“Star Wars”: The Strategic Defense Initiative

Writer’s Comment: I was quite surprised to hear that this essay was a winner, considering that it was the very first essay I wrote in college. It is also the longest piece of technical writing I have ever written, and I even had to cut several pages of graphics to get it down to the fifteen-page limit. The prompt for this essay was to investigate in depth one subject in the life and legacy of Dr. Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” We were encouraged to discuss any topic which derived from or was an implication of the development of the first atomic weapons. I am a huge Star Wars fan, so when I came across the other Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative) in my research, I decided that it would be something fun to learn about, even if it’s hardly related to the movies. After skimming through nearly twenty library books, I was able to choose a few subtopics to focus on, including the physical aspects of how Star Wars would work and what its effects on the economy would be. I hope you enjoy my essay as you learn about this interesting subject. 
—Melanie Krieg

Instructor’s Comment: I am very proud of Melanie’s award for her paper originally prepared for my Fall 08 class IST8C – Dr. Oppenheimer: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love WMD. The course, provided through the Integrated Studies Honors Program, focused on the relationship between J. Robert Oppenheimer and two other contemporary physicists, Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, all three of whom were at one time UC professors (Oppenheimer and Lawrence at Berkeley and Teller at Davis). Melanie’s term paper explored Teller’s important role in encouraging President Reagan to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative, more popularly known as “Star Wars” due to SDI’s similarities to the very popular science fiction films by George Lucas. Melanie did an exceptional job of exhaustively covering the technology, politics, and economics of SDI. Her paper was a tour de force and not surprisingly contributed to her well-deserved grade of A+ in the class. The Prized Writing award is further evidence of the exceptional quality of her scholarship.
—James Shackelford, Integrated Studies Honors Program

In a keynote speech on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced “a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive,” and he further called “upon the scientific community who gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace; to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete” (Bowman 132). Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed “Star Wars” by opponents who believed it to be fantastic and untenable, became the focus of much controversy during the 1980s. Aside from the physical complexities involved in developing a missile defense system, SDI encountered several political barriers concerning its economic effects and its conflicts with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The debate on Star Wars spread worldwide, creating competition from countries such as the Soviet Union, and attracting several prominent scientists, including Edward Teller. Now, over two decades since SDI was announced by President Reagan, Star Wars has been abandoned, but the United States is still trying to develop a system to counter a nuclear attack. As Freeman Dyson said during his visit to our class, the concept of SDI is “not altogether foolish in principle,” but it is merely “a hope without much technical substance.”

I.    The Basics of a Strategic Defense System
The ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile, is first introduced in Brotherhood of the Bomb as the “hypersonic, H-bomb-tipped [. . .] ‘ultimate weapon’” (Herken 308). A typical ballistic missile is between 30 and 100 feet long, and can accelerate to speeds of 15,000 miles per hour (Margulies 25). Some ICBMs carry only one warhead, which is defined as the portion of the missile that contains the actual nuclear weapon. However, other ICBMs are classified as MIRVed, which stands for “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.” This means that several bombs are mounted on top of the bus of the missile, and each of these separate bombs can be simultaneously launched at different targets (Lampton 14).

Once launched, the course of an ICBM consists of four phases: the boost phase, postboost phase, midcourse phase, and terminal phase, which can also be called the reentry phase (Margulies 26). The boost phase is very quick, sometimes lasting only three or four minutes. This is the time when the missile is launched and accelerates to the edge of the atmosphere, where the engine will drop to decrease the weight of the missile. During the postboost phase, a single-warhead missile will direct itself toward its target, while a missile with multiple warheads will release all of its bombs. Additionally, missiles can detach decoy bombs, which are made of tinfoil, aluminum, or chaff. During the midcourse phase, which lasts for approximately twenty minutes, the warheads and decoys travel through space towards their intended targets. When the decoys are detected by radar, it is nearly impossible to distinguish them from the actual bombs. Therefore, the defensive forces may waste a lot of time and resources trying to shoot them down. In the last phase, referred to as the terminal or reentry phase, the warheads reenter the atmosphere and finally explode at a specified height or on the ground. During this last phase, it is hardest to shoot down the missiles. However, the atmosphere affects the decoys differently than the actual warheads, so it is easy to distinguish them from one another at this time. “For a missile flying from the Soviet Union to the United States, the whole trip would take about half an hour” (Lampton 16). 

