a readiness, should there be a Soviet return to the nuclear negotiations, to explore a more potentially positive course on a broad, multi-faceted agenda of issues with Moscow. The prospect of SDI, and the prohibitive cost of racing the Americans in this field, seemed to have captured Russian attention and was seen by some as a further factor affecting their decision to return.

But what my EUR colleagues and I did not at that time fully appreciate was the extent to which Soviet internal economic and political problems were mounting, let alone what Gorbachev’s advent as a new leader might eventually come to foreshadow in terms of new policies.

CARLUCCI: Gorbachev caught the President by surprise [at the bilateral summit in Reykjavik] and proposed the virtual elimination of nuclear weapons if the President would give up SDI, what the press liked to label Star Wars – a misnomer. At any rate, the administration came very close to agreeing to that but Ronald Reagan fortunately was unwilling to give up SDI. Obviously, this had a real traumatic effect in Europe.

One of the ceaseless tasks that I had, and my predecessors all had, was trying to convince Ronald Reagan that nuclear weapons were essential to keep the balance between the big powers. The Soviets had conventional superiority and nuclear weapons had actually kept the peace for many years. While we should reduce them — no question we should negotiate a balanced reduction, I was very much in favor of that — to simply eliminate them would put us at very high risk and traumatize our allies.

Of course this was the position Margaret Thatcher took as well. That was very helpful. Ronald Reagan had always been very much against nuclear weapons and the faster you could get rid of them, the better he liked it.

“The Defense Department was afraid of Reagan’s anti-nuclear leanings”

HARRISON: The right wing in Washington had welcomed it because they thought it would make any negotiation with the Soviets impossible. The Soviets would see missile defense as threatening, since it could lessen their retaliatory capability and therefore encourage a U.S. first strike. That’s what the doctrine said, and that’s what we had argued when the Soviets had dabbled in anti-missile development.

But if Reagan knew about that doctrine, he didn’t care about it. The problem was that when you came to negotiating details of an agreement which affected the fate of a thousand or so nuclear warheads, that’s serious business, you have to get the details right. The last thing anyone wanted to do was to ask Reagan about details.

Theoretically, the substance of such important agreements had to be a presidential decision, but in practical ter

ms everyone labored long and hard to keep that from being the case. As I said, Defense didn’t want these issues to go to Reagan because they were afraid of Reagan’s anti-nuclear leanings.

That had been underlined the Reykjavik summit, where Reagan and Gorbachev had agreed, very briefly, to abolish all land-based ICBMs before Reagan could be hauled into a bathroom during a break by Bob Linhard (pictured) and Richard Perle and told it was impractical thing to do, especially at a time when the Administration was trying to convince Congress to fund a new generation of land-based missiles, the MX.

But Reagan still might have bought the deal, in my opinion, if Gorbachev had not insisted that it be tied to limitations on Reagan’s anti-missile program.

STEARMAN: I felt it was smart to develop [SDI] because the Soviets had, in any case, been working on it. I never believed in “mutual assured destruction” and neither did the Soviets. We knew that. I thought it was infinitely preferable to have something that would make our deterrent more credible. This would have contributed greatly to world peace and stability. I was a firm believer without knowing much about the technicalities, but I knew our capabilities and those of the Soviets so I was confident we could do something.

The problem was that people in this country thought that Reagan had said that we could deploy a leakproof umbrella which would protect us from all missiles. Reagan never really meant that, but, unfortunately, he never said clearly enough that this was not what he had in mind and that 100 percent protection was impossible. It was never explained the way it should have been, I think. So I partly blame Reagan and others in the White House for the widespread skepticism and opposition to SDI.

In a very revealing and generally overlooked interview published in Time magazine in early September, 1985, Gorbachev called upon Congress to withhold SDI funding in order to confine it permanently to the laboratory. I couldn’t believe that nobody picked up on this. I did, however, in a memo which went to the President.

Nobody else seemed to appreciate the incredible candor of this man. It was of enormous importance to him to continue this détente. It wasn’t entirely, of course, just to encourage us not to fund SDI. He also wanted to modernize the Soviet Union and bring it into the later part of the 20th century. There were multiple reasons for his détente and liberalization programs both in foreign policy and domestic policy, but the main objective was killing SDI. I got this indirectly from Gorbachev himself and certainly from a number of other top Soviet leaders who said that SDI was overwhelmingly the factor that led Gorbachev to do what he did…what he felt compelled to do.

