On March 23, 1983 Ronald Reagan announced in a television address to the public that he intended to start a new program that would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete”. This was a near total surprise. There had been no indication to the public what the speech would be about or that the cabinet had been discussing these possibilities. I don’t know for certain why Reagan made this decision. Reagan was not fully briefed on the Single Integrated Operational Plan, America’s official nuclear war plans, until 1983. That seems odd, given that as President he would have to make quick decisions if war came, but maybe he reasoned that his advisors would tell him what he needed to know. Since I don’t know when in 1983 Reagan received his SIOP briefing, I could be wrong, but I think Reagan didn’t like his options. Who would? They all amount to mass slaughter. Perhaps he spoke to someone from High Frontier back in the early 80’s and decided he liked what he heard. However Reagan came to the decision, announcing plans for a largely space based anti missile program was a bold move that brought him a great deal of public support. Of course it would have public support. Who likes being a nuclear target?
Research on these systems began in earnest with the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in 1984. By this time opponents of the program started calling it “Star Wars” to suggest that SDI was fanciful and unrealistic. That backfired, of course. People loved Star Wars, it was still good back then. Proponents of SDI started calling it Star Wars. Still, there was some controversy. Most criticism of SDI fell into two categories: SDI was destabilizing and SDI was not technically feasible.
Was SDI destabilizing?
Probably, but this may not have been as important an issue as you might think. And some people just don’t worry too much about that. Reagan didn’t worry much, I think. The earliest example of the idea that SDI is potentially destabilizing I can find is this clip from Nightline broadcast the very night of Reagan’s speech. The announcer in the segment says that US nuclear strategy has been governed by the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), a stable situation where nuclear armed powers are deterred from using nuclear weapons by the threat of the weapons of the other side. I am sorry, but this is incorrect. MAD was never any kind of official “theory” or “doctrine”. MAD is simply where we ended up, it was never a goal. Presidents have always wanted nuclear options short of MAD, a way to credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons, or in dire circumstances use them, without being destroyed. JFK’s plans for a Cuba centered nuclear exchange and Carter’s Directive 59 are just two examples. I’m not saying either of these were good ideas, but I think they are good examples that MAD was not some kind of official strategic doctrine. MAD is for theorists and academics, the people in charge want something else.
But even though MAD is not an official doctrine of any kind, it’s easy to see how SDI could be seen as destabilizing. The idea is that with SDI, the US could launch a nuclear attack and then use SDI to protect against a retaliatory strike. Thus SDI makes it more likely that US would use nuclear weapons. Well, that’s kind of the point, to make nuclear threats more plausible. And this is a problem only if you have a President who is OK with mass slaughter. I don’t think Reagan was even thinking about the possibility of using SDI to make threats of first use more credible anyway. I think he really intended SDI to be his legacy program, that he would go down in history as the person who eliminated the threat of large scale nuclear war.
Another argument that SDI was destabilizing was that as the program made progress the Soviets would be more likely to launch an all out first strike. This is just bizarre because it was often stated by people who presented themselves as peace activists. It put them in the position of stating the Soviets were more committed to mass slaughter than most defense hawks ever said they were.
Lastly, we come to an argument that SDI would escalate the arms race and make it impossible to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. This argument makes sense to an extent and was Thatcher’s position on SDI for some time. As SDI was implemented the Soviets would need to respond by upgrading their weapons systems and building new ones. Perhaps they might return to building missiles capable of fractional orbital bombardment like the missile in the title background image.
And potential Soviet responses bring up the second argument against SDI.
Was SDI Feasible?
In the way Reagan envisioned it? No. The 1986 FEMA nuclear response study anticipated that a Soviet first strike would be 2,000 warheads. This isn’t WWII where 6% losses to the attacker will win you a war of attrition against bombers. You have to get almost all the warheads or suffer terrible losses. Stopping even 95% isn’t good enough. That’s still a hundred nukes going off. FEMA predicted that a Soviet second strike would be 500 warheads since the US would have made most Soviet weapons inoperable in a first strike. That’s still a lot of bombs and I wouldn’t trust SDI to save me. Would you?
And there are relatively inexpensive countermeasures. The Soviets experimented with packing mylar balloons into warhead busses back in the sixties and seventies as an AMB countermeasure. It wasn’t very effective as ABM was mostly terminal intercept. SDI would be more vulnerable to spoofing by balloons. But the likeliest Soviet response would be just to build more missiles and warheads to let the magic of large numbers save the day.
And however well SDI worked, it was going to be expensive. And the US spent a lot of money. This video from the SDIO in 1990 shows where that money went.
If you watch anything in this video make sure you squee over the little hover rocket at 22:39. Her name is Pebbles. She’s brilliant.
All joking aside, the Brilliant Pebbles experiments were the most impressive result of SDI and the they are still around. As you can imagine, the SDIO was in political trouble. After the events of 1989, SDI just didn’t seem relevant any more. And the video understands this, and points out that there may smaller powers out there that have ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction that might not be so easily deterred by nuclear threats. SDI tech might be very useful when confronting such an opponent.
And that’s exactly where SDI has turned. Reagan’s grand vision of his legacy might not have happened, but this technology is still with us.
Next week The Board will take a look at some of these systems.