The main purpose of Star Wars was to create a “shield,” with the goal of stopping or deflecting a missile attack. A strategic defense system would consist of layered defenses. Each “layer” targets a different phase of the flight of the enemy’s missile (Margulies 29). The first layer consists of spy systems, such as satellites, ground radar, and infrared detectors to detect the missiles as soon as they are launched. Because of the bulkiness of the engines and the volume of rocket fuel in the missile, it is easiest to destroy a missile during the boost phase. During this phase, missiles would be destroyed with counter-missiles, which could be ground, air, or space-based, and kinetic energy weapons, which collide with the ballistic missile. During the midcourse phase, strategic defense would have to rely on an EKV, or exoatmospheric kill vehicle, which is a package of sensors similar to a computer that could be launched on top of the intercepting rocket and home in on the warhead, destroying it by colliding with it (Margulies 31). Ground-based interceptors are lasers, particle beams, and missiles located on the ground or on aircraft and submarines. These weapons would be used as the final “layer” of defense to shoot down the warheads that have already entered the atmosphere. 

The Star Wars program consisted of several plans to counter nuclear missiles, including laser beams, which would be mounted on satellites in space to shoot down nuclear missiles. A mirror would be used to reflect the beam towards the missile. There was also a proposition to use an excimer laser, which is a very powerful laser beam with a short wavelength (Lampton 36). However, the excimer laser would be much too big to launch into orbit. Particle-beam weapons and smart rocks, missiles with computers inside, were also proposed as means to counter a Soviet missile attack. However, each of these countermeasures has several technical problems, and none of them has been proven to be completely effective.

II.    Arms Control and the ABM Treaty
Before 1972, the United States was a signatory with the Soviet Union in two important treaties: the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) and the Outer Space Treaty (1967). In these treaties, both countries agreed to neither test nor deploy nuclear weapons in outer space. In 1972, a new treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union was signed that prohibited each country from having an anti-ballistic missile system, thereby “[halting] a competition in defensive weaponry against strategic weapons systems, and [preventing] a runaway offensive nuclear arms race” (Boutwell and Scribner 17). This Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty specifically prohibited the development, testing, and deployment of space-based ABM systems and components. 

The physical aspects of the Strategic Defense Initiative, if achieved, would undoubtedly violate the ABM Treaty. While the United States would not be violating the treaty by doing research, once system development began there would be blatant conflicts. To add further complications, the treaty failed to specifically address how it would deal with any future technologies that might be constructed differently than the current ABM systems. To appease his detractors, President Reagan asserted in the April 1987 Report to Congress on the Strategic Defense Initiative that he would comply with a more restrictive interpretation of the treaty rather than the broader one. Under this restrictive interpretation, “development and testing of ABM systems based on other physical principles are allowed only for fixed land-based systems and components” (Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, 1987, Appendix D-3). 

For the United States to be in complete compliance with the ABM Treaty, it could pursue three specific types of allowed activities. First, conceptual design and laboratory testing would be permitted under the treaty’s limits. Secondly, “field testing” of devices that are not ABM components or prototypes of ABM components is allowed. However, Article V of the ABM Treaty specifically prohibits the development, testing, and deployment of weapons that are ABM systems, whether they are land-based, sea-based, or air-based. Thirdly, “field testing” of fixed land-based ABM components is permitted, as long as it occurs in the agreed ABM test ranges and the total number of launched missiles does not exceed fifteen. The important aspect of fixed land-based systems which differentiates it from land-based systems is that the missiles must remain within the atmosphere instead of being launched all the way into outer space. The 1987 Report to Congress states that “SDI projects and experiments have been reviewed to ensure that they will be conducted in accordance with one of the three categories of activities permitted by the Treaty” (Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, Appendix D-8). 

The ABM Treaty is so significant because it essentially foreclosed a “destabilizing competition”(Boutwell and Scribner 20) between the two superpowers in defensive forces. By making such strict constraints on the permitted BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) deployments, the Treaty reduced fears that one country would “break out” of the Treaty and surreptitiously develop BMD systems that could be rapidly deployed, giving that country a great strategic advantage. In a pamphlet published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science concerning arms control implications of the Strategic Defense Initiative, Jeffrey Boutwell  and Richard Scribner postulated that in the next few years (late 1980s) the United States and Soviet Union might both find it in their best interests to amend or renegotiate parts of the ABM Treaty. However, it would be far better if this were a joint decision, so that the ABM Treaty is not “jeopardized by default” (20). The ABM Treaty helped to lessen the fears of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) by providing more security in the agreement to not develop the said BMD systems. Violations of the ABM Treaty by either country during this time would have certainly added more tension to the Cold War.

