Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, before a television audience, President Ronald Reagan initiated one of the grandest defense boondoggles of all time, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Like many boondoggles, it was couched in sweet talk and lies:
The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression -- to preserve freedom and peace. ...
What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?
I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of the century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it's reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of efforts on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn't it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.
Those lines and the rest of the speech sure sounded good to many. As had been the case almost since the arrival of Werner von Braun and the other V-2 rocket engineers at the end of World War II, when it came to space, America talked peace and prepared for war. After sputnik went beeping around the planet every 96 minutes in 1957, the effort was greatly intensified, always with the threat of Soviet attack as the rationale. This was true whether it was JFK campaigning about a bogus "missile gap" or a 1980s Pentagon inflating Moscow’s military power at the urging of the Committee on the Present Danger’s nascent neo-conservatives. Reagan’s speech was nothing new on that score.
|On Sunday, Daily Kos Contributing Editor Plutonium Page will take look at the future of U.S. missile defense in Europe. In particular, she'll address what the likely proliferation effects of such installations will be.|
In fact, U.S. talk about putting weapons onto the ultimate high ground of outer space started well before President Reagan gave his Star Wars speech. In 1947, German Major General Walter Dornberger, who had headed the Nazi rocket program, began officially advising the U.S. Air Force. Like any good Nazi, he recommended putting nuclear bombs into orbit to attack Soviet cities and military installations. He also proposed a space-based defense against missiles, an orbiting ring of hundreds of satellites, sentries armed with small rockets capable of destroying enemy ICBMs.
Some of Dornberger’s proposals reached the prototype stage in the early 1960s. But, after a few atomic tests in space, the idea of nuclear bombs permanently dangling overhead scared both sides so much that such weapons were banned by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Technical, financial and political problems grounded the orbiting anti-ballistic missile concept, and the ABM Treaty of 1972 seemed to seal its fate forever. But Dornberger’s concept of satellite sentries survived to become the model for the SDI system that retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, a former deputy director of the CIA, began pushing before Reagan’s speech.
But, while the CPD and groups like the Heritage Foundation and Graham’s High Frontier were ecstatic over the prospect of taking out Soviet ICBMs with an orbiting "shield" of laser weapons backed up by missiles and other sea-, air- and ground-based weapons, many scientists and arms control experts were appalled.
While building a defensive umbrella over the United States appeared appealing to the uninitiated, for those in the know, it presented the likelihood not only of an expensive new arms race but also the very real possibility that instead of protecting Americans (and possibly their European allies) against a nuclear slaughter, it would spur one. Building and switching on such a system, critics said, would smash the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. And that would not be a good thing, as Reagan’s speech implied, but a very bad thing.
Why? Because a broad range of experts believed – and still believe – that it’s impossible for a missile shield to nail all or even most thousands of warheads from incoming ballistic missiles. Unless, that is, the United States used that shield to launch a first strike. Such an attack might catch 90% or 95% of Soviet missiles before they could be fired. Only a comparative few would be left for the missile shield to knock down with lasers, interceptor missiles and other weapons, an achievable task. Perhaps only a handful of Soviet missiles would get through to take out, say, Seattle, Denver, and Baltimore. Meanwhile, the USSR would lie in ruins.
Many in the Soviet High Command at the time believed, in fact, that the system - soon derisively called "Star Wars" in by critics in the U.S. media - had the express purpose of backing up a first strike. Perceiving the system as unworkable for defensive purposes, and easily overcome in that mode by decoys and other relatively cheap technology, but perfect for aggression, some Soviet strategists argued that the only way to deal with such a system would be to attack it before it became operational. And that would lead to the long-feared exchange of 6000 or more warheads that some scientists were at the time saying could bring on a "nuclear winter."
By eliminating the possibility of an effective retaliation, a missile shield of the sort Reagan and his experts proposed would trash Mutual Assured Destruction, which, by reason of its diabolical essence, had kept the peace for more than two decades (although there had been some close calls). Instead of making the world safer, the missile shield would destabilize a wary stand-off.
But, surely, as Reagan said at the time, "The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor." In fact, some members of the Committee on the Present Danger argued that the U.S. should strike the Soviet Union and get done with a war they expected would eventually happen anyway.
While the theorists argued over the strategic prospects of a missile shield, some experts challenged the technical aspects. None suggested that it would be impossible to shoot down a few dozen Soviet ICBMs or SLBMs with a full-blown system of defense. Developments since have borne them out. Although the testing regime of the various incarnations of Missile Defense Agency since 1983 has been less than a rigorous reflection of the real world, knocking down a single missile or a handful of missiles coming at the United States in a surprise attack is no doubt doable. The interceptors are probably approaching reliability, and the Airborne Laser holds considerable promise.
