By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Space News
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed a new Cold War initiative designed to protect the United States from a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The anti-ballistic missile system was called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), but it quickly gained the nickname “Star Wars” after the popular science-fiction films.
Reagan’s plan originated in 1967 during a meeting with the famed physicist Edward Teller while Reagan was governor of California. Teller told Reagan that directed-energy weapons (DEWs), such as lasers and microwaves, “could potentially defend [the U.S.] against a nuclear attack.”
Reagan formally announced plans to construct a space-based missile shield in a speech to the nation on March 23, 1983.
Reagan Insisted SDI Not Part of a New Arms Race
“Reagan insisted that SDI was not part of a new arms race but instead a path to ridding the world of nuclear weapons altogether. To prove this point, the president suggested that the United States could eventually share SDI with the Soviet Union,” according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
The $50 billion SDI plan was met with doubts and derision. “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,” Thomas Niles, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, explained in 1998. “[A]t least in theory, SDI represented a fundamental shift in United States defense policy, taken without consultations with our Allies.”
SDI became a critical element of the various meetings Reagan held with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986; in Washington, D.C., in 1987; and in Moscow in 1988.
SDI Was Never Cancelled After Reagan Left Office
Reagan’s second term ended on January 20, 1989, and the SDI plan was never officially canceled by his successors. “The Strategic Defense Initiative was ultimately most effective not as an anti-ballistic missile defense system, but as a propaganda tool which could put military and economic pressure on the Soviet Union to fund their own anti-ballistic missile system,” the Atomic Heritage Foundation said.
The Soviet Union collapsed two years later, in 1991. SDI became a footnote in history.
Trump Advocates an Updated Anti-Missile System
Now, 28 years later, President Trump has called for the development of an updated space weapon that could “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States, anywhere, any time, any place,” National Public Radio reported on Monday. Trump’s comments came on the heels of the Pentagon’s 2019 Missile Defense Review.
The Review describes “creating capabilities to stop an array of long-range missiles, including those that are hypersonic, or travel faster than the speed of sound,” Wired’s Security reporter Lily Hay Newman wrote. The Pentagon document also discussed space-based tracking and interception technologies and high-energy lasers mounted on airborne platforms.
In February, Trump laid the groundwork for a space-based weapon when he signed Space Policy Directive -4, directing the Defense Department to establish a Space Force. Once approved by Congress, the Space Force will become the sixth branch of the service, joining the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
According to NPR, “To reach that goal, the administration’s proposed new defense budget calls for hundreds of millions of dollars to study the use of lasers and particle beams in space.” However, a 2012 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimated that “a space-based defense system would require many hundreds of satellites and might cost as much as $300 billion dollars.”
The president’s proposed 2020 budget plan calls for $116 million to develop directed energy weapons for missile defense and $34 million for particle beams. The proposed budget also requests $132 million for advanced sensors, an essential element in any space-based defense.
Trump’s Plan Quickly Produces Detractors and Supporters
Trump’s plan has both detractors and supporters. Laura Greco, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, called Trump’s plan “technically unachievable, and economically ruinous if you tried” to build it.
James M. Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told NPR that missile shields in space “are limited by the rules of physics. At the end of the day, missile defense is a very, very tough problem, and there are a very limited number of ways of solving that problem.”
Acton pointed out that it’s “virtually impossible” to build a nationwide missile defense system anywhere but in space. “Unfortunately, trying to operate in space introduces a lot of problems. Technology that’s already tough to operate on the ground must endure blistering heat, freezing cold, and cosmic radiation. And if anything goes wrong, it can’t be fixed.”
Advances in Lasers and Satellite Technology Could Make Space Weapons an Affordable Possibility
However, Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who specialized in nuclear deterrence and missile defense, told NPR that “It would be negligent on our part not to go back and look at these [SDI] technologies.” Lasers are much smaller and much more powerful today and satellites that once were the size of a school bus are now the size of a shoebox.
“And we can get launch costs down, which was one of the biggest cost-drivers,” Heinrichs said, adding that small satellites on commercial rockets “might make a space-based defense program more affordable.”
When Reagan’s plan was nicknamed Star Wars, it was primarily out of derision. The thought of lasers in space zapping enemy missiles seemed too far-fetched to be taken seriously. Not so anymore.
Space Events This Week:
This week commercial, government and military thought leaders from around the world are meeting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the 35th Space Symposium to discuss, address and plan for future achievements in space. Among the presentations will be AMU faculty members Dr. Nicole Drumhiller and Dr. Michelle Watts speaking on the topic of “Educating the Space Warriors: Partnering in the New Race for Space.”
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