Since the onset of the cold war, and particularly after both superpowers began to amass large arsenals of nuclear weapons, military planners in both the East and the West have encouraged efforts to develop defenses against nuclear attack. Both sides have made effective use of "passive" defenses, such as the hardening and dispersal of weapons systems likely to be prime targets of a preemptive strike and the provision of shelters for command authorities and for vital communications centers. Some countries, including the Soviet Union, have made significant investments in civil defense as well, even though it is generally acknowledged that, at best, population shelters and evacuation plans can provide only marginal protection in the event of a massive attack on civilian targets. Both sides have also tried, with far less success, to develop "active" defenses—that is, measures for intercepting attacking bombers and nuclear warheads that might be borne by ballistic or cruise missiles launched from air, sea, or land (at long or short range) and for finding and destroying submarines before they can fire their missiles.
Even though these measures have been undertaken at considerable expense and with great technical sophistication, all efforts against this varied and daunting challenge have so far been largely in vain. Every advance in active defense has been offset by compensatory improvements in offensive forces. Partly in response to Soviet deployment of anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) in the 1960s, the United States developed and introduced multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The Soviets followed suit. As a result, the number of warheads
that can be carried on the missiles fired from a given number of launchers was greatly multiplied and the overall cost per warhead lowered, while progress in guidance improved accuracy. As air defenses were improved, penetration aids were adopted to overcome them. Bombers were hardened to withstand the effects of nuclear explosions. The United States' B-2 bomber, also known as the Stealth, or advanced technology bomber (ATB), now nearing deployment, will be less visible to radar than conventional aircraft owing to design changes that will give it a smaller radar cross section, to the substitution of composites for aircraft metals, and to the use of nonreflective coatings. A "stealthed" fighter aircraft, the F-19, is also being developed to penetrate enemy airspace and to shoot down airborne early-warning aircraft that detect incoming bombers. Electronic countermeasures now aboard aircraft enable pilots to "spoof" enemy radar. Air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and "smart," "stand-off" short-range attack missiles (SRAMs) enable pilots to release their payloads without having to penetrate enemy defenses. Attacking aircraft can also jettison decoys, which lure surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) away from the attackers. Submarines are now harder to detect and locate, and the new Trident II D-5 missiles are expected to provide virtually the same "prompt, hard-target-kill capacity" as the latest U.S. version of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), called the MX, or "Peacekeeper," missile. As a result, efforts to design effective and economical defenses against the threat of nuclear attack became exercises in futility. Defenses could be overwhelmed and evaded even when they were technically feasible, and the only sure result of deploying them was to invite the addition of ever more capable and complex offensive weapons.
The apparent futility of building effective defenses against missiles was in effect acknowledged by both superpowers in 1972 when they signed the ABM Treaty. The treaty limited the two countries to no more than one hundred ground-based ABM launchers—each with a single warhead and specified radar detectors and trackers—to be deployed either around a missile field or the national capitals. This severe restriction of ballistic missile defense (BMD) appealed to leaders on both sides. In the first place, they were compelled to recognize that the technology for an effective defense simply was not available. As former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara said, in a remarkable address in 1967 that helped to pave the way for the treaty, "While we have substantially improved our technology in the field, it is important to understand that none of the systems at present or foreseeable state-of-the-art
would provide an impenetrable shield over the United States." In addition, the United States and the Soviet Union both recognized that limiting defenses would reduce the incentive to add or strengthen offensive forces. The terms of the treaty, however, did not prohibit improvement of existing ABM systems or research that might lead to different defensive systems based on "other physical principles" (such as lasers) that were not part of ABM systems in use when the treaty was signed. Such research continued in both countries, but there was no substantial pressure on the part of weapons researchers on either side for a reconsideration of the technical premise on which the ABM Treaty was based.
It therefore came as a considerable surprise, even to the technical communities, when in a television address on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced that the United States was embarking on a major new effort, subsequently called "the Strategic Defense Initiative." The initiative would be designed to determine whether effective defenses could be built against nuclear attack. Shortly afterward, Reagan expressed the hope that the research would enable the United States to replace the strategy of nuclear deterrence with a protective shield that promised "assured survival" rather than "assured destruction." The president repeatedly made it clear that he had in mind the protection of people, not merely of missile launchers or other military targets, and insisted that the aim was not to achieve military superiority by adding a partial defense to a strong offense but, rather, to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." He invited the Soviet Union to cooperate with the United States in achieving this transition to defense, offering to share the fruits of the research effort so that both countries could join in protecting the world from the threat of nuclear war.
How did this dramatic change come about? What were the motives behind the president's decision? Was it all but inevitable given the relentless advance of technology? Or was SDI more the product of other considerations—political, strategic, moral, economic?
SDI, the evidence suggests, was far from inevitable. Unlike virtually all other comparable weapons-innovation projects since World War II, this one reflected nothing so much as the mind-set of a single person—the president who enunciated it on the recommendation of a handful of like-minded political supporters. The decision was adopted without benefit of prior review by specialists in defense technology and strategy. It was not considered by the president's formal cabinet, by leaders of Congress, or by U.S. allies. The policy attracted initial support because Reagan succeeded in making a direct appeal to U.S. public opinion. He
sensed correctly that the initiative would strike a responsive chord among a majority of voters, especially because it promised to remove the threat of nuclear attack by relying not on the imperfect strategy of retaliatory deterrence nor on persuading the Soviets to accept meaningful arms control, but solely on faith in the national capacity for technological innovation. The peculiar circumstances surrounding the birth of SDI, however, may also contain the seeds of its undoing. As the president's popularity declined and as his term neared an end, SDI became more and more vulnerable to attack from all the forces he had tried to bypass. Because it is so closely identified with the Reagan presidency, rather than with the coalitional consensus that sustains other major military programs, SDI is unlikely to survive Reagan's term in office for very long—at least in the form of the high-visibility, high-priority program he tried to fashion.
The Novelty Of SDI
In examining the grounds for the decision to embark on SDI, the history of weapons innovation offers some preliminary guidance. But this history provides no exact parallel, and none of the usual explanations adequately applies to the case of SDI. In previous weapons innovations, certain factors have been either essential or at least implicated. Two have been especially prominent: (1) fear of being put at a disadvantage if an adversary develops a new weapon first and (2) the assurance of technical specialists that the proposed innovation is likely to prove feasible. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's order to create the Manhattan Project had both of these elements behind it. Refugee nuclear physicists had persuaded Roosevelt and his advisors that Nazi Germany was certain to be developing a weapon that might affect the outcome of the war. Similarly, President Harry S. Truman approved a crash program to develop the hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb out of fear that the Soviets might develop it first and use it to blackmail the West. Although Truman chose to disregard the advice of a key committee of experts, he acted on the advice of officials who favored the project and received strong encouragement from other prominent scientists; even those who opposed the project thought it had an even chance of succeeding within five years.
Weapons innovation involves other factors, too. Rivalry among the armed services, in addition to other manifestations of "bureaucratic politics"—salesmanship on the part of defense contractors, the interest of well-placed members of Congress in obtaining procurement contracts
for their districts, the findings of strategists and other technical experts, and the general interest of the Defense Department in promoting modernization—have all figured in decisions to develop and deploy new weapons. There is also some reason to suppose that innovation occurs because of an "action–reaction phenomenon," in McNamara's phrase, except that the United States has usually been the initiator rather than the reactor. The United States tends to take the initiative not because it is any more aggressive than the U.S.S.R. or is less concerned about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. The reason is, rather, that "we are richer and more powerful, that our science and technology are more dynamic, that we generate more ideas of all kinds." This American penchant for innovation, however, has never been completely autonomous; it has been directed and channeled by a combination of technical and policy judgments.