And William J. Broad, The New York Times’s resident expert on Star Wars from the beginning, reported last September:
Space weapons are "still definitely part of the program," said Philip E. Coyle III, a former director of weapon testing at the Pentagon. "But they don’t emphasize it because the arms-control people come out of the woodwork."
But, in the aftermath of Reagan’s speech, many experts who believed that the shield was meant to be a defensive umbrella capable of taking out a few thousand Soviet missiles rising from silos, submarine tubes and mobile launchers scattered around the globe said it couldn’t be done. Couldn’t be done no matter how exotic the weapons. And they were exotic. Although the ground- and sea-based portions of the plan were predicated on significant guidance-system upgrades of existing missile and anti-missiles, the space-based stuff was, well, out there. Some hawks still have hopes for them.
One proposal was to put thousands of chemical lasers into orbit. When rising missiles were detected, the orbiting weapons would lock onto their targets and pierce the thin skin of Soviet booster rockets, exploding the fuel and preventing the warheads from reaching their intended destinations.
Only a few dozen problems with that idea. For instance, getting hundreds of laser-firing satellites into orbit would take far more space launches than the U.S. had ever previously done, and keeping them cocked-and-ready with fluorine or other fuels would take annual lifting capability equal to that usually associated with a major seaport. Moreover, the system would require a couple of million lines of computer code that could never be fully debugged in a realistic environment.
Even if these weapons could be orbited and fueled, and the code could be tested, they could be easily destroyed by much cheaper, simpler, smaller enemy satellites manufactured in abundance.
There were also other ideas for the orbiting portion of the shield. Kinetic rail-guns firing projectiles at Mach 5, a 4000-satellite array shooting watermelon-sized "brilliant pebbles," and "rods from God," the last a first-strike weapon that would drop tungsten rods at the speed of a meteor to penetrate the earth with the power of a nuke, but without radioactive fall-out.
Perhaps the most infernal of the proposed weapons was promoted by Edward Teller, the demon genius who once argued that the media should not discuss lethal Soviet nuclear disasters because this would turn Americans off to the idea of expanding commercial nuclear power.
It was Teller’s misleading views on the potential of the X-ray laser that first roused Reagan’s passionate interest in Star Wars. The idea was straightforward enough. Put into orbit nuclear weapons – which would require opting out of the Outer Space Treaty. Faced with an attack, the United States would set off the nukes to generate multiple beams of radiation to demolish incoming missiles. Teller claimed that a single, desk-sized laser could strike as many as 100,000 targets all at once, something others scientists said grotesquely overstated the case.
Be that as it may, however many X-ray beams would emerge from however many satellites, they would have to be generated simultaneously because the nuclear explosion would destroy the electronics of other satellites, including satellites the military depended on for command, control and communication. Indeed, one way an enemy might wreck the ability to use orbiting weapons would be to set off a handful of nuclear explosions in space ahead of time.
One selling point of the Strategic Defense Initiative was that innovations would generate new commercial products far more lucrative than Tang and Teflon. A key proponent of this was James Ionson, who, in 1985, was an up-and-coming 32-year-old astrophysicist. He once said he had an "ego the size of the moon." Seeing the flow of Star Wars cash, Ionson persuaded James Abrahamson, who was the first Air Force general in charge of SDI, to set up and put him in charge of the Innovative Science and Technology program. IST became the basic SDI research arm, passing along more than $100 million annually of its huge budget to university research facilities and high-tech companies to look into gamma-ray lasers, superconductivity, strong-but-lightweight materials and other risky, expensive endeavors. Ionson was also in charge of commercial spin-offs of SDI innovations.
The glowing reports from IST persuaded many SDI advocates that, even if no missile shield were ever built, the spending involved would create technological advances making for a prosperous American future. This at a time when Reagan had gutted research into renewable energy. According to New Scientist, one company, Business Communications Company of Stamford, Conn., claimed in 1986 that SDI technology spin-offs could reach $20 trillion, or $38 trillion in 2008 dollars.
In 1988, Ionson took leave of IST and set up JDC Enterprises to buy the emerging SDI technologies and sell them to corporate customers for a handsome profit. Ionson said, "In some cases, these technologies are so close to the commercial marketplace, the people who have invented them don’t even realize it. You an get a quick turnaround on your investment."
Three years later, unable to find any customers, Ionson left to work for Polaroid and JDC closed its doors.
As for Star Wars itself, despite Teller’s claims and the claims of High Frontier’s General Graham in 1986 that "off-the-shelf" technology was available to fast-track a missile shield that would be operational in 1996, and the spending of at least 150 billion inflation-adjusted dollars, the plan to bring an end to threaten of annihilation by nuclear weapons remains elusive.
But the Cheney-Bush administration has made great headway in spending more money than previous presidents on the project, and managed to extract the United States from the 30-year-old ABM Treaty that previously stood in the way of Star Wars deployment.