III.    The Cost of Star Wars and its Effects on the Economy

One of the main issues surrounding the Strategic Defense Initiative was its cost and how it would affect the economy. Dr. David Robinson of New York University analyzes the four main components of the Strategic Defense Initiative: SDI I is the “impenetrable shield” which would cover the United States, consisting of several aspects of boost-phase defense; SDI II is the system to defend our country’s own land-based ICBMs; SDI III is a system to defend against accidental launches; and SDI IV is a strategic defense against terrorists who might use an ICBM as blackmail (37). Robinson believes that there are several “better and cheaper” ways to solve the problems associated with these four components. For example, for SDI II, he suggests that instead of using active defense, we should improve our passive defense capabilities. Passive defense could be defined as placing missiles in secret areas, such as in silos, submarines, and aircraft, so that they are less likely to be attacked. For SDI IV, against terrorists, Dr. Robinson believes that a ground-based defense would be much more effective and cheaper than a space-based defense, and that the money allocated to the space-based defenses could be better spent. In his report, Robinson concludes that the “development and deployment of an SDI system wouldn’t bankrupt the economy, but it would exacerbate the economic distortions, diversion of technical talent, and general waste already typical of our defense and space procurement process” (38).

In one cost analysis published in October, 1986, by Barry Blechman and Victor Utgoff, the estimate to build a strategic defense system would “take perhaps $700 billion over a period of twenty-five years, with a peak expenditure of about $40 billion per year” (qtd. in Robinson 40n1). When asked if $40 billion a year of extra expenditures would bankrupt the economy, Blechman and Utgoff concluded that SDI “would have a significant effect on the economy unless fiscal and monetary policies at the time served to offset its impact” (qtd. in Robinson 39). However, instead of cutting programs or increasing taxes, Robinson believes that the defense budget would get distorted so that “low priority research on SDI is being carried out, while other defense-supported research of higher priority cannot go on.” Thus, the impact of SDI on the military research budget might have been greater than its impact on the economy as a whole (Robinson 41). 

One of the main issues discussed in the book, Star Wars: The Economic Fallout, by Rosy Nimroody, is the uneven distribution of SDI tax money on the states. The majority of the money went to the few states that had large military bases and seemed to already have high proportions of the SDI contracts. Between 1983 and 1986, “a total of 43 states comprising 80 percent of the nation’s population suffered net losses from the uneven distribution of SDI money” (112). California, referred to as the “heart of the military industrial complex,” received an overwhelming majority of the SDI contracts by 1988, which generated a large source of revenue for the state. However, Georgia, representing the other extreme, paid seven percent of its taxes for SDI, yet received only 0.2 percent of all SDI contracts compared with California’s 45 percent. These examples illustrate that “some areas prosper, [while] others in need lose vital tax dollars, employment, and consumer spending” (112). Although Star Wars was not completely bankrupting the economy at the time, the cost was much too high to be maintained. The Economic Fallout ends with the appeal, “We must seriously explore alternative peaceful solutions to the threat of nuclear war—now” (206).

IV.    The Soviet Union’s Perspective on Star Wars

In November, 1985, in a press conference in Geneva, Mikhail Gorbachev addressed SDI by boasting that “The Soviet leadership has already given the relevant instructions to competent organizations and scientists and we can say that our response will be effective, less costly, and may be realized in a shorter period” (qtd. in Mikheyev 78). However, this appeared to be merely a show of bravado. Dmitry Mikheyev states in the preface of The Soviet Perspective on the Strategic Defense Initiative that “Seen from the Kremlin, SDI poses formidable technological and economic challenges to the Soviet Union” (xi). One of the great fears of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was the loss of its existing legitimacy as a superpower, along with the fear of losing its overall power. 

SDI also posed threats to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. In an effort to remain technologically, economically, and politically competitive with the United States, the Soviet Union would have to improve the quality and competitiveness of its products. However, these actions would require a “market mechanism” which would directly challenge the ideology of the communist regime. “In short, SDI places before Moscow the following problem: to survive, it must compete; to compete, it must reform; yet to reform is to admit bankruptcy of the communist regime, and to make clear the unwisdom of the totalitarian control” (Mikheyev x). As can be seen, the Soviet Union regarded SDI in a much broader aspect than the “narrow military context” in which the United States held the Strategic Defense Initiative. 

