Michael KreponSDI RIP

The thirtieth anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s surprise roll-out of the Strategic Defense Initiative has been duly noted within narrow circles. The section of my shoe box files devoted to SDI is thick and inviting. The 4 X 6 card at the front end is a note to self: “The national security of the United States is far too important to rest on the strength of rhetorical questions.” The rhetorical question that launched SDI was a beaut: “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” Never underestimate the power of this device to frame a political issue advantageously.

A great deal of money, angst, and upset followed. This debate had its surreal moments, and yet SDI prompted pragmatic, exceptional results – not in space, but at the negotiating table. Here’s a small sampler from my file cards:

“We won’t put this weapon – or this system in place, this defensive system, until we do away with our nuclear missiles, our offensive missiles. But we will make it available to other countries, including the Soviet Union, to do the same thing.” — From the text of President Reagan’s interview with Soviet journalists, Washington Post, November 5, 1985.


“I think this could be the greatest inducement to arms reduction. It’s the only weapons system that’s ever been invented for which there has never been a defensive weapon created.” – Reagan’s interview on election night with Lou Cannon, Washington Post, November 7, 1984.


“Applications of current technology offer no real promise of being able to defend the United States against massive nuclear attack in this century.” – Report of the President’s Commission on Strategic Forces (Scowcroft Commission), April 1983.


“I say this with confidence, since it is irresponsible to bluff in such matters. There will be a reply to SDI. An asymmetrical reply, but there will be a reply. And we shall not sacrifice much at that.” — Mikhail Gorbachev, after the Reykjavik summit, October 14, 1986.


“The end is unattainable, the means hare-brained, and the cost staggering.” – McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara and Gerard Smith, borrowing from Arthur Vandenberg, in “The President’s Choice: Star Wars or Arms Control?” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1984-5.


“The Star Wars proposal was, however, another of those uncalculated ventures in personal diplomacy. Without any preparation, indeed without any realization, it attacked the prior foundation of the basic arms relationship. Our allies suddenly learned that deterrence, on which security had rested, was to be replaced. Britain and France learned that their independent nuclear forces, into which they had poured a considerable portion of the national treasure, were to be rendered obsolete. We were all to learn rather suddenly that deterrence was ‘immoral’ and flawed.’ Such phrases seemed to have been borrowed from the Catholic bishops. While there may be considerable satisfaction in dishing the left by stealing its clothes, it hardly seems necessary to undermine the foundation on which Western security must rest for the foreseeable future.” – James Schlesinger, “The Eagle and the Bear,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1985.


Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical question kick-started a careening roller coaster ride that ended safely. The impulse provided by SDI helped produce historic arms reduction treaties with Moscow, but only after missile defenses were effectively grounded by political, technical and cost constraints. As long as technology continues to disappoint, missile defenses will remain a costly insurance policy against rudimentary threats, as well as a device for alliance management and reassurance.


  1. JFC Fuller (History)

    If I may be controversial.

    SDI was hardly the first considered attempt at comprehensive ABM defence, there were the various Nike evolutions of the 60s and 70s for a start- even the Brits looked at ABM in the late 50s/early 60s. The stickler was always cost- more than technics feasibility, in my opinion.* However, in the case of the US it was not so much that that it was too costly on its own is was that other elements of the defence programme absorbed the resources. In the 60s it was Vietnam and in the 80s it was correcting the chronic military underinvestment of the Ford and Carter eras.

    Opposition to ABM seems to largely be the product of technological and political conservatism rather than a rational analysis of its merits. Reagan was right, if we our to sit under the sword of damocles we have a moral obligation to ourselves to build a shield between ourselves and that sword.

    *A 100% defence will always be impossible, Clauswitzian friction dictates that

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Nice collection of quotes. But your epilogue leaves me with a sense that the lessons of this most bizarre chapter of the Cold War still have not been learned.

    Unfortunately, the roller-coaster ride has not ended; in fact we seem to be headed for another white-knuckle plunge into the unknown, thanks to the Clinton-Obama Democrats’ political co-optation of “missile defense” and abandonment of space (or any preventive) arms control, and their acquiescence in George W. Bush’s reckless and legally dubious withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and his breaking of many other seals of the nuclear apocalypse.