On all these counts, SDI is different. The SDI decision was not reached on conventional grounds or in the conventional way. There was no reason to suppose that the Soviets were on the verge of achieving breakthroughs that had so far eluded U.S. researchers or that these breakthroughs would be sufficient to allow for a "breakout" from the ABM Treaty that would yield some tangible military advantage. Although Soviet scientists had done important research on various types of lasers and had continued to mount a major effort to exploit space for military purposes, including the development of a co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, they were not on the verge of developing radically new, more effective ballistic missile defenses. In 1977 Aviation Week & Space Technology carried sensational reports, based on information from a recently retired director of air force intelligence, Maj. Gen. George J. Keegan, that the U.S.S.R. was close to achieving an operational particle-beam weapon for BMD. These claims were reviewed by an air force–CIA intelligence panel and a panel of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, which rejected them as greatly exaggerated. But more credible reports began to appear, confirming Soviet research on beam weapons. So, after 1977, the DOD reviewed its assessment of Soviet progress at least once a year. A review conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a year before the president made his surprise announcement on SDI, concluded that there were no technical grounds for supposing that a more advanced BMD system could be developed—one, in any event, that could not be successfully countered and would not be more expensive to deploy than the offense needed to defeat it. There is little if any evidence that military contractors were
actively promoting a new venture in defense, even though some have suggested in retrospect that contractors might well look to SDI to pick up the slack left as major offensive weapons reached maturity. The very few advisors whose opinions the president solicited were almost all predisposed in favor of SDI, although they certainly could not be said to represent a consensus within the technical community. Officials in the Reagan administration later sought to make a virtue of this neglect of expert opinion by citing instances in which eminent scientific authorities had proved unduly pessimistic.
More than any previous major decision on weapons innovation, SDI was very much a presidential decision. As experienced observers were quick to note, it was a "top–down" decision rather than one reached, as most have been, after prolonged gestation in the defense establishment and review by expert committees. From the Truman administration onward, decisions of this sort have generally risen through the upper layers of a bureaucratic and advisory network until, if deemed viable, they are given the National Security Council's imprimatur: an NSC directive. The first such directive was NSC 68 in 1950, which was the policy basis for a major increase in defense spending to meet a perceived Soviet threat. Later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to approve the development of continental air defenses and to accelerate development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) only after elaborate inquiries had been conducted by committees of experts drawn from within and outside of the government.
SDI is an anomaly. It was a decision reached by the president without prior review by the defense establishment, in the knowledge that such a review would have been unfavorable, on the advice of an informal "kitchen cabinet" composed of political supporters, and after the president himself had begun to favor the project. It was not until after the March 23 speech and the issuance two days later of National Security Decision Directive 85 ("Eliminating the Threat from Ballistic Missiles") that the president issued National Security Study Directive 6-83 ("Defense Against Ballistic Missiles"). The study directive authorized the creation of the Defensive Technologies Study (chaired by James C. Fletcher) and the Future Security Strategy Study (chaired by Fred S. Hoffman) and charged them with examining the feasibility and potential impact of proposals already approved. Although many assumed the president must have been given the idea for SDI by his advisors, Reagan himself scoffed at the suggestion: "It kind of amuses me that everybody
is so sure I must have heard about it, that I never thought of it myself. The truth is I did."
The Political Background
Although the decision to establish SDI did not come altogether out of the blue, the events that led to it were almost exclusively political and personal. The 1980 Republican platform had endorsed a hawkish congressional resolution that called for "peace through strength." It included among other strategic goals the need to pursue "more modern ABM technologies" and to create "a strategic and civil defense which would protect the American people against nuclear war at least as well as the Soviet population is protected." In 1940, as a Hollywood actor, Reagan starred in a film entitled Murder in the Air, about a secret miracle weapon, an "inertia projector," that could bring down aircraft by destroying their electrical systems. In the movie, after the weapon's promoters announce that it "will make America invincible in war and therefore be the greatest force for peace ever invented," Communist spies attempt to steal the plans, but a U.S. secret agent pursues them and uses the device to destroy their airplane in midflight. The role of the secret agent was played by Reagan. Almost four decades later, as a candidate for the U.S. presidency in 1979, he became aware of the country's complete vulnerability to attack during a campaign visit on July 31 to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. After observing NORAD radars tracking thousands of objects in space, he asked the commander of the facility, Gen. James Hill, what NORAD could do to stop a Soviet missile once it had been identified as having been fired at a U.S. city. According to Martin Anderson, an aide who accompanied Reagan on the visit, the general replied that NORAD could only alert the officials of the city: "That's all we can do. We can't stop it." On the flight back to Los Angeles, Reagan, still disturbed by what he had learned, shook his head and said, "We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us." What options would a president of the United States have, he wondered, in the event of a nuclear attack? "The only options he would have," the future president reflected, "would be to press the button or do nothing. They're both bad. We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles."
Later in the campaign, Reagan reviewed what he had learned on his visit in an interview with a reporter:
We can track the missiles if they were fired, we can track them all the way from firing to know their time of arrival and their targets, and we couldn't do anything to stop the missiles. … They actually are tracking several thousand objects in space, meaning satellites of ours and everyone else's, even down to the point that they are tracking a glove lost by an astronaut that is still circling the earth up there. I think the thing that struck me was the irony that here, with this great technology of ours, we can do all of this yet we cannot stop any of the weapons that are coming at us. I don't think there's been a time in history when there wasn't a defense against some kind of thrust, even back in the old-fashioned days when we had coast artillery that would stop invading ships if they came.
He went on to discuss Soviet efforts in civil defense and added, significantly:
I don't know whether we should be doing the same things of that kind but I do think that it is time to turn the expertise that we have in that field—I'm not one—but to turn it loose on what do we need in the line of defense against their weaponry and defend our population, because we can't be sitting here—this could become the vulnerable point for us in the case of an ultimatum.
Impressed by the candidate's "powerful reaction" to the NORAD visit, Anderson drafted a policy memorandum on defense in early August 1979, which suggested that Reagan propose the development of a "protective missile system":
Develop a Protective Missile System . During the early 1970s there was a great debate about whether or not this country should build an anti-ballistic missile system. The ABM lost, and is now prohibited by SALT agreements. But perhaps it is now time to seriously reconsider the concept.
To begin with, such a system concentrates on defense, on making sure that enemy missiles never strike U.S. soil. And that idea is probably fundamentally far more appealing to the American people than the questionable satisfaction of knowing that those who initiated an attack against us were also blown away. Moreover, the installation of an effective protective missile system would also prevent even an accidental missile from landing. Of course, there is the question of reliability, especially with the development of multiple entry warheads, but there have apparently been striking advances in missile technology during the past decade or so that would make such a system technically possible.
If it could be done, it would be a major step toward redressing the military balance of power, and it would be a purely defensive step.
Taken in conjunction with a reasonable buildup in our conventional
forces, and an acceleration in development of cruise missiles, laser beam technology, and conventional nuclear missiles like the MX, the development of an effective protective missile system might go a long way toward establishing the kind of national security that will be necessary in the 1980s.
