Strategic Defense Initiative

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For the computer game, see S.D.I. (video game)

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), commonly called Star Wars after the popular science fiction series, is a system proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 to use space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear missiles.


"A splendid idea"

The basis for Star Wars was a nuclear X-ray laser designed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by a young scientist named Peter Hagelstein who worked with a team called O Group, doing much of the work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. O Group was headed by physicist Lowell Wood, a protege and friend of "the father of the hydrogen bomb," Edward Teller.

Ronald Reagan was told of Hagelstein's breakthrough by Teller in 1983, which prompted Reagan's "Star Wars" speech. Reagan announced, "I call 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." This speech, along with Reagan's Evil Empire speech earlier that month in Florida, ushered in the last phase of the Cold War, bringing the nuclear standoff with Russia to its most critical point before the collapse of the Soviet Union later that decade.

The idea was to use lasers to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear weapons. This idea was attacked from every angle for scientific, economic and political reasons. Eminent physicist Hans Bethe went to Livermore and strenuously interrogated Hagelstein about the correctness of his theory. After much work showing multiple mathematic calculations on a nearby blackboard, the young scientist was able to convince Bethe of the completeness of his ideas, prompting Bethe to state that it was "a splendid idea," one "which has been quite carefully thought out," and that it was the only truly good one being studied at Livermore at that time, which was 1982. Later, Bethe attacked it on political grounds (see below).

Project and proposals

The project was largely overseen by Teller and Wood. The initial centerpiece of the project was to be a nuclear X-ray laser curtain that was to be deployed, first by pop ups, meaning a series of missiles launched from submarines during the critical seconds following an attack from Russia, then later by satellites and powered by nuclear warheads built into the satellites -- in theory the energy from the warhead detonation was to pump a series of laser emitters in the missiles or satellites and produce an impenetrable barrier to incoming warheads. However, the initial (and only) test done on the design, done in an underground shaft, gave nominally positive results that could easily be dismissed as coming from a faulty detector; due to the use of a nuclear explosion as the power source, the detector device was destroyed during the experiment and could not be examined after the fact. Thus, the nuclear X-ray laser looked good on paper, but was not properly administered in the field.

This aspect of the program was quietly abandoned and replaced with work on satellite-based mini-missiles called Brilliant Pebbles (the creator of the device took the name from a derisive putdown of the plan as "smart rocks"). The program was abandoned in 1993 with the advent of the Clinton administration, but at some point the focus shifted to ground-based interceptor missiles (similar to the controversial Patriot missile used in the first Gulf War), and the technology developed for Brilliant Pebbles was recycled for other projects. With the revival of the program as the second Bush administration's National Missile Defense, this has been the sole public face of the initiative; it has drawn substantial criticism due to the fact that only approximately half of the tests done can be considered successful, and even those were done under highly controlled (some say rigged, using GPS) circumstances.

Controversy and criticism

SDI was first dubbed "Star Wars" by opponent Dr. Carol Rosin, a former spokeswoman of Wernher von Braun who was instrumental in the development of ballistic missiles. Some critics used that term derisively, implying it is an impractical science fiction fantasy, but supporters have adopted the usage as well on the grounds that yesterday's science fiction is often tomorrow's engineering.

Ashton B. Carter, a fellow at MIT, assessed Star Wars for Congress in 1984. He said there were a number of difficulties in creating an adequate missile defense shield, with or without lasers. He said nuclear X-rays have a limited scope because they become diffused through the atmosphere, much like the beam of a flash light spreading outward in all directions. This means the X-rays needed to be close to the Soviet Union, especially during the critical few minutes of the booster phase, in order for the Russian missiles to be both detectable to radar and targeted by the lasers themselves. Opponents disagreed, saying advances in technology, such as using very strong laser beams, and by "bleaching" the column of air surrounding the laser beam, could increase the distance that the X-ray would reach to successfully hit its target.

Physicist Hans Bethe, who worked with Teller on both the atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb, both at Los Alamos, claimed a laser defense shield was infeasible. He said that a defensive system was costly and difficult to build, but simple to destroy, and claimed that the Soviets could easily use thousands of decoys to overwhelm it during a nuclear attack. He believed that the only way to stop the threat of nuclear war was through diplomacy and dismissed the idea of a technical solution to the Cold War, saying that a defense shield could be viewed as threatening because it would limit or destroy Russia's offensive capabilities while leaving the American offense intact. In March 1984, Bethe coauthored a 106-page report for the Union of Concerned Scientists that concluded "the X-ray laser offers no prospect of being a useful component in a system for ballistic missile defense."

Teller countered that Bethe and the other anti-defense activists could not have it both ways. Teller said Bethe had helped him usher in the nuclear age, had become opposed to nuclear weapons and afraid of nuclear war. But, Bethe was also opposed to stopping the threat of offensive capabilities through massive defensive programs. Teller testified before Congress that Bethe, "instead of objecting on scientific and technical grounds, which he thoroughly understands, he now objects on the grounds of politics, on grounds of military feasibility of military deployment, on other grounds of difficult issues which are quite outside the range of his professional cognizance or mine."

Supporters of SDI hail it for contributing to or at least accelerating the fall of the Soviet Union by the strategy of technology, which was a prevalent doctrine at the time. At Reagan and Gorbachev's October 1986 meeting in Iceland, Gorbachev ardently opposed this defensive shield, and blocked discussing anything else. Supporters claim that this is because Gorbachev was worried about losing his only threat, nuclear weapons. The Reykjavik Summit had a meltdown over Star Wars, but lead to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which some have claimed was an outgrowth of Gorbachev's fear of SDI. Opponents of the program say that Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were the cause of the USSR's collapse and that SDI is an unrealistic and expensive program.


A similar missile shield proposal was a plot point involved in Clive Cussler's novel Raise the Titanic and the movie made from it. "Diamonds Are Forever", (a 1971 James Bond film), featured a laser-beam firing satellite, and it has been suggested the movie had some influence on President Reagan.

See also


  • Frances Fitzgerald (2001) Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, Simon & Schuster
  • William J. Broad, Star Warriors: A penetrating look into the lives of the young scientists behind our space age weaponry. (Simon & Schuster, 1985).

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