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Profile: Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)

a.k.a. Star Wars

Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a participant or observer in the following events:

Strategic Defense Initiative logo.Strategic Defense Initiative logo. [Source: United States Missile Defense Agency]President Reagan announces his proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, later nicknamed “Star Wars”), originally conceived two years earlier (see 1981). SDI is envisioned as a wide-ranging missile defense system that, if it works, will protect the United States from nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union or other countries with ballistic missiles, essentially rendering nuclear weapons, in Reagan’s words, “impotent and obsolete.” Reagan says, “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.” Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s response is unprececented in its anger (see March 27, 1983); Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinyn says SDI will “open a new phase in the arms race.” (PBS 2000; Scoblic 2008, pp. 129)
US Hardliners 'Ecstatic' - Hardliners in and out of the Reagan administration are, in author J. Peter Scoblic’s characterization, “ecstatic, seeing SDI as the ultimate refutation of [the principle of] mutual assured destruction and therefore of the status quo, which left [the US] unable to seek victory over the Soviet Union.” The day after the speech, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) sends Reagan a one-sentence letter: “That was the best statement I have heard from any president.”
'Less Suicidal' Adjunct to First Strike - Scoblic will write that if SDI is implemented as envisioned, “[a]lthough the Soviets would still be able to inflict enough damage that a first strike by the United States would be suicidal, it would be ‘less suicidal’ to the extent that such a concept made sense, which some Reagan officials believed it did. In short, SDI was a better adjunct to a first strike than it was a standalone defense. That made it critically destabilizing, which is why missile defense had been outlawed by [earlier treaties] in the first place.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 129-130)

In an unusual display of rhetorical anger, the Soviet Union’s General Secretary, Yuri Andropov, responds to the US’s announcement of its development of an anti-ballistic missile defense (SDI, or “Star Wars”—see March 23, 1983) by accusing President Reagan of “inventing new plans on how to unleash a nuclear war in the best way, with the hope of winning it.” CIA analyst Benjamin Fischer will later call Andropov’s statement “unprecedented.” Ignoring the counsel of his own advisers to remain calm, Andropov, with unusually heated rhetoric, denounces the US program as a “bid to disarm the Soviet Union in the face of the US nuclear threat.” Such space-based defense, he says, “would open the floodgates of a runaway race of all types of strategic arms, both offensive and defensive. Such is the real significance, the seamy side, so to say, of Washington’s ‘defensive conception.‘… The Soviet Union will never be caught defenseless by any threat.… Engaging in this is not just irresponsible, it is insane.… Washington’s actions are putting the entire world in jeopardy.” Andropov’s statement violates what Fischer will describe as a “longstanding taboo” against “citing numbers and capabilities of US nuclear weapons in the mass media” as well as “referr[ing] to Soviet weapons with highly unusual specificity.” Fischer will go on to note: “[F]or the first time since 1953, the top Soviet leader was telling his nation that the world was on the verge of a nuclear holocaust. If candor is a sign of sincerity, then Moscow was worried.” (Fischer 3/19/2007; Scoblic 2008, pp. 134)

The US and the Soviet Union engage in the Nuclear and Space Talks (NST) in Geneva. The US wants to discuss a transition from mutual nuclear deterrence based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation (the concept of MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction) to increased reliance on ground- and space-based defense systems such as its Strategic Defense Initiative (see March 23, 1983). In its turn, the USSR wants a comprehensive ban on research, development, testing, and deployment of “space-strike arms.” (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, speaking for the Reagan administration, proposes a new, “broad” interpretation of the US-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (see May 26, 1972) on national television. McFarlane proposes that space-based and mobile systems and components based on “other physical principles,” i.e. lasers, particle beams, etc., should be developed and tested, but not deployed. (The traditional, “narrow” interpretation of the treaty is more restrictive.) Days later, President Reagan announces that while he and his administration support this “broad” interpretation, as a matter of national policy, the US’s Strategic Defense Initiative (see March 23, 1983) will continue to observe the more traditional interpretation. (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

President George H.W. Bush says he will “vigorously pursue” the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) missile defense system (see March 23, 1983). (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