The question of technical feasibility and cost are critical, but we should be able to get a good evaluation of the concept from the group of national defense experts we have working with us.
Although Reagan "embraced the principle of a missile defense wholeheartedly," Anderson recounts that Michael K. Deaver, a senior campaign advisor, vetoed the proposal that it be made a campaign pledge. Deaver liked the idea in principle, but not the timing of the proposed statement, afraid it would be used by demagogic opponents to make Reagan look like too much of a "hawk" for proposing such a radical change in strategic doctrine.
Although Deaver's advice prevailed and Reagan did not make public his belief in the need for a strategic defense program during the campaign, other evidence suggests that he was already strongly in favor of such a program. Another of his campaign advisors was a retired army officer, Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham. Although not a technologist, Graham had been head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and was already an outspoken champion of the military need to "seize the high ground of space" before the Soviets did. Graham, along with other military men and space enthusiasts ("space cadets" to their critics), was strongly convinced that just as warfare had earlier spread from land to sea and then to the air, so it was also bound to expand into outer space. An air force "Space Master Plan," setting objectives for the end of the century, would later call for a "space combat" capacity aimed at protecting air force assets and denying the enemy free access to space. For Graham, as for many air force officers, the question was not whether the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for military control of space, but which side would win. He has recalled that Reagan, during the 1980 presidential race, often objected to the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), referring to it as a "Mexican standoff." "He said it was like two men with nuclear pistols pointed at each other's heads, and if one man's finger flinches, you're going to get your brains blown out." Reagan, who is known for his tendency to repeat favorite images of this sort, drew a similar analogy in explaining SDI to reporters shortly after he announced it.
After the election, Graham set about building support for a space defense among the president's staunchest supporters. Early in 1981 he
published an article in Strategic Review calling for the deployment of space-based defenses that would use "off the shelf" technology. Later that year he founded High Frontier, an organization committed to the view that the United States should aim to achieve military superiority over the U.S.S.R. by making a technological "end run" on the Soviets. Space would be the key arena in which this technological edge would be exploited, at first using kinetic-kill technology—systems designed to shoot projectiles, or "smart rocks," at missiles, destroying them on impact—and later, as they became available, more advanced systems incorporating beam weapons. By taking this bold approach, the advocates of High Frontier contended, the United States would not have to be content with restoring a balance in offensive systems, but could achieve superiority by adding defenses to offenses. The cost of deploying the proposed system was estimated to be "on the order of $24 billion" in constant 1982 dollars. The ultimate aim would be to replace "assured destruction" with "assured survival." Among the contributors to High Frontier were four members of the president's California kitchen cabinet: brewer Joseph Coors, retired industrialist Karl R. Bendetsen, investor and longtime Reagan friend William A. Wilson, and Jaquelin Hume, like Wilson an elderly businessman.
At the urging of Reagan appointees, High Frontier's proposal of a three-layer global ballistic missile defense (GBMD) consisting of terminal, midcourse, and boost-phase systems was examined by specialists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a Defense Department organization in charge of research in the general area of future technologies. DARPA found that the proposed system would be ineffective against the present Soviet missile force, vulnerable to countermeasures, and considerably more expensive than High Frontier claimed. In testimony before Congress, DARPA Director Robert S. Cooper reported on the agency's findings, noting that its researchers had worked with representatives of High Frontier:
We do not share their optimism in being able to develop and field such a capability within their timeframe and cost projections. We have conducted several inhouse analyses and have experienced some difficulties in ratifying the existence of "off-the-shelf components or technologies" to provide the required surveillance, command and control, and actually perform the intercepts within the orbital and physical conditions described. Our understanding of the system's implications and costs would lead us to project expenditures on the order of $200 to $300 billion in acquisition costs alone for the proposed system.
On the recommendation of the General Accounting Office (GAO), however, the DOD in 1982 set new priorities for the research on strategic defenses and put the relevant activities under the guidance of DARPA.
Also promoting strategic defenses was a "laser lobby" in Congress headed by Sen. Malcolm A. Wallop (R., Wyo.) and his legislative assistant, Angelo Codevilla. In 1979 both men drafted and sent to Reagan an article that called for immediate deployment of space-based defenses featuring chemical lasers. Reagan returned the draft with comments and annotations. At Wallop's urging, the Republican-controlled Senate voted in 1982 to provide additional funding for laser defenses by a margin of 91 to 3. In the House there was some enthusiasm for the X-ray laser, as Science magazine reported in a story in its issue of June 4, 1982, entitled "Laser Wars on Capitol Hill." Another Republican senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, published an article in the conservative Strategic Review that called for a new program to develop space-based defenses. But there were countervailing pressures. In 1982 both houses voted to deny $350 million requested by the Defense Department for research on ABM systems, and a joint resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives, signed by ninety members, calling on Reagan to negotiate a ban on all space weapons; a similar resolution was introduced in the Senate.
The Role Of Edward Teller
Although the specialists at DARPA were clearly unimpressed by the case for a high-priority program in strategic defense, the cause received influential support from the nuclear physicist Edward Teller. A former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and at the time a kind of physicist-in-residence there, Teller had been encouraging a group of protégés—many of them brought to the laboratory under a fellowship program of the Hertz Foundation, in which Teller has long played a key role —to investigate a "third-generation" nuclear device (incorporating fission and fusion weapons but focusing the energy of their explosions in a powerful beam of X-rays) that might have military applications. In 1967 Teller had met Reagan, when he was governor of California, and had given him a tour of Livermore Laboratory.
Two Teller protégés, Lowell J. Wood, Jr., and George A. Keyworth II, also played key roles in promoting SDI. Wood, a physicist, was the leader of the "Excalibur" project team investigating the X-ray laser at
Lawrence Livermore. Later, he would often appear with Teller in congressional hearings and otherwise played an active role in lobbying for SDI in general and the X-ray laser in particular. Keyworth, then head of the physics division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, became a strong advocate of his mentor's views in general, even though he did not share Teller's enthusiasm for the X-ray laser. On the recommendation of Teller and other leading Republicans, and after other candidates were also considered, Keyworth was appointed special assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as of May 1981. (The fact that the post remained vacant for so many weeks into the president's term was taken by many as evidence of the indifference and even suspicion with which the president and his immediate advisors regarded the scientific community. This attitude may have been a legacy from the Nixon administration, when the President's Science Advisory Committee was dissolved after certain of its members were criticized for disloyalty to the administration and for being "advocates" rather than advisors.)
Teller had long been in favor of passive defenses in the form of civil defense, including the dispersion of population and industry, in order to limit damage from a nuclear attack. Now he pressed Keyworth to promote the development of active defenses, including research on third-generation nuclear weapons. With Keyworth's encouragement and Teller's active participation, the four members of the kitchen cabinet—Coors, Bendetsen, Wilson, and Hume—reportedly decided to act separately from High Frontier by forming an ad hoc subcommittee. They conferred at the offices of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and used their considerable influence to arrange a White House meeting with Reagan in January 1982 in which Teller took part. At that meeting they presented a report urging the president to establish a strategic defense program modeled after the Manhattan Project. On September 14, 1982, Teller met separately with the president and key advisors. Although he had been invited for a different purpose—Keyworth wanted his help in persuading the president to increase support for basic research—Teller used the opportunity (much to his protégé's annoyance) to lobby for more support for the X-ray laser project. He is reported to have warned the president that the Soviets were making significant progress in developing the new laser and to have advised him that a major breakthrough in the same effort had been achieved in the Excalibur project at Livermore. Teller has said subsequently that "because the Soviets are doing it, by now it is a question of life and death,"
and that the achievement of the X-ray laser "would end the MAD era and commence a period of assured survival on terms favorable to the Western alliance."