So in the summer of 1989, he clearly stated to the Eastern European countries that the Soviet Union would not use force to correct any “mistakes” they made. Referring to Sinatra’s song…”Doing it my way,” is how the Soviet spokesman explained it at the time

“The Brits thought it was terrible”

Q: How did your British colleagues react? How were they seeing this?

HARRISON: Very negatively. They thought it was terrible because, among other things, it was going to end the strategic arms reduction negotiations. MAD was the thing. Our force posture was based on it, the negotiations were based on it, everything was based on it. Although the Soviets never accepted MAD as such, their force posture was based on it, too. As for the British, they were just then trying to get their submarine-based nuclear force modernized – there was great opposition in Parliament – and Reagan was saying, in effect, that we would make nuclear missiles obsolete.

There was also the implication in Reagan’s approach, at least from Europe’s prospective, that we planned to shelter behind our nuclear defenses and avoid the irritation of dealing with pesky foreigners, including them. I dutifully reported all this negative reaction – it was the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] reaction, by the way, not so much the public reaction.

Rick Burt, who was then Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, asked for as much negative reaction as we could report. He was a traditional MAD kind of guy, and shared some of the European view. Jim Dobbins told me that Reagan would probably forget the whole thing in a couple of weeks. Needless to say, he didn’t.

The problem for me was that I went on reporting the negative feedback after the political winds in Washington shifted and Burt decided he better get with the program. SDI might contradict three decades of deterrence theory, but he either didn’t know or didn’t care, which was precisely the right attitude to take, although I didn’t think so at the time.

PERINA: My overwhelming impression from NATO was that this was basically a U.S.-run organization. One could really sense that. Most of the Allies were quite deferential to the United States, the French always being a certain exception. In fact, most of the delegates at NATO tended to be even more pro-American than their governments, or at least they tried to give us that impression.

In my time, we never had a really heated discussion at NATO, even though I think many Allies were skeptical of some of our policies such as INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force]deployment and SDI… NATO was a club and largely our club. It was a very friendly environment for the U.S.

“From Gorbachev on down, they all believed that we could eventually deploy a strategic defense that would turn things upside down”

CARLUCCI: Gorbachev, as was well known, hated SDI. Not without reason, because he knew it would force a reconfiguration of the Soviet strategic forces. He believed we could do it, unlike a lot of people in the United States. At one point in the deliberations on INF, he said something to George [Shultz] like, “You’re going to have to get rid of the SDI.”

George, I guess, had been tired of hearing this, and he said, “SDI is really President Reagan’s initiative so I’m going to ask Frank [Carlucci] to respond to that.”

I was tired of it, too. I guess we were all tired. I said, “Well, Mr. Secretary General, [of the Communist Party] (which is what he was at the time), what you just said is totally unacceptable to the President.” With that Gorbachev threw down his pencil. His staff later told me this was not planned — he threw his pencil and said, “If that’s the attitude you have, then there won’t be a summit.”

STEARMAN: One of their principal objectives was to thwart SDI and also to get us to throttle back on the substantial military buildup that Reagan had introduced when he came into office… One thing you have to bear in mind about SDI, which is very important, was that, although it was pooh-poohed in this country by many and not even taken that seriously by some in the NSC, it was taken very seriously in the Soviet Union.

The Soviets had been working on this problem for 30 years, and they were convinced that with our technology and engineering skills that we could do it. If we could come up with a SDI, which was only 50 percent effective, that would radically change the strategic balance in our favor. In fact, we learned that some of their top military leaders believed it could be as much as 65 percent effective.

So from Gorbachev on down, they all believed that we could eventually deploy a strategic defense that would absolutely turn things upside down. One must always bear in mind that military power to the Soviet Union was essentially a political instrument. This seems to be awfully hard for us Americans to understand. The [Soviets] looked upon it as a political and diplomatic tool. I do not believe they ever seriously considered attacking the United States they certainly never wanted war with us, but they built up their military power in order to gain political and diplomatic leverage.

