Star Wars Episode II: A New Shield?

Originally published here.

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan went on prime time television to deliver what has since become known as his “Star Wars speech”. He started his address by telling us that the “liberals in the House of Representatives” were “endangering the security of the nation” by proposing further defense budget cuts. The Soviets were constantly adding to their nuclear arsenal and developing new ways to destroy us, he stated. He wove an elaborate argument full of half-truths and flat-out lies. With a final flourish, he revealed his point:

Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today.

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?

And with that, Reagan revealed his new plan: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which also became known as his “Star Wars Program”. It was an ambitious missile defense shield/anti-ballistic missile program, based both on the ground and in space. The National Security Decision Directive 119 formalized the plan.

SDI, being defensive instead of offensive, would be the way to peace, Reagan claimed. It would render the Soviet nuclear capability impotent; why would they attack us if we could destroy their missiles in flight? And if they had an SDI program, why, all missile-delivered nuclear weapons would become obsolete!

The Soviets didn’t see it that way. Their KGB operatives and the Kremlin reacted:

… [T]hough the implementation of SDI lay far in the future, the rhetoric and television advertising were interpreted by the [KGB] Centre as further evidence of the US attempts to prepare its citizens for nuclear war.”

General Secretary Yuri Andropov’s reacted days later, saying that SDI’s purpose was to render the Soviet Union:

“… unable to deal a retaliatory strike [and] is a bid to disarm the Soviet Union in the face of the U.S. nuclear threat.”

[Pravda, March 27, 1983, quoted in Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes, 2007.]

The Cold War timeline as viewed in terms of the risk of nuclear war, via the Doomsday Clock, will show that 1983 was a profoundly tense year. The US had conducted a military exercise in Europe that was (wrongly) interpreted by the Soviets as a preparation for a nuclear attack; Reagan’s announcement of the SDI program simply added to the tension. Two years later, the gasoline continued to trip onto the fire; at a meeting with Reagan in Geneva, Gorbachev summed up the Soviet reaction to SDI [pdf]:

It only makes sense if it is to defend against a retaliatory strike. What would the West think if the Soviet Union was developina these weapons? You would react with horror…

…The Soviet conclusion is that if the U.S. implements its plan, the Soviet Union will not cooperate in an effort to gain superiority over it. We will have to frustrate this plan, and we will build up in order to smash your shield.

Instead of being the defensive tool Reagan intended it to be, the SDI proposal turned into a virtual weapon, opening up the possibility for a new arms race, and angering the Soviets.

By the time the Cold War came to an end in 1991, the SDI program remained a political concept, a technological dream that was eventually abandoned.

However, the idea of a missile defense shield has endured. Click here (pdf) for a graphic of the evolution of missile defense agencies, technology, and management.

The technology has been literally hit-or-miss. Test after test after test of multiple systems have failed. For example, in July 2000:

In the much-anticipated July 8 test of the Clinton administration’s proposed limited national missile defense (NMD), the system’s most high-profile element, the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), never separated from its booster, preventing the EKV from attempting to seek out and collide with an incoming target warhead high above the Pacific Ocean.

European missile defense system as of 2007-2008

Proposed missile defense shield in Europe, defending against Iranian missiles. Click to enlarge.*

Not to be deterred, George W. Bush and his first Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, accelerated the missile defense shield program, as well as withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. This opened up a whole world of possibilities for national missile defense:

The United States withdrew from the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty on June 13. Little pageantry or protest marked the U.S. move abrogating the treaty and its prohibition against nationwide missile defenses, despite often fierce debate on the accord within Washington and around the world.

And, in 2004, another test failed. In 2005, there were two more failures.  There have been successes, as well, but obviously, the technology is not yet reliable.

Again, that hasn’t meant a thing to Bush, who has stepped up the program to include a complex of interceptor missiles in Poland, and a tracking radar complex in the Czech Republic (pdf).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’ll know that US relations with Russia have hardly been friendly. The proposed US missile defense shield in Europe has been one of the main reasons for tensions between our countries. Although the stated purpose of the shield is “to defend us from Iran” (pdf), the Russians see it another way. From August 15, 2008:

The United States and Poland reached a long-stalled deal on Thursday to place an American missile defense base on Polish territory, in the strongest reaction so far to Russia’s military operation in Georgia.

Russia reacted angrily, saying that the move would worsen relations with the United States that have already been strained severely in the week since Russian troops entered separatist enclaves in Georgia, a close American ally.

But the deal reflected growing alarm in countries like Poland, once a conquered Soviet client state, about a newly rich and powerful Russia’s intentions in its former cold war sphere of power. In fact, negotiations dragged on for 18 months — but were completed only as old memories and new fears surfaced in recent days.

This is yet one more extremely touchy situation President-elect Obama will have to deal with. Here’s what Medvedev said several days ago:

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to reconsider plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Europe, saying Russia’s ready to drop its retaliatory measures in response.

Medvedev said his threat last week to deploy short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian region wedged between Poland and Lithuania, was a “proportionate” response to the “unilateral” U.S. missile-shield project promoted by President George W. Bush.

Russia is ready to “reverse this decision” if the new U.S. administration “reconsiders all the consequences of the move to station missiles and radars and its effectiveness,” Medvedev said in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, published today on the Kremlin Web Site.

Obama’s office on Nov. 8 said the president-elect had made “no commitment” to the planned missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia has warned that the proposed shield, which the U.S. says is necessary to protect against attack by “rogue states” such as Iran, would threaten its security. The dispute has contributed to a post-Cold War low in U.S.-Russia ties.

Obama has been very wary of the missile defense shield. He will undoubtedly face pressure to continue the project.

However, there is no reason to continue a project that has limited success, is extremely expensive, and “defends” against threats that are decades away. Obama’s national security advisory team has suggested that missile defense be one of the military projects that he eliminates.

On the 25th anniversary of Reagan’s Star Wars speech, physicists and security analysts David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I’ll end with a quote:

The real legacy of Reagan’s Star Wars speech is that missile defense has become a high-profile, politically symbolic program, rather than a military program judged on its merits. The continued political support for a program that still offers no prospect of defending the United States from a real-world missile attack and undermines efforts to eliminate the real nuclear threats to the United States shows that Reagan’s vision remains seductive–dangerously so.

And that’s exactly what our President-elect must avoid.

*Note: Click here for an animated guide to the proposed US missile defense system.

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