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The Strategic Defense Initiative — The Other “Star Wars”

On March 23rd, 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.