Teller's promotion of the Livermore project did not stem from a belief that the United States should deploy defenses only when the X-ray laser had been perfected. Nor did he propose that the United States adopt a space-based defensive system, either using kinetic weapons on satellites (like the High Frontier project) or relying on battle stations armed with laser weapons. Indeed, Teller specifically rejected the idea of satellite-based interceptors and declined to endorse the High Frontier proposals because they made use of this very basing mode. "We are not talking about battle stations in space," he told the House Armed Services Committee. "They are much too vulnerable. We should merely try to have our eyes in space and to maintain them." Teller's support of strategic defense was general rather than specific, and he had long opposed any political actions—including treaties—that might hamper the development or deployment of defensive systems. In a book published in 1962, Teller was already campaigning for active defenses. "A retaliatory force," he wrote, "is important. A truly effective defense system would be even more desirable. It would be wonderful if we could shoot down approaching missiles before they could destroy a target in the United States." If the Soviets were to develop reliable defenses knowing that U.S. defenses were insufficient, "Soviet conquest of the world would be inevitable." He opposed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty because it prevented development of nuclear-tipped ABMs, and the ABM Treaty because it prevented the United States from deploying more than one hundred ground-based interceptors. Teller continued to believe that such interceptors would be worth having, especially in view of advances in their design. And he believed this even though the interceptors could not promise complete protection and even though, in the long run, the X-ray laser would provide a much more effective defense (if it could be popped up from submarines on warning of an attack) by intercepting missiles in their boost phase without the vulnerability of space-based satellites.
In his meetings with the president, Teller evidently emphasized the long-term prospects offered by the X-ray laser, though he very likely also reiterated his long-held belief that some defense is better than none at all. Later, Teller was to react strongly against the conclusions of the Fletcher committee. He objected on the grounds that the Fletcher report called for deferring deployment until research into all possible alternatives
had been completed and because the report anticipated the deployment of a layered defense requiring some space-based systems. "The spirit is willing," Teller punned, "but the Fletch is weak."
Bypassing The "Establishment"
Teller's technical judgment was given practical application as a result of meetings involving the kitchen cabinet, Graham, and a small group of White House officials, none of whom had major responsibility for foreign or defense policy. On September 14, 1981, Bendetsen, Graham, and Teller met in Meese's office with White House Counselor Edwin Meese III; Keyworth; Anderson; and Meese's assistant, Edwin W. Thomas. The outside advisors agreed to prepare a report for the president recommending that U.S. policy be redesigned to emphasize both defense and offense. There was "general agreement," according to Anderson, "that a major part of a missile defense would probably be based in space." A second, smaller meeting took place in the White House on October 12, at which the group considered adopting the High Frontier designation for the project of "Global Ballistic Missile Defense."
On January 8, 1982, a meeting was arranged for the members of the kitchen cabinet to present their report. In addition to the president, present in the Roosevelt Room—adjacent to the Oval Office—were Bendetsen, Hume, Coors, Teller, Meese, Keyworth, Anderson, and William Clark, then a member of the White House staff. The meeting was supposed to last only fifteen minutes but went on for almost an hour. During the discussion, the question arose of whether an ABM system should be designed to rely on beam weapons. Some also asked if the system should be expected to provide an "area defense" to protect people or a "point defense," which would protect only missile silos and other military targets. Bendetsen reportedly suggested that if one type of defense could be achieved, so could the other. The real need, he said, was to get on with the job. The president agreed. No one raised the question of whether the proposed defenses would be compatible with the obligations imposed by the ABM Treaty. The right way to proceed, the participants agreed, was for the president to issue a directive initiating a program on the scale of the Manhattan Project. For something that elaborate, Reagan observed, he would need a recommendation from the DOD. Bendetsen, who had been under secretary of the army from 1946 to 1952, observed that if that were the case, Reagan would have to talk the department into it.
The others at the White House meeting recognized the force of Bendetsen's point. They knew that if the president were to try to win approval through the usual channels, he would run into so much opposition that the proposal might never reach his TelePrompTer. Within the defense establishment, the opposition was likely to be keen, especially among those who had already examined the High Frontier proposal and concluded it was premature at best. Leaders of the various services were apt to fear that large appropriations for strategic defense might jeopardize modernization of offensive weaponry. Those most knowledgeable about advanced technologies and the costs of development would be either skeptical or strongly opposed.
On the very day the president made his "Star Wars" speech, the director of DOD's Directed Energy Program told a Senate committee that although beam weapons "offer promise of making major contributions" to strategic defense, the "relative immaturity" of the technologies made it hard to know whether weapons employing them would be feasible or cost-effective. For the time being, he indicated, "our goals in this area are rather modest." The research would be unlikely to affect force structure until "the 1990s or beyond." Richard DeLauer, under secretary of defense and in effect the highest-ranking technologist in the Pentagon, said later in the year that a deployable space-based defense was at least two decades away and would require "staggering" costs. To develop it, he added, eight technical problems would need to be solved, each of which was as challenging as the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Project. And even if it could be developed, DeLauer was skeptical of its utility in the face of countermeasures: "There's no way an enemy can't overwhelm your defense if he wants to badly enough."
The proposal would hardly have been any more welcome elsewhere in the executive branch or among most members of Congress. The State Department, if consulted, would certainly have warned that Western Europe would react adversely and that Soviet objections might undo the ABM Treaty. Arms-control specialists in the department and at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency might have cautioned that the proposal would complicate arms-reduction negotiations with the Soviets. And, had the proposal leaked to Congress, those already skeptical toward the schemes of High Frontier and the laser lobby might well have mounted a campaign to head it off.
The president did not order further study of the kitchen cabinet's recommendation or take action on it for some months. The issue of developing defenses came up again in the meeting with Teller in September
and was also discussed in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in December 1982. Apparently, it was only after this meeting with the JCS that the president decided to move ahead with the proposal.
The job of shaping the decision was assigned by Clark, who had succeeded Richard V. Allen as assistant to the president for national security affairs, to a small circle of NSC staff members headed by his deputy, Robert C. McFarlane. The basic strategy adopted, according to McFarlane, "was to skirt Congress, the bureaucracy, and the media." Secretary of State George P. Shultz was not consulted but, instead, was handed an advance copy of the speech, two days before it was televised, marked "eyes only"—an injunction that prevented him from sharing it with arms control advisor Paul H. Nitze, who learned about the project the day the speech was given. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger was also not consulted. DeLauer learned of the decision nine hours before the speech. Fred C. Iklé, under secretary of defense for policy, was notified at the same time and pleaded for an opportunity to inform at least the leaders of the other NATO countries. The process whereby the policy was formulated resembles the one later employed in the Irancontra affair, in which the president also relied primarily on the staff of the National Security Council rather than on members of his formal cabinet and the relevant executive agencies.