    Whatever B-movie actor and early Alzheimer’s sufferer Ronald Reagan thought he was doing in 1983, Star Wars was certainly not an effort to end the nuclear arms race and confrontation that then threatened, and today still does, to end human civilization in a cataclysm of stupidity. Rather, it was a bid to re-energize and vastly inflate that arms race and that confrontation.

    Rather than a step back from nuclear warfighting, it proposed a step forward; rather than trying to prevent the escalation that might lead to thousands of nuclear warheads being launched against the United States, it proposed that we could develop and deploy the means to intercept such warheads in flight. Rather than concede that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” it proposed that we could fight our nuclear war in space, and win.

    It was always clear that if, hypothetically, SDI’s “defensive” weapons could ever be effective, they would be much more likely to be effective against the “ragged retaliation” after an American first strike; hence, if SDI was credible at all, it was most credible as part of an offensive, preemptive nuclear war plan. But it was always also clear enough that SDI was not credible at all.

    Had the politics of delusion been able to triumph completely over science and reason, the result would have been an even more unmanageable and uncontrollable confrontation between interlocking weapon systems on hair trigger alert, most likely including space-stationed weapons targeting each other with not minutes but mere seconds of decision time for preemption or retaliation.

    That this was a sure road to oblivion was obvious then and remains so today, yet it has never been a major part of the discourse, perhaps because SDI’s proposed constellations of laser and kinetic interceptor battlestations, and the claim that these would keep us safe from nuclear attack, were so obviously preposterous that opponents never felt the need to argue how dangerous it would be if we actually tried to realize such fantasies.

    Unfortunately, the legacy of that is political failure to acknowledge the danger that lies still in pursuit of a “missile defense” program that has no obvious terminus and that clearly implies space weaponization, as well as the furtherance of “missile offense” by our potential adversaries, among its corollaries.

    Witness the fact that the Obama administration seems to have given up entirely its early promise to seek a ban on antisatellite weapons, and is instead expanding the GMD and deploying the SM-3 IIA “missile defense” systems, both of which are and will be, as-deployed, ready-to-shoot ASAT weapons of the dirtiest kind. In addition the US continues to maintain, expand and develop its non-debris creating ASAT capabilities, including sophisticated rf jammers, ground-based lasers, and robotic vehicles capable of interference with satellites out to geosynchronous orbit.

    The most recent drafts of the proposed space Code of Conduct even provide that damage and destruction of satellites is acceptable “in accord with the inherent right of self-defense,” while expressing a preference for what we might call green ASATs. It seems that, in large measure due to the refusal of even this administration to countenance reasonable limits on the capabilities of “missile defense” weapons, all hope of avoiding a future in which any number of nations will possess combat-ready ASAT weapons has been abandoned.

    Can anyone say with confidence what the next administration will not choose to do? Revive the idea of stationing antimissile (and incidentally, antisatellite) weapons in orbit? Deploy “missile defense” and “prompt global strike” weapons in sufficient quantities to justify the Russian and Chinese paranoia that is already a major sticking point in diplomatic efforts to build a safer world?

    If missile defense is seen as “a costly insurance policy” it is a policy which, even against “rudimentary threats,” comes with huge loopholes, such as: ‘in the event of a nuclear attack, dice will be rolled to determine whether this policy will come into effect’; ‘this policy is null and void in case of countermeasures’; and ‘this policy offers no indemnity against delivery of a nuclear weapon by any means other than a ballistic missile.’

    If it is seen as “a device for alliance management and reassurance”, it is playing a role that any number of other military or nonmilitary forms of aid and engagement could play at equal or lesser monetary cost, and far less risk to global security.

    But I think the deepest misunderstanding is illustrated by the phrase “technology continues to disappoint”. If indeed it is technology that has failed us here, there is always the hope that tomorrow some unanticipated breakthrough will make good on the promise that has so far remained unfulfilled. Yet the accelerating advance of technology has continued, in so many domains, including those relevant to ballistic missile and space warfare. So too has the proliferation of access to technology.