So they felt that if we gained an enormous strategic advantage over them, they would lose most of the political and diplomatic leverage that their very costly military power had bought them, which was the only thing that made them a superpower. Anyway, they thought SDI was enormously important.

I have subsequently found out that everybody from Gorbachev on down believed it could work. Several years ago, I was sitting next to a Soviet Lt. General at a dinner party and I said, “General, do you people think SDI can work?”

He looked at me as if I had asked him if the sun will come up tomorrow. He said, “Of course.” That was a given.

“SDI helped make them think they could not compete with us”

SHOSTAL: I saw a fundamental contradiction in the Soviet response to SDI. On the one hand they would argue that it couldn’t work. I remember going to a lecture by a very prominent Soviet physicist, Roald Sagdoyev, in which he said at the University of Hamburg that SDI would never work. That was part one of his presentation.

Part two of his presentation was how this was destabilizing to the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and would lead to political tensions. When I heard that it seemed to me that something is strange here and there certainly was a contradiction.

That sense of contradiction converted me from having been initially very critical of SDI, to recognizing that the Soviets were worried about it for other reasons that they really weren’t stating. I think those reasons had much to do with the pressure and challenge that SDI represented to their economic system, to their scientific establishment and their fear that they simply wouldn’t be able to keep up with American technology development that might result from the SDI.

Q: In foreign affairs the whole Star Wars thing as it developed was really considered to be one of the weights that helped to break the Soviet Union. The technology was such that the Soviets were becoming more and more aware that they couldn’t keep pace if we were going to get in to this. Is it true there wasn’t much behind it except a thought?

MERRILL: There was much more behind it than most realized, but perhaps not as much as some others thought. What Richard Perle (pictured in 2009) and I both believe is that the Russians thought the U.S. had found a specific route to workable missile defenses. They realized that such a defense was possible even as we did. All we had found, however, was an approach.

The Soviets were ahead of us in understanding there was a revolution in military affairs taking place based on information technology. Point it here shoot it there. GPS, space based navigation, precision guided missiles. The three great military revolutions taking place in the world involve precision guided weapons, defensive technologies, and transparency of all large objects and fixed sites.

The importance of Star Wars, that is, the SDI program cannot be overstated. If nothing else it convinced the Soviets that we had somehow found the road map to the new information technologies and to what we now call the revolution in military affairs. Whether we had at that time or not is secondary to the point that the Soviets believed we had. It helped make them think they could not compete with us.

Q: I recall that at one point Reagan made a proposal to share the technology with the Soviets so that we could each stop the other’s missiles.

PERINA: Right. But the Soviets were convinced it was a trick. They could not believe that we would really share such technology with them, since they would never share it with us if tables were turned.

You have to put this in the context of the revolution that was taking place in the United States and in the West, with average people starting to acquire personal computers, and kids growing up at home and in school with computer skills. The Soviets saw all this, and they were terrified. Their own kids were still working with an abacus in most of their schools.

They saw themselves falling behind technologically in a way that would be qualitative and devastating. They never expressed it that way but one could sense it in talks with them. I was not an expert on SDI. I didn’t know if it would or would not work. But I saw it as a useful ploy to motivate the Soviets to change to a freer, more open system that could keep pace with Western technological development.

Their closed, authoritarian system just could not do that. In conversations, they always tried to pick up on Western skepticism and say, “SDI won’t work and even your own experts say it won’t work.”

But I would answer something like “Well, you know, if you can build a missile that can fly 5000 miles and hit a square block, don’t you think it would be easier to find some way to throw that missile off course?” They were very scared that this was indeed true and we would beat them to doing it.

The INF and SDI

GLITMAN: In a speech, Gorbachev seemed to put linkage back into effect. In other words, he referred to the settlement of the SDI question as a precondition for moving ahead on his proposal on eliminating all offensive nuclear weapons by the year 2000. The specific linkage with SDI was contained in a sweeping proposal dealing with nuclear arms, which can reach each other’s territories, that is strategic arms.