Keyworth, who had been privy to the earlier discussions with Teller, was consulted only after the president had decided to act. He was informed of the decision five days before the date of the speech, when the NSC staff realized that the president could not announce a major high-technology initiative in a nationally televised address without having informed his science advisor. Keyworth has said that the president asked him to determine whether the objective was attainable, and that he spent several days telephoning experts before he was able to give the president the assurance he wanted. He has admitted that his first reaction was to ask for time to consider the issue: "My God, let's think about this some more. Let's think about the implications for the allies. Let's think about what the Soviets are going to think. Let's think about what's technically feasible. Let's think about what the scientists are going to say. Let's think about the command-and-control problems."
Keyworth's initial concerns were reinforced when he consulted a specialist on directed-energy weapons. But in the end he overcame his doubts, largely out of loyalty to the president. In 1981 he had commissioned an independent review of prospects for space-based defense by a physicist, Victor H. Reis, whom he had appointed assistant director of
OSTP. Reis, who had worked at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and had participated in Defense Science Board panels on strategic defense, reported that it would be much easier to counter such a defense than to build it. When Keyworth was given a draft of the president's "Star Wars" speech by McFarlane, he showed it to Reis, whose reaction was to say, "Jay, this is Laetrile" (referring to a quack cure for cancer). Keyworth admitted that he, too, had doubts about the idea but thought that SDI might be a boon to scientific research. Reis suggested that he should either resign or urge the president to submit the proposal for independent review. Keyworth knew the Joint Chiefs also favored such a review, hoping the panel would resemble the one headed by the physicist Charles Townes to consider the MX. Keyworth rejected the advice because he had confidence in Reagan's political leadership and because he viewed SDI as a research program, not necessarily as a commitment to deploy any particular system. Above all, he decided to endorse the proposal because he thought it was a political decision and that his role as science advisor was merely to make sure that the president was aware of the views of the technical community. He was also influenced, however, by findings that suggested a defense employing ground-based lasers might be developed that would require only that mirrors be deployed in space. Once he had decided to go along with the proposal, he helped McFarlane draft the speech.
Several members of the White House Science Council were invited to attend the broadcast of the speech, but they, too, were taken by surprise. A year before, a panel of experts drawn from the council had been asked by Keyworth to study the potential impact of new technologies. They reported that none of them, including the X-ray laser, was likely to have a revolutionary impact in the near term. Many of the members of the council were nevertheless sympathetic to the president's proposal. Only one, John Bardeen, twice Nobel laureate and professor of physics at the University of Illinois, dissented strongly, resigning from the council in April because "such a questionable and far-reaching proposal was being made without review by the scientific community." Bardeen's complaint emphasized the lack of advance review by technical specialists:
Reagan's speech was prepared without prior study of the feasibility of the concept by technical experts and apparently without consultation with those in the Pentagon concerned with missile defense or with his own former science advisor, George "Jay" Keyworth [II]. I was a member of the White House Science Council at the time. Although we met only a few days before the speech was given, and had a panel looking into some of the technology,
we were not consulted. We met on a Friday and left for home. Keyworth must have heard about the planned speech shortly thereafter, because telegrams were sent to some of the council members involved to return to Washington on Saturday. With the speech scheduled for the following Wednesday, there was no time to make more than minor changes. The multi-layer systems on which current SDI research is based were outlined in a report by the Fletcher Commission, formed after the speech was given.
The lack of consultation was quite deliberate. The president's reasoning, which was reinforced by McFarlane, was that he needed to make a decision that would change attitudes toward defense both within the government and outside it. "The idea," as one of the participants put it, "was to make a decision and then make it happen." That way, no one had to consider whether a defensive system might work or whether (assuming it could be made to work) there would be military benefits. Nor was any thought given to the Soviets' reaction. As a White House source insisted: "None of the things you assume would be considered were considered at all. People just don't believe that the president could make such a momentous decision so impulsively. They think we must have thought through what it could do to the treaties and how it might work as a bargaining chip in Geneva, and so on, but I can't find it." Another participant said the policy initiative had been given little more consideration than "you would give the jacks before you bounce the ball." Still another gave a post hoc appraisal that implied admiration more for the way the decision had been reached than for the decision itself: "It was a fabulous study of top—down leadership," recalling that no one the president had informed thought the decision "screwy."
Some who were not informed until it was all but too late to intervene were shocked. Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, reportedly acting with Weinberger's approval, tried to delay the speech, putting in a transatlantic call in which he urged Keyworth to "fall on your sword" to stop Reagan from making the announcement, or, if that failed, to threaten to leak the plan to the press. DeLauer is said to have exploded in disbelief upon hearing of the proposal and to have told Keyworth: "That's nonsense. That can't be so." At a White House meeting, Shultz berated Keyworth for reassuring the president about his vision of a perfect defense. "You're a lunatic," he is reported to have told Keyworth.
Anderson, who took part in the decision as assistant to the president for policy development (though his job was ostensibly to deal with economic and other domestic matters), has admitted that the "normal way
to proceed" would have been to ask the Defense Department to study the problem and to make recommendations. "That option was never suggested," Anderson has written, "because we all knew it wouldn't work." Anderson's view was that the "bruising battle" twelve years before over ABM had made the DOD "gun shy of any serious talk of missile defense," and in any case, as an entrenched bureaucracy, it was expected to resist radical new ideas. So, instead of "going by the book," he, Meese, Keyworth, and Allen (the president's first special assistant for national security affairs) formed an informal alliance "committed to providing a missile defense shield for the country."
That the president encountered no criticism is not surprising, given the disposition of those he did consult. Most of the top civilians in the administration with foreign policy responsibility shared his view that the ABM Treaty had been a mistake in that it (1) had discouraged the United States from proceeding with research on defenses while not inhibiting the Soviets and (2) had not led to the promised reductions in offensive arms. In addition to General Graham and Teller and such politicians as Senator Wallop and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.), conservative strategists such as Colin S. Gray and William Van Cleave had condemned the treaty and were urging a renewal of defense research.
Nevertheless, there were objections to details of the president's proposal, and there was confusion among the drafters as to how the initiative should be couched. As a result, the speech was shaped to take some account of friendly criticisms and concerns. Should the president be circumspect or forthright? Should he approach the subject by saying something like "It might be a good idea to think about …" or: "As of tonight, I have directed …"? Perle succeeded in narrowing the focus of the speech to protection against ballistic-missile attack, cautioning that to include defense against bombers and cruise missiles would dramatically increase cost estimates for the United States and even more for Western Europe. Both Perle and Shultz found the initial draft of the speech unnecessarily provocative, anticipating the Soviets would object that by coupling a defense with a potent offense, the United States would be able to launch a first strike against the U.S.S.R. and then to absorb what retaliation could be mustered by the remaining Soviet missile force. The president attempted to allay that objection. ("If paired with offensive systems, [defensive systems] can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that.") Perle also pointed out that U.S. allies might conclude that the United States intended to protect itself but not them, and that a U.S. defense against ICBMs would enhance the
likelihood that the United States would become "decoupled" from the defense of Europe. The drafters therefore added the clause, "recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies," and the assurance that the United States sought a defense that would also protect them.
The context in which the proposal was made is also noteworthy. The reference to strategic defense was added to a speech originally designed to rescue the president's defense-budget request from Congress's efforts to pare it. The call for research on strategic defense may well have been designed to capture public interest and to improve the political climate for the passage of the president's request for a 10 percent increase in the defense budget. But the reference was neither a hastily added afterthought nor something tacked on for publicity value. It was a major new initiative intended to move strategic doctrine and defense technology in a new direction.