    The basic problem is that we are pitting technology against technology, and its destructiveness is already so great, and was already so by 1945 (if not earlier), that when technology wars against technology humans cannot escape becoming collateral damage. To imagine that a further technical development may change this is to fail to grasp the nature of our predicament.

    “Missile defense” is one of the seeds of evil that were left alive to sprout again in the ashes of the Cold War. It has wrapped its tendrils in a stranglehold on American politics, and its poisonous fruit will be a new nuclear and space arms race, with many players this time: China, Russia, India, France… and Uncle Sam still leading the way.

    Instead of the Strangelovian enterprise, it is the opposition that has withered away. I guess that’s the advantage of having a viable business model.

    • j_kies (History)

      Dr Strangelove plays different tunes to many of us than you apparently ‘hear’, while the central theme is the insanity of MAD writ large, can you conceive of POTUS actually listening to the Science Advisor? I don’t opine as to the morality, I consider multi-polar deterrence calculus especially MAD as inherently unstable thus unwise. Given the inability to get notionally rational US citizens to abandon their fetish for firearms (where far more are used against their families than in self-defense) how can we expect nations driven by economics rather than moral considerations to abandon missiles and WMD given those are cheaper to own and maintain than attempting to match the USAF or USN in quantity or quality.

      Yes Mark, any BMD interceptor that happens to have kinetic capabilities is an ASAT; it’s a far easier problem dealing with a known ephemeris than the BMD kill chain aspects of detection and tracking. Nothing new or unique to the US here, the Soviet co-orbital preceded US HTK weapons and the Chinese demonstrated their direct ascent ASAT /BMD interceptor.

      As to the Russians or Chinese, their efforts to pursue / retain / update offensive missiles and warheads are only peripherally related to US aspirations in the BMD arena, again their dominant motivations are economics. Even North Korea in their bluster about nuclear weapons may be playing a card internally to reduce the Songun ‘military first’ policy as they mention economic development in the same announcements as their eternal commitment to nuclear arms.

      As to the ‘poisonous fruit’ you mention, can I please have a bite? I would like to have such a ‘race’ for our scientists and engineers to work on defensive sensors and supporting systems, rather than the far less productive focus they have on “Cyber” and other descriptions of observing the citizenry’s thoughts at a level that exceeds the NKVD’s wildest fantasies.

      Yes, I am aware of all the historic arguments against BMD. For the limited, specific engineering problem that we have today (NK + that other theocracy) BMD is doable, the real question is ‘are we serious about doing it’? Quoting a mythical puppet character “Try not, Do or Do not, there is no try” sensible advice actually.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      j_kies: I beg to differ in interpretation of Dr. S. I would say the central theme is a healthy respect for the Bomb (the essence of nuclear deterrence) and the insanity of nuclear warfighting, which I note is exactly what SDI was and missile defense is.

      It is often claimed that “multi-polar deterrence” as you put it is less stable and more dangerous than the bipolar Cold War confrontation, but I find that questionable. All else being equal, one less nuclear-armed state is better than one more, but the brink of Armageddon between two superpowers, each believing that God or History has designated it to “lead” the world, is a dangerous place to be.

      You are right about the fact that threatening other nations with the USAF and USN is not a good way to get them to disarm or forgo WMD options.

      I wish that the US Government were as straightforward as you are about the ASAT capability of “missile defense” weapons, so that we could have an honest debate about whether the will-o-the-wisp of effective missile defense is worth the cost of an uncorked space arms race. The Chinese are clearly responding to the US, and the old Russian coorbital ASAT is long defunct, and both have proposed a ban on weapons stationed in space, so there is still the opportunity to propose at least limiting BMD and banning ASATs and all space weapons. But it is hard to have an honest conversation about this when the lead officials responsible for policy in this area look you in the eye and say “US missile defenses are not ASATs.”

      Yes, the claim that what other nations do has nothing to do with what we do is familiar, and obviously false.