An ‘exo-atmospheric kill vehicle,’ or EKV, part of the ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ space-based missile defense system.An ‘exo-atmospheric kill vehicle,’ or EKV, part of the ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ space-based missile defense system. [Source: Claremont Institute]In his State of the Union address, President Bush announces a drastic revision of the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) missile defense system (see March 23, 1983). The system, still in its research and development stages, will no longer attempt to protect the majority of the US population from nuclear assault. Now, Bush says, SDI will be retooled to “provid[e] protection against limited ballistic missile strikes—whatever their source.” The system, called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), will include some 1,000 space-based “Brilliant Pebbles” interceptors, 750 to 1,000 long-range ground-based interceptors at six sites, space-based and mobile sensors, and transportable ballistic missile defenses. (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008) The concept is based on an earlier proposal by nuclear weapons experts Edward Teller, Lowell Wood, and Gregory Canavan of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who came up with the idea of a “Smart Rocks” defense system based on thousands of small rocket-propelled canisters in Earth orbit, each capable of ramming an incoming ballistic missile and exploding it outside the lower atmosphere. The “Smart Rocks” concept was one component of the original SDI concept, but was retooled, upgraded, and renamed “Brilliant Pebbles” to be the main component of the program. It will never be deployed, and will be defunded entirely during the first year of the Clinton administration. (Claremont Institute 12/24/2007)

Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposes that the US and Russia engage in a “joint” global defense system that would supplant the US-only Strategic Defense Initiative (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991). He says that Russia will continue to honor the US-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see May 26, 1972), and proposes that all existing anti-satellite (ASAT) programs be eliminated and banned. (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

President-elect Bill Clinton announces that his administration rejects the idea of a US-only space-based defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991) and would instead support the development of what he calls “a limited missile defense system within the strict framework” of the ABM Treaty (see May 26, 1972). He announces that his administration also supports the development and deployment of theater missile defense (TMD) systems “to protect our troops from short- and medium-range missiles.” (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

A total of 350 Republican candidates for Congress announce their support for the so-called “Contract with America,” a broad platform of hardline conservative positions which includes a call for the US deployment of both an anti-ballistic missile defense system (SDI or “Star Wars”—see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991) and more limited theater missile defense systems (TMD—see November 3, 1992). (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

The “Team B” intelligence analysis exercise of 1975, which so disastrously overestimated the Soviet threat (see November 1976), returns in the form of the “Rumsfeld Commission,” which issues its report this month. Conservative commentators and former participants have called for a second “Team B”-style competitive intelligence analysis ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall (see 1990, 1994, and 1996). The “Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States” (see July 15, 1998), led by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is packed with conservative and neoconservative hardliners much as the original Team B cadre was; it includes some former Team B members such as former Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz. Like the original Team B, the Rumsfeld Commission challenges CIA estimates of foreign military threats; like the original Team B, the Rumsfeld Commission wildly overestimates the impending threat from countries such as Iran and North Korea, both of which it judges will be capable of striking the US with nuclear weapons in five years or perhaps less. The original Team B findings impelled thirty years of full-bore military spending by the US to counter a Soviet threat that was fading, not growing; the Rumsfeld Commission’s equally alarmist findings impels a new push for spending on the so-called “Star Wars” ballistic missile defense system (see March 23, 1983). Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly will observe that the Rumsfeld Commission’s report “provided Congress with enough talking points to win the argument [on missile defense] both in the strategic arena and in the 20-second soundbite television debates.” Former State Department intelligence analyst Greg Thielmann will later observe, “time has proven Rumsfeld’s predictions dead wrong.” Author and professor Gordon R. Mitchell will write that the second “Team B” exercise shows “that by 1998, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had honed the art of intelligence manipulation through use of competitive intelligence analysis. Retrospective assessments revealing serious flaws in the Team B work products came long after political officials had already converted the alarmist reports into political support for favored military policies.” (Mitchell 5/2006 pdf file)

The Senate, led by Republican opponents such as Jesse Helms (R-NC), votes not to ratify the UN’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons (see September 10, 1996). This is the first time in 80 years that the Senate has refused to ratify a security-related treaty. Helms and other Senate Republicans do not wish to give up the US’s ability to test nuclear weapons if desired, nor do they want to impede the continued development of the “Star Wars” / “Brilliant Pebbles” missile defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991). (Federation of American Scientists 12/18/2007; Scoblic 2008, pp. 169) The Times of India notes that many of the opposing senators fear “that abandoning forever the right to conduct explosive nuclear tests will undermine the hegemonic position of the US. The world is virtually unipolar today and they would like to keep it that way.” But, the Times goes on to observe: “The irony is that President Bill Clinton wants the CTBT for precisely the same reason. For all his administration’s propaganda about disarmament, the CTBT is intended to lock in to place the technological lead the US has over other nuclear weapon states in terms of weapon designs and delivery systems.” (Varadarajan 10/16/1999) The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, will later say, “The Senate vote against the ban on nuclear tests was a devastating blow to our efforts to gain acceptance of more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities around the world.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 277)

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