In the speech, the president took care to cite one important source of support for his ideas—the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Twice the president referred to the JCS, claiming that he had arrived at his decision only "after careful consultation" with his advisors, including the JCS. In fact, the question of whether to develop strategic defenses surfaced first at a regular meeting between the president and the chiefs in December 1982, possibly by coincidence, because the chiefs were searching for something new and different to discuss with the president. The meetings were going well, but the chiefs had, in effect, run out of new things to raise with him. They did not want to tell him, one participant recalled, just that "readiness was up. … We wanted to bring the president something new, different and exciting." At a preliminary meeting, Adm. James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations, suggested that they discuss new technologies and the possibility that they might provide a defense against ICBM attack. He did not have in mind urging the president to launch a major program to develop such weapons. His idea was rather that the United States might pursue such weapons research gradually, after consultation with its NATO allies. The chiefs agreed to put the matter on the agenda.
At a subsequent meeting on February 11, 1983, the issue of strategic defense was raised again. This time it was broached during a discussion of the JCS's politically embarrassing opposition, during congressional testimony, to the administration's "dense pack" basing proposal for the MX. The chiefs may have been eager to find an issue on which they could reestablish rapport with the president. If so, strategic defense was just such an issue. Admiral Watkins, a Roman Catholic, had become especially
sensitive to the moral questions surrounding a policy of nuclear deterrence owing to his involvement in the church's discussion of the ethics of defense policy. The Catholic bishops had invited discussion of a draft pastoral letter, criticizing retaliatory deterrence as immoral. The letter contended that "collateral damage," even from a "counterforce" strike (against military targets only), would inevitably take the lives of millions of innocent civilians and that a limited nuclear attack would be likely to escalate to an all-out exchange. "Wouldn't be better," Watkins asked, "to save lives rather than to avenge them?"—a question the president thought striking and borrowed for his speech. (Others in the administration, including national security advisor Clark and his deputy and successor, McFarlane, may also have been influenced by the discussion provoked by the draft of the bishops' letter.)
Just how enthusiastic the chiefs were about a new initiative in strategic defense, especially one designed to provide a population defense, and not merely a "point defense" to protect deterrent forces, is in dispute. Administration officials claim that the chiefs were polled on the feasibility of comprehensive defenses and concurred with the president, and that the president made his final determination to launch the program based on their advice. According to Anderson, the chiefs "recommended" to the president at the February meeting that "the United States abandon its complete dependence on the old doctrine of mutual assured destruction and move ahead with the research and development of a missile defense system," thereby confirming "the validity of an idea that Reagan had been thinking about for almost four years." The reporter Frank Greve, however, was told that the ideas expressed by the chiefs were "vague and philosophical." Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr., the chairman of the JCS, and Gen. E. C. Meyer, the army chief of staff, both of whom were at the meeting, could not recall being polled. General Vessey afterward recalled that it was well recognized that strategic defense was no panacea and that the chiefs were aiming merely to tell the president that the concept deserved further study. In a congressional hearing five years later, McFarlane, who had been present at the February 1983 meeting, confirmed that the president had asked the chiefs if they were endorsing an effort "to determine … whether defense could make a bigger contribution to our military strategy against nuclear conflict." According to McFarlane, each of the chiefs indicated his agreement. But in a dramatic colloquy with Rep. Les Aspin (D., Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, McFarlane revealed that the chiefs had not understood their endorsement to apply to population
defenses but only to the protection of military assets, and that the president had afterward knowingly altered the proposal to give it that much broader goal:
THE CHAIRMAN : But at that point, you and they were talking about defending missiles, not the Astrodome protection of the population. Is that what you are saying?
MR. MCFARLANE The military was talking about that, I was talking about that, and also frankly about just stressing the Soviet system.
THE CHAIRMAN : Complicating their lives.
MR. MCFARLANE : That is right.
THE CHAIRMAN : How did that get transformed into an Astrodome protecting population by the time the president made his speech about a month later?
MR. MCFARLANE : Basically, the president wanted to change it, Mr. Chairman. … He made the point to me, and I think it was proper, he said, "You must deal and have dealt with the traditional threat that we have faced, and you deal in military terms with the military problem and military risks, and to a certain extent political risks." He said, "My job is to lead and to try to evaluate what may be feasible technologically, but to be responsive to human beings, and my responsibility requires that I try to physically protect them and to move away from a strategy of threatening to kill people."
It is apparent from the president's own account that he used the Joint Chiefs' expression of interest in strategic defense to make it seem that his proposal had originated in his meeting with them. His own recollection, as he vividly recounted it in a magazine interview, was rather different from Vessey's but close to McFarlane's: "I brought up the question that nuclear weapons were the first weapons in the history of man that had not led to the creation of a defense system to protect against them. I asked if it was worthwhile looking into this. Is it possible to come up with a defense? They were all agreed it was. And right there the program was given birth." From that point on, the chiefs were not involved in the actual shaping of the decision or of the program it would recommend. McFarlane assigned three NSC staff members, all senior air force officers, to think about what should be done, to propose various options, and to consider the implications for planned military systems and the possible international ramifications. Then came the actual drafting and redrafting of the speech.
The Import Of The March 23 Speech
Most of the president's speech of March 23 was devoted to urging support of his defense-budget request, but he introduced his remarks by saying that he would announce "a decision which offers new hope for our children in the twenty-first century." He began by noting that until this point, the United States had managed to thwart the danger of a Soviet attack by threatening deadly retaliation. This approach, he admitted, had worked for more than three decades. It would continue to work only if the United States countered the Soviet effort for over the past twenty years to accumulate "enormous military might." He showed photographs of an extensive Soviet intelligence system in Cuba and Soviet military hardware in Central America, including Grenada. Finally, he broached his surprise announcement, making sure to refer to his discussions with the JCS: "In recent months, however, my advisors, including in particular the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have underscored the necessity to break out of a future that relies solely on offensive retaliation for our security." This initial reference to the United States' need to develop defenses begins, interestingly enough, in a recognition of a potential U.S. vulnerability in the offensive competition with the U.S.S.R.—a consideration that in many ways underlines and colors the character of the initiative.
It is plausible to assume from this reference to reliance on offensive deterrence that the interest in strategic defense arose not only because of its inherent attractions but also because of fear that the United States was losing ground in the offensive competition with the Soviets. The president and his military advisors were evidently convinced that while the Soviets were deploying more offensive weapons and were likely to continue doing so, the United States could not keep up—because of political and economic objections to the president's "strategic modernization" program. The administration's proposed deployment of two hundred mobile MX launchers had been stymied by resistance to the "dense pack" basing proposal. In conjunction with this intended deployment, the proposed FY1984 defense budget included a request for substantially more support for the development of new ABM technology to protect the MX missiles. Objections to this request included protests from inhabitants of the western (and strongly Republican) states, where the missiles would be based. They were concerned, among other things, with the impact the deployment might have on land and water resources. Congressional approval was obtained for the deployment of only fifty
MX missiles (which the administration decided to call "Peacekeepers"), to be housed in existing silos. Such a deployment hardly offset the Soviet advantage in the throw-weight of its heavy land-based missiles—a sore point for administration strategists—nor could it close the theoretical "window of vulnerability": in theory, the ground-based leg of the U.S. triad could still be threatened with destruction in a surprise attack. According to McFarlane's later congressional testimony, these political reverses to plans for strategic modernization prompted the Joint Chiefs' and his own interest in strategic defenses:
MR. MCFARLANE : Starting in the fall of 1983, after the loss of two proposals for MX basing, and then in December, 1982, the loss again of[,] I think[,] Dense Pack, Admiral [John] Poindexter came in one day and said[:] "It looks to me like we are going to have trouble staying in the [—]maintaining an equivalent balance with the Russians based on offense alone." And he said[, "]I raise this because Admiral Watkins, at the time the Chief of Naval Operations, had come over to him [Poindexter] and said, 'We in the Navy have been looking at recent technological breakthroughs both in the speed of computations as well as [in] traditional interceptor technologies[—]propellants, things like that[—] and we think that there has been so significant a family of changes that you ought to urge the President to make more of an investment in this.'["].