      Sensors? Apart from the question of what sensors MDA can’t find room in its 10G$ budget for, what would they be sensing?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Walter Mondale, Reagan’s 1984 presidential opponent, complained of the (presumably immoral, perhaps even ungodly) “weaponization of the heavens.” For those of us who like more prosaic explanations, I think he also said something about trusting our fate to computers. Reducing the hair trigger alert from minutes to seconds effectively takes the President out of the loop and entrusts the fate of mankind to mere machines. As the old adage goes, “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.”

      The current ABM research is but a pale shadow of the SDI dream/nightmare. Before Reagan, we had ABMs that used a nuke to kill a nuke. Even if Reagan had never breathed a word about SDI, I have little doubt that we would currently be researching the conventional cousins to the nuclear ABMs.

      I have no objection, in principle, to conventional ABM research to counter a small number of missiles from North Korea or Iran. My concern is that none of the public sources of information inspires my confidence that these systems would work reliably enough, now or even 20 years from now. If North Korea shot up 10 missiles, what President would dare trust that we could shoot down even 3 of them? I don’t see these ABM thing-a-ma-jigs coming even close to solving the problem which North Korea and Iran pose for us. We need to find ways, through negotiation or otherwise, to limit or eliminate their nuclear weapons programs.

    • Magpie (History)

      But… but it’s so SHINY.

    • FOARP (History)

      “Missile defence” per se is not a “seed of evil”, indeed, we’ve seen at least two instances where, used against conventional missiles, it was an undeniable “good” – Gulf War 1 and Gulf War 2. Hell, I guess you could even throw in the busting of V1s over the UK and V2s on the ground in 1944-45 as another example if you are so inclined.

      Every single one of the missiles intercepted and destroyed over the UK, Israel, or Kuwait was one missile that did not hit home and kill civilians. The near 100% hit-rate on Iraqi missiles in 2003, compared to the low (maybe non-existant) kill-rate on SCUDs in 1991, shows just how much these systems can improve over time – although of course the 2003 record was marred by friendly fire incidents.

      The “evil” here is the idea that it might rise to the level where it is powerful enough that people might see nuclear war as viable, or at least will no longer be deterred by an enemy possessing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. However – who actually believes it will ever acheive this? Even if this is acheived, who believes that other methods cannot be used to deliver nuclear weapons?

      The most valid criticism here is that the ABM system being developed has a cost out of proportion to the threat it is designed to counter – but there is no haziness about what that threat is. The threat is Iran and North Korea – Russia and China cannot be countered by the system as proposed.

    • FOARP (History)

      One more thing: systems capable of intercepting ICBMs will inevitably come out of systems designed for conventional defence. The PLA’s ballistic missile threat to the USN’s carriers, for example, is bound to lead, may already have led, to a system capable of countering the PLA’s ballistic missiles.

  3. anon (History)

    Intertwined with the strategic policy debates about SDI were technical debates about its technical feasibility. One of my favorite quotes from the time came from Ash Carter’s 1984 Background Paper for the (late lamented) Office of Technology Assessment entitled “Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space”:

    “The prospect that emerging ‘Star Wars’ technologies, when further developed, will provide a perfect or near-perfect defense system, literally removing from the hands of the Soviet Union the ability to do socially mortal damage to the United States with nuclear weapons, is so remote that it should not serve as the basis of public expectation or national policy about ballistic missile defense (BMD).”

    A more comprehensive OTA report on from 1985 entitled “Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies” concluded, among other things:

    “A strategic defense which could assure the survival of all or nearly all U.S. cities in the face of unconstrained Soviet nuclear offensive forces (missiles, bombers, cruise missiles, other means of attack) does not appear feasible.”

  4. Gregory Matteson (History)

    While Reagan was not my favorite president, he gets my sympathy on this one; and James Schlesinger goes to the top of my (expletive deleted) list.

    “We were all to learn rather suddenly that deterrence was ‘immoral’ and flawed.’ Such phrases seemed to have been borrowed from the Catholic bishops. While there may be considerable satisfaction in dishing the left by stealing its clothes, it hardly seems necessary to undermine the foundation on which Western security must rest for the foreseeable future.”