A separate portion of the speech called for the complete liquidation of Soviet and U.S. medium range missiles in the European zone. Again, this is a zero coming out from their side, but limited to the European zone, and as we’ve seen, the Soviet SS-20s (pictured) outside of Europe were still capable of hitting targets in most of NATO Europe.

PERINA: The talks never got very far. The Soviets could not stop either SDI or INF deployment. The major obstacle to INF was Western European resistance, not Moscow. Eventually arms control talks were all overtaken by events when the Warsaw Pact and later the Soviet Union came apart. It was a whole new ballgame.

GLITMAN: I felt that U.S. SDI deployments were not a particular threat to the Soviet INF missiles, so the link between SDI and INF was not as salient as that between SDI and Strategic Offensive Forces. It would therefore be difficult for us to explain to our NATO allies why an INF agreement was being held up for lack of an agreement on SDI.

The problem here was that we could not and certainly could not be seen as trading off something which was of interest to our allies in the INF area, in order to get something in the strategic side. This would be seen as our leaving them in the lurch, so to speak, and would have enormous political repercussions. So it seemed to me that we really needed to try our best to see if we could not work out a separate arrangement for INF without having INF held up because of this back and forth on the SDI and strategic side.

The problem for INF, however, was that it really didn’t fit neatly into this package. There was obviously some relationship because of the overlaying ranges between INF systems and strategic systems, but essentially they did serve different purposes. It was particularly true of the Soviet SS-20.

What made it such a politically charged weapon was the fact that from its normal bases, where Soviets were placing them, it really could not strike the U.S. proper. If they put them in a base way up north they could, but from where they were putting them, they couldn’t strike the U.S., maybe just the corner of Alaska, but essentially not reach too deeply into the U.S. But they could strike Europe and much of Asia. If you look at some of the charts we had prepared to show the range arcs from the SS-20s, a fairly high percentage of human beings were in the range of those weapons.

HARRISON: Verification was always an issue in these negotiations. We had never seen an SS-20. How would we know how many were being produced? The solution was to station observers at the portals of production facilities to count them. But the missiles came out of the factories in canisters – not just the SS-20’s, but other missiles as well. Even if we had observers counting canisters, how would we know what was inside? Of course, we could have them opened, but then we would see other missiles that the Soviets wanted to keep secret and weren’t covered by the agreement.

The solution was to image them electronically. But then, how should the imaging device be configured so as not to compromise details of other missiles? In other words, what was the minimal imaging needed to ensure that we were counting intermediate range missiles.

Since all these processes would be reciprocal – the Soviets would also have observers at our factories, and would be imaging our missile canisters – this was a very fraught issue for the Joint Chiefs. It required a President decision. But no one thought Reagan actually made it. Bob Linhard had tested the bureaucratic waters, crafted language that nobody liked but everyone could live with, and that was the guidance we all received.

Of course, Linhard operated under real constraints. This was the era of Shultz and Weinberg at State and Defense and they had an unhappy relationship. Linhard couldn’t directly cross either of them.

At the same time, there was the general disinclination to involve Reagan in the details – a disinclination that, I’m convinced, Reagan shared. That gave Linhard maneuvering room which he used with great deftness and intelligence. As a bureaucratic situation, it suited me very well, because you could accomplish a great deal.

The outcome was the INF treaty. We never were able to solve some of the strategic arms limitation problems, but we made progress and success would come later. We pretty much put the stake through the heart of Mutual Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) with the Soviets: the Soviets would never agree on asymmetric reductions on conventional forces, so that negotiation never got anywhere. The INF treaty was the central achievement, and one of the hallmarks of what became the US-Russian relationship after the demise of the old USSR.

MERRILL: Disgraceful though it is, we have since spent nearly $50 billion so far on the SDI program at roughly $3 billion per year or about 1% of the defense budget. Not much in percentage terms but a lot in real terms.

We have gotten something for it but nowhere near what we could and should have. This is principally because much of the research has been constrained by a narrow legal interpretation of the ABM treaty. There’s not much point in researching things that are said to be illegal and less point in arguing over it with irrational opponents of the program. That the research was itself constrained means we wasted a lot of money that could have explored more productive areas. In the end the technology leads toward using space and new physical principles and away from a single ground-based point defense.

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