There were ominous signs that the administration's other efforts to make up for perceived Soviet advantages were also in trouble, even as the Soviets were taking new steps that would widen the gap even further. A resolution calling for a freeze on nuclear weapons at current levels (which meant, in the administration view, that the Soviets would retain their advantages) had been passed in referenda in eight states, and there was growing support for the freeze in Congress. Several influential senators, Charles Percy (R., Ill.), William Cohen (R., Me.), and Sam Nunn (D., Ga.), were supporting, as an alternative to the freeze, a "guaranteed mutual build-down," which the administration also disliked. Congressional resistance to the development of ASATs was growing, even though defense officials considered them vital in view of the Soviet development and deployment of satellites that would provide "real time" targeting information, greatly improving the U.S.S.R.'s offensive threat. This prospect was considered especially serious by naval officers responsible for the defense of the surface fleet. Although they remained
confident that the U.S. Navy's ability to maneuver would be sufficient to protect against a small number of targeting satellites, they thought that a large deployment of such Soviet satellites would require attack by ASATs if the U.S. fleet were to be protected in time of war.
For their part, the Soviets had shown no compunctions about testing a co-orbital ASAT, judged to be useful but not very threatening because of its low orbit as well as its unreliability and relatively lengthy attack time-line. Because of these tests, the U.S.S.R. could be said to possess an operational ASAT, despite its rhetorical attacks on the United States for "militarizing space" and its offer to ban all space weapons—an offer interpreted by the administration as an effort to preserve the Soviet advantage by halting the U.S. program, which promised to produce a better ASAT. The Soviets were also beginning to test and deploy new mobile missiles, which the administration's defense analysts feared would be harder to target than fixed launchers, especially because they could be hidden in the vast reaches of the Soviet Union or in tunnels. The U.S. Midgetman program—the favorite of some Democratic members of Congress, notably Sen. Albert Gore (D., Tenn.), and a number of senior defense analysts, who preferred it to the MX—was nevertheless mired in controversy. Although the Scowcroft Commission endorsed Midgetman, critics in the administration feared its approval would end prospects for congressional agreement to further MX deployment and, moreover, that its single-warhead configuration would further disadvantage the United States. They also worried that the cost of Midgetman and the difficulty of finding an acceptable basing mode for it would make this option at least as unpopular as the MX.
The administration's efforts to improve NATO's force structure were also meeting with objections in Europe, where unexpectedly intense protests erupted with the deployment of longer intermediate-range missiles. Requested during the Carter administration by European governments with the prompting of U.S. defense officials, these missiles were partly a response to Soviet deployments of the SS-20s against targets in Western Europe. Faced with a revival of the unilateral-disarmament campaign, leaders of the allied governments sought to distance themselves from the president's militant anticommunism and his calls for Western rearmament. It must have seemed to the president, and presumably to the Joint Chiefs as well, that the Soviets were able to do as they pleased with the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, while the United States could not even stay abreast of Soviet efforts because
of political opposition at home and abroad. Equally important, the Soviets had long taken strategic defense of their leadership, the general population, and their retaliatory strategic forces quite seriously.
The traditional alternative to building more and more weapons to keep up with the Soviets was to pursue arms-control measures. But the president, like other conservatives, had come to believe that arms control was a hopeless cause. He had denounced the SALT II Treaty as "fatally flawed" and in general spoke of arms-control agreements as successful Soviet efforts to tie America's hands while the U.S.S.R. took advantage of every treaty loophole and did not stint from cheating when the loopholes were not adequate to their purposes. He had appointed representatives to the arms-control talks in Geneva on whom he could count to resist pressures to negotiate treaties that would allow the Soviets to retain advantages they had presumably won in previous rounds. Edward L. Rowny, a retired army general and the chief negotiator for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), resigned in protest as soon as the SALT II Treaty was initialed in Geneva by U.S. and Soviet representatives and opposed its ratification. Nitze, chief negotiator in the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) talks, was one of the leaders of the Committee on the Present Danger, which spearheaded the campaign against ratification of the SALT II Treaty, although he was viewed with suspicion by some in the administration because he was a Democrat and had helped to negotiate SALT I. The president showed no sign of disappointment when the Soviets walked out of the negotiations in 1983 after the United States and its European allies rejected a Soviet demand for halting deployment of Tomahawk and Pershing II missiles for the duration of the talks. On the advice of the Joint Chiefs, he was adhering to the SALT II limits for the time being, so long as the Soviets also complied. The chiefs agreed with the CIA that the Soviet Union could add more warheads to its heavy missiles than the United States could add to its Minuteman missiles if the treaty limits were abrogated.
The president's dim view of arms control was shared by some specialists. The trouble with arms control, Helmut Sonnenfeldt has observed, is that "what is negotiable is not significant, and what is significant is not negotiable." Thomas C. Schelling wrote that arms control "has gone off the tracks." The insistence on formal agreements, he contended, may actually prevent arms reductions. Reciprocal restraints are more likely to come as a result of tacit behavioral signals than from formal negotiations. Others have taken a position even closer to the view of the president and other conservatives by arguing that the Soviets are
more likely to respect the power of the Western alliance than they are efforts to conciliate them by cutting back military forces, and that the Soviets cannot be trusted to adhere to arms-control agreements.
In his 1983 speech, however, the president went beyond such standard questioning of the utility of arms control to challenge the very premise of the doctrine of deterrence by threat of retaliation. Even successful arms-control measures would not remove the threat of nuclear war. The security of the United States and its allies would continue to rest on the threat of retaliation, and the whole of Western civilization would still have to live with the fear of nuclear devastation. The president therefore raised Admiral Watkins's rhetorical question: "Wouldn't it be better to save lives rather than avenge them?" Although it might have strengthened his case to do so, he did not mention the draft pastoral letter of the Catholic bishops, possibly because, like other conservatives, he found their position defeatist and even leftist. It is plausible to suppose, however, that the bishops' disapproval of retaliatory deterrence had not escaped his notice, and that in calling for a change in strategy he hoped to capitalize on their unhappiness with the status quo. The bishops had urged that the world move toward total nuclear disarmament. The president offered the same goal, but he proposed to get there by a different route, one that would not require frustrating, difficult, and possibly unsuccessful negotiations, but would instead take advantage of Western scientific and technological superiority. The belief that the United States could somehow defend itself was not altogether new, but never before had it been presented so simply, optimistically, and starkly. As to the freeze campaign, Reagan reiterated the administration line:
A freeze now would make us less, not more, secure and would raise, not reduce, the risks of war. It would be largely unverifiable and would seriously undercut our negotiations on arms reduction. It would reward the Soviets for their massive military buildup while preventing us from modernizing our aging and increasingly vulnerable forces. With their present margin of superiority, why should they agree to arms reductions knowing that we were prohibited from catching up?