    Surely the man can’t be referring to MAD, can he? That seems to be the case. Thank God we have been moving away from MAD since the fall of the Soviet Union. For those of us old enough to remember, for two generations, counted as 20 years, Americans, Europeans and Soviets lived in perpetual terror of fire from the sky. Immoral it certainly was: I recall all too well ‘duck and cover’, and the demonic ‘the first warning you have may be a bright flash, the brightest you’ve ever seen. Don’t look at it!’

    That Reagan was motivated to SDI by the looming terror of MAD seems clear to me. MAD put us perpetually on the brink of accidental war. Imagine if the Chelyabinsk Meteorite had fallen in 1980. You and I are only here today by the unmerited grace of God, and any move to break down the MAD stalemate other than global suicide seems rational to me.

    • John Schilling (History)

      This, emphatically. Reagan’s desire for absolute supremacy of the defense may be beyond our means for the foreseeable future, but he was trying to do the right thing. With regard to the conflict of the day, he succeeded, and the world is a better place for it.

      And “Mutual Assured Destruction”, that’s something we don’t want or need and probably never did, any more than we needed SDI’s simplistic promise of assured impregnability. Deterrence requires “assured destruction” only when the enemy stands to win a prize more valuable than everything he already has. Hard to arrange that when the party being deterred already rules half the world, give or take.

      In potential conflicts between great powers, if Mutually Highly Probable Severe Damage doesn’t deter, nothing will.
      That leaves plenty of room for exploring alternatives to MADness, while still maintaining strong deterrence. Reagan saw this imperfectly, but far too many of his critics never saw it at all. Not even with the benefit of a generation of hindsight.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I don’t really wish to pick at words, but the “destruction” in MAD might be only partial destruction rather than complete destruction, as long as it is mutual and assured. I think the original McNamara criterion, 25% of Soviet population and 50% of Soviet industry destroyed, was intended as a maximum number or ceiling on how many nukes we “needed”. Later interpretations construed it as a floor, a minimum requirement for deterrence, with more being better.

      We have to ask, what and whom are we trying to deter? If the Soviets have a third of the world, but covet another third of the world called Europe, what would it take to deter that invasion? How much partial destruction of the Soviet Union is needed to deter that invasion? That is a sensible question. Another sensible question is, do we even want to use nukes to deter that invasion? Or would it be better and wiser to beef up our conventional forces to deter conventional war and only use nukes to deter nuclear war?

  5. Ara Barsamian (History)


    SDI opened new and unorthodox ways of thinking regarding the challenge of ABM. Before bad-mouthing and shouting down SDI, we need to look at the scientific challenges of ABM, like Galileo’s “The Earth Around The Sun” vs. the church, even if the “establishment” hates that because it does not fit preconceived ideas.

    The SDI R&D in Reagan’s time achieved its objective of bankrupting USSR, and fall of the “Iron Curtain”, and in that respect it was a huge success in freeing hundreds of millions of people from Communist tyranny.

    In view of DPRK’s minuscule threat, it would be worthwhile if we’re going to spend anyway the millions/billions on GMD, instead to spend it furthering R&D in SDI-type work, rather than “p..s” the money away of conventional GMD, etc. We are talking about technology addressing tens of missiles, not neutralizing Russian strategic rocket forces.

    The Russians and Chinese will be a bit unsettled, but we can co-opt the Russians: they had/have brilliant people that could help. The Chinese,although have good people, more likely they will steal the technology like they have done with everything else…and leaking it to Little Kim.

    And please, don’t rehash the old “it won’t work”, when we have not determined yet the technology to use.

    • kme (History)

      The SDI R&D in Reagan’s time achieved its objective of bankrupting USSR

      Is there any contemporary evidence that this was considered the objective at the time, and not just something retrofitted later?

  6. George William Herbert (History)

    I for one still believe that MAD style deterrence is in fact insane, and immoral.

    I understand why we had it and to some degree still do. It may well be the least immoral and insane of the alternatives. But one should not be too quick to criticize those who would seek to end it.

    It may not be practical to do so.

    • John F. Opie (History)

      Well said.