The Soviet Union believed that the most important implications of SDI were those relating to the impact on the current and future military balance. The Soviet Union made several claims “for public consumption” as to the military purpose of SDI: first, the U.S. seeks to achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union, thus threatening to disrupt the current relationship of nuclear equality; second, SDI would undermine the arms control process and place the fate of humankind in the “hands” of computers, not humans; third, the objective of a completely defensive shield is illusive and will achieve no gain unless the United States’ ulterior motive is “the militarization of space under U.S. dominion”; and fourth, the United States seeks to acquire the first strike capability, placing Soviet space and ground-based installations at risk (Mikheyev xi). Although each of these claims reflects an element of falsehood, they all present a particular fear that was then part of the Soviet political mentality. 

In the 1989 Report to the Congress on the Strategic Defense Initiative, the United States mentions several programs that the Soviet Union was then pursuing, including kinetic energy weapons, laser weapons, particle beam weapons, and radio-frequency weapons. Additionally, as of this time, the Soviet Union was in possession of ASAT, the world’s only operational anti-satellite system. ASAT works by launching a satellite into an orbit very close to that of the target satellite and then exploding a warhead, destroying the target satellite. However, “despite these efforts, the Soviets remain an average of 10 years behind the West in civil and industrial applications of computers” (Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, 1989, Appendix A-5), which is a fact that the Soviets themselves acknowledge in The Soviet Perspective on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Another program that the Soviet Union had undertaken in response to SDI was to make their military assets less vulnerable to attack, by building ICBM silos, launch facilities, and command and control centers (Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, 1989, Appendix A-6). Obviously, the Soviet Union viewed SDI as a great threat to their society and made large efforts to retain their technological equality with the United States. Only one decade after the ratification of the ABM Treaty, both nations were on the path to building enormous anti-ballistic missile and counter-missile systems. One interesting statement made by Dmitry Mikheyev in 1987 is that “reductions in SDI—signifying a weakening of U.S. determination to follow through on the prospects of a defense-oriented deterrent—will send to Moscow the signal that the dilemma need not be confronted” (Mikheyev xii). Of course, neither nation would ever trust the other to completely abandon the “arms race,” and even by bringing the situation back to how it was after the creation of the ABM Treaty, the Cold War tensions would most likely have continued to exist.

V.    Edward Teller’s Relationship with Reagan and his Constant Support of SDI

Edward Teller first became interested in missile defense as early as 1945, but it was not until a visit in 1961 to the U.S. Air Command Center in Colorado Springs that he became an “enthusiastic proponent of research on missile defense” after hearing from the commanding general that they could track an incoming missile, but “there is nothing more we can do, other than to issue a warning” (Lettow 19). In January 1967, Ronald Reagan, after taking office as Governor of California, accepted an invitation to visit Teller at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore. Teller briefed Reagan for two hours on the Spartan and Sprint antimissile systems being developed in Livermore. Spartan and Sprint were “interceptor” missiles that would detonate warheads close enough to the enemy missiles to destroy them. This meeting with Teller was the first time that Reagan was introduced to the possibilities of missile defense. Although Reagan did not at that time endorse either Spartan or Sprint, he acknowledged that “missile defense” might be a possibility. (Lettow 20). 

Teller became a great proponent of the X-ray laser as a missile defense system, which would require a nuclear explosion to generate the laser’s energy (Lettow 58). On September 14, 1982, Teller met with Reagan for the first time since the latter became president. The X-ray laser was then being researched at the Livermore Laboratory, and Teller still believed it to be the best method of destroying ballistic missiles. However, President Reagan was “disinclined to favor the X-ray laser (and the Spartan and Sprint systems from the late 1960s) because they depended on nuclear detonations to destroy missiles” (Lettow 82). Teller admitted that Reagan did “have a real point” in asserting that SDI should focus on non-nuclear weapons as it would be more favorable both politically and technologically (Lettow 267). 

Although Reagan’s vision of SDI was influenced by the ideas of several prominent scientists, he asserts in his memoirs that “SDI wasn’t conceived by scientists” (qtd. in Lettow 82). Evidence indicates that the idea for SDI “originated with Reagan himself” (Lettow 82). As a policymaker, one of Reagan’s lifetime goals was to abolish nuclear weapons. He hoped that SDI would protect people from a nuclear holocaust while also providing a catalyst for the eventual abolition of all nuclear weapons. 

Teller may have been disappointed that his X-ray concept was not favored, but he nevertheless began to champion other technologies that were being explored. When confronted by critics about how SDI would not be one hundred percent effective, Teller responded, “Every weapon which is shot down, and shot down in such a manner that it will not explode, will fail to light a fire and will further decrease the chance for a nuclear winter” (Blumberg 181). Although SDI was confronted with several technological difficulties, Teller remained optimistic, concluding that “for the time being, we must aim at establishing some defense, if not a perfect defense” (Blumberg 202). 