      My take is that there were too many trying to figure out how to dominate the escalation ladder, especially on the other side (correlation of forces analysis, anyone?). The decision to put in SS-20 missiles to strategically dislocate Europe from the US nuclear deterrent is perhaps one of the best examples of this, aimed at ensuring escalation dominance within the European theater by making the threshhold leap from tactical to strategic deterrence that much more costly and asymmetric, since it forced the US into committing strategic assets for a theater scenario, leaving the Soviet strategic assets untouched.

      SDI made MAD unplannable: once you insert any sort of actual, functioning defence into the equation – and while I chose those words deliberately to avoid the problem of bluffing, defence here didn’t and doesn’t have to be perfect or infallible – it means that any sort of nuclear war-fighting planning – be it SIOP or whatever the Soviet version of SIOP was – is made impossible.

      Example: if you are aiming at destroying a missile field complex with, say, 24 shelters, you target those shelters whose destruction would block the flight paths of retaliatory firing by flinging up too much debris to make a timely firing of those assets possible, hence a surface detonation aimed also at taking out those shelters blocking flight paths. If you can do that, you can walk your missiles across the missile field complex with impunity, since the other side can’t launch through flying debris and has to wait for the rubble to stop bouncing. I know I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me.

      Now, if that missile site has even a 20% chance of knocking down an incoming missile, given the kind of targeting philosophies in use (multiple warheads to ensure 100% destruction despite failures), then your requirements increase significantly, either requiring massive overkill (and exhausting your available assets) or accepting levels of risk that the missile filed won’t be blocked and the citybusters fly, which was the whole point of attacking the missile field in the first place.

      Now, missile defence can’t be a pure bluff, as that worsens things: however, and this is the only point I really want to make, it makes comprehensive war plans with nuclear weapons moot. Now, that can’t be considered a bad thing.

  7. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    To expand on @kme’s question…. Is there any solid evidence that the costs of responding to Star Wars was a significant factor in the fall of the Soviet Union?

  8. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    On another note… this is perhaps also a good time to reflect on Teller’s role in the genesis of Star Wars, and the nature of (and ethical oblications imposed by the offering of) technical or semi-technical advice to non-technical policy people.

    • Moe DeLaun (History)

      Edward Teller’s arguments to Reagan for SDI, specifically the orbital nuclear-pumped X-ray laser, are nearly the same arguments he made (and won) for the hydrogen bomb, if Richard Rhodes’ “Dark Sun” gets it right.

  9. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Gorbachev admitted in interviews that they (USSR) could not keep up spending to keep up with US SDI….and this coupled with his vision for Perestroika was the “kiss of death” for USSR.

    As far as Teller, he had first hand experience with Communism and the massacres and imprisonment that followed Bela Kun’s takeover of Hungary in 1919. This has reinforced his life-long conviction about the evils of Communism, and doing everything he could to weaken and possibly destroy it.

    Certainly he was a hell of a creative physicist: explaining and promoting implosive compression benefits in reducing critical mass, the boosting concept, the Alarm-Clock sloyka before Sakharov, the radiation-driven implosion H-bomb, and the initial ideas about nuclear-pumped X-ray laser (Peter Hagelstein’s baby, that he kinda threw away…because his girlfriend was ashamed he was working on weapons, albeit defensive!!!)

    In any case, Reagan was right to take Teller’s imaginative ideas and put the US $’s behind a muscular R&D in the SDI program…SDI R&D did not produce a weapon system, because the R&D was cut short, particularly the bad-mouthing by the “cabal” that hated anything that was not invented by them…but the seeds of that R&D are a valuable indication for a path forward.

    In any case, now might be the right time to restart the R&D in this area , and not waste billions on hare brained schemes like Rube Goldberg-ed GMD as “defense” against a bankrupt nothing like DPRK. I just couldn’t believe the knee-jerk reactions in Congress and DOD in CYA mode, ready to throw taxpayer’s good money after bad…

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    Martyl Langsdorf, designer of nuclear Doomsday Clock, dies at 96
    Even without the accompanying articles about the danger of nuclear weapons, the implication was clear: The fate of the world was in doubt unless an escalating arms race could be stopped before it reached the …