Teller did have some bitter feelings about how the Soviet Union was reacting to SDI, responding in an interesting play on words that “the strategic defense initiative should be relabeled strategic defense response, for that is what we are doing, responding to the Soviet missile defense initiative” (Blumberg 203). Teller also faced much criticism from his long-time rival, Hans Bethe, who was strongly against the Strategic Defense Initiative. Nonetheless, after several spats with Bethe about the technological feasibility of Star Wars, Teller refused to back down, insisting that “American citizens are entitled to protection against enemy missiles” (Goodchild 383).

VI.    The Star Wars Debate: Arguments For and Against SDI

Shortly after delivering his famous Star Wars speech, President Ronald Reagan foreshadowed in his diary that it “would be a source of debate for some time to come” (Lettow 112). Although the majority of the population believed in the ultimate goal of Star Wars, the project would be a huge undertaking, spanning “a period of 30 years, from 1983 to about 2010,” and consisting of four phases, “a research phase, a systems development phase, a transition phase, and a final deployment phase” (Barnaby 87). 

Those who were in favor of Star Wars can be divided into four main groups (Barnaby 88). The first group consists of those who believed in the possibility of a complete defense against a Soviet ballistic missile attack, which is known as the “shield” or “astrodome” concept. The second group of advocates believed that a near-total defense against an attack was desirable mostly for the protection of the nation’s cities. The third group advocated the deploying of defensive missiles to protect not cities, but military targets, such as silos and command centers. Lastly, the fourth group, which represented a “rather extreme view” (Barnaby 89) believed in having a defensive missile attack which would only be sufficient to deal with the Soviet nuclear forces that survive an American pre-emptive attack. Regardless of which view they took, all proponents of Star Wars believed that such a defensive system was necessary to protect our nation from attack. 

However, there were countless arguments against Star Wars on both moral and technological grounds. Several eminent scientists were outstanding critics of Star Wars, including Hans Bethe. Many of these scientists were not against the principle of defense, but they believed that the research programs would cost billions and billions of dollars yet lead to only a feasible missile defense (Dyson, October 2008 lecture). In order for SDI to be effective, it would have to be one hundred percent effective, because even if a few Soviet missiles made it through America’s counter-attack, entire cities could be demolished. One of the main problems with Star Wars was that the stations, satellites, and mirrors in space would be extremely vulnerable to attack. Since these satellites and mirrors would have to be in a space orbit for a long time before any perceived attacks, the enemy would have plenty of time to detect their locations. Therefore the enemy could destroy the satellites so that the United States had no means of detecting and destroying the missiles that were launched into space. Thus, all of the radar and sensors for tracking enemy missiles had a major weakness that could have been easily exploited (Lampton 57-59). 

Additionally, there was no guarantee that SDI would work. A space-based defense would have to be run by a battle management computer, which would be programmed to detect attacks and aim the counter-missiles. Since computer simulation of a nuclear war would be nearly impossible to create, there would be no way to test these computers for accuracy except during the actual nuclear war, by which time it might be too late (Lampton 60). Ronald Reagan described Star Wars, saying, “it might take twenty years or more” (Lettow 112). However, an international crisis can erupt without warning, perpetrating an immediate nuclear war. While SDI defenses were still being researched and developed, the country would be vulnerable to attack. 

Many people believe that the best “defense” against an all-out nuclear attack is the concept of MAD (mutually assured destruction). The United States and the Soviet Union both have had the ability to create a nuclear war since the 1950s, but neither has used this ability. Several experts agree that the only reason a nuclear war has not occurred is because of the fear that the other side will retaliate with equal if not greater force. Although MAD is not a reliable system and does not create any assurances, it has continued to work. So far, the world is still in “one piece” (Lampton 55).

VII.    Conclusion

As Freeman Dyson expressed during his visit to our class, having nuclear weapons provides more “political status” than any true security and “doesn’t make much difference.” Even now, 25 years after the announcement of SDI, fewer than a dozen countries have nuclear programs, and some countries, such as South Africa, have had the “good sense” to abolish their nuclear programs. Strategic defense systems, such as Star Wars, have a clear purpose of defending a country from nuclear attack, but they have also encountered several technological and political obstacles. The best hope for a more peaceful future is for the United States to destroy all of its nuclear weapons, with the expectation that other countries will follow suit. Until this change actually occurs, complete peace between nations is only an illusive dream which may never occur.

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Dyson, Freeman. Class lecture. University of California, Davis. 28 October 2008.
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