While the speech was being drafted, the president made clear that he wanted defenses that would protect people, not just military targets. According to Keyworth, the president told the drafting group: "If there's one thing I do not mean by this, gentlemen, it is some kind of a string of terminal defenses around this country." It was Reagan himself who added the phrase about making nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete,"
insisting on its retention when some of his advisors urged that the phrase be toned down.
Reagan presented the alternative to nuclear deterrence in terms at least as appealing as those used by the champions of arms control and disarmament. "What if free peoples could live secure in the knowledge," he asked tantalizingly, "that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, but on the knowledge that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil?" (The president deliberately did not call for a defense against the "air-breathing threat" posed by bombers and cruise missiles. To listeners who did not appreciate the omission, it might well have seemed that the president was promising total safety from nuclear attack. He said nothing then or later to dispel such an illusion.)
Reagan did not claim that his goal could be achieved rapidly, but he argued that it was worth pursuing as a matter of the highest national priority. Building such a defense, he pointed out, was a formidable challenge that might not be met before the end of the century. But he stressed that the goal of rendering strategic nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete"—a phrase that was to be often repeated, but one that proved more ambiguous than the president and his speechwriters may have realized—was both worthwhile and possible. In a pointed reference to weapons researchers, he called on those in scientific and engineering communities to bend their efforts to developing a defense against the very weapons they had created.
The president tried to fend off an objection he had been warned about when the draft of the speech was circulated. His defense was somewhat perfunctory, however, and did not prevent the criticism from being forcefully advanced. Reagan acknowledged that by deploying a defense along with a strong offense, a nation might be thought to be seeking military superiority. Such an advantage could then be exploited either for purposes of attacking an adversary or for what Schelling calls "compellence," i.e., making political capital out of a perceived military superiority and using it to force concessions. "If paired with offensive systems," the president noted in the speech, defensive systems "can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that." "We seek," he pledged, "neither military superiority nor political advantage." This assurance did not prevent Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov from promptly denouncing the new initiative as a transparent effort to "disarm the Soviet Union" by achieving "a first-nuclear-strike capability," combining offenses and defenses in order to render Soviet forces
unable to deal a retaliatory strike. The Soviet argument was cited sympathetically by prominent domestic critics of the president's initiative, who also warned that defenses could be used to absorb a "ragged" retaliatory strike.
In making the speech, however, Reagan was apparently preoccupied not with such subtleties and complications but with a simple, heartfelt concern for a strategic defense against nuclear attack. He expressed this concern with particular force a few days after the speech: "To look down to an endless future with both of us sitting here with these horrible missiles aimed at each other and the only thing preventing a holocaust is just so long as no one pulls the trigger—this is unthinkable." Presidents before him had expressed the same horror at the thought that they might have no alternative but to defend the nation—an action that would carry the distinct risk of a nuclear holocaust. The difference was that Reagan's predecessors had reluctantly concluded that there was no feasible alternative but to accept this awesome responsibility. Reagan eagerly embraced the hope that one might be found and embarked on a major program based on little more than that hope. Even more important, he was determined to pursue this objective regardless of its effects on accepted strategic doctrines or on the arms-control process.
Although Reagan hoped without benefit of evidence, and deliberately sought reassurance from a very limited set of very loyal technical advisors (rather than canvassing the far larger constituency of skeptics), his decision was informed—though without real understanding of the complexities involved—by technical progress in a number of relevant areas, including the third-generation nuclear weapons touted by Teller and his protégés. The program was labeled "Star Wars" in the media, after the popular film of that title, because it was assumed that Reagan envisioned the kind of space-based defense advocated by the High Frontier group. The program was also thought to involve the orbiting of laser weapons, even though the speech itself made no specific reference to space-based systems or to any particular defensive system.
Indeed, the president and his supporters at first reacted with annoyance to the "Star Wars" label and even tried to prevent the media from using it because administration critics were employing it in an effort to make the program seem like a hopeless and dangerous adolescent fantasy. As the phrase stuck, however, and the critics failed to arouse great public opposition by using it, the objection was dropped. In fact, the idea of a space-based shield proved to be appealing. Perhaps it seemed as though an "astrodome" would keep nuclear explosions
well away from the earth, encouraging some to conclude that even if a war came to pass, it would be fought in space. Many people may also have been ready to believe that in view of advances in space technology, the character of warfare might well be altered more or less as the president was suggesting. When the Fletcher panel reported in favor of a layered system that would emphasize deployments in space, and the president endorsed the report, any point in objecting to the "Star Wars" designation was lost.
The president's speech curiously omitted any reference to Soviet efforts in strategic defense, which left him open to the charge that he was destabilizing the superpower relationship by giving the United States an advantage in an area foreclosed by the ABM Treaty. A subsequent government publication made up for this omission by emphasizing that the Soviet Union had already made considerably greater investments than the United States in defensive systems, including more than ten thousand SAM sites to defend against the U.S. bomber force (which carries more than half the megatonnage in the U.S. arsenal). The report pointed out that the Soviets were hard at work on an undeclared SDI of their own, designed to improve their existing ABM system around Moscow, perhaps to upgrade SAMs so that they might serve for BMD, to develop mobile radars, and to do research on BMD involving "new physical principles," especially beam weapons. Weinberger, in particular, stressed the need for SDI in order to prevent the Soviets from achieving a space-based defense first.
The president's silence on the issue is open to interpretation. The drafters of the speech must have known about Soviet efforts, even though the Pentagon did not have much time to study the speech and react to it. They were probably reluctant, however, to make an issue of Soviet investments in defensive systems because the considerable expenditures had already been met by very effective U.S. offensive countermeasures, rendering Soviet efforts both futile and very costly. Conceivably, the president may have wanted to stress the novelty and benign nature of his proposal. (He had not long before characterized the U.S.S.R. as an "evil empire." Could such an empire have taken an initiative designed to rid the world of the nuclear scourge?)
The Strategic Rationale For The SDI
Even before the president made his decision, advocates of strategic defense were arguing that it made military sense. Once the decision was
made, they developed its strategic rationale. Prominent among them was Colin S. Gray, who had been a persistent critic of reliance on offensive force. Although he had earlier been skeptical of the prospects for strategic defense, Gray now argued strongly in favor of a defense transition, to be achieved in stages. The nation that achieved the first stage earliest would have at least a temporary advantage:
Notwithstanding the varied technological grounds upon which the 'High Frontier' vision of American superiority in space may be dismissed as impracticable for the near future, it is important to appreciate the scale of the strategic revolution in question. The first country to deploy robust directed-energy weapons in space, in conjunction with conventional BMD, air-defense capabilities, civil defense, and a strong offensive counterforce capability, would almost certainly achieve a large measure of strategic superiority, however fleeting.
Arguing that Britain and those who depended on its resistance to Hitler's Germany had been fortunate that radar had not been banned in the 1930s, Gray contended that proposals for defense technology should not be sacrificed to poorly conceived and inequitable arms-control proposals. If the adversary developed no adequate countermeasures or an equally effective defense, that advantage would persist. The more likely prospect in such an event was that both superpowers would introduce defensive weapons in order to balance the previous emphasis on offense. Gradually, Gray argued, defense would come to dominate offense until, eventually, the threat from strategic offensive weapons would become so minimal as to justify the president's hope that they would become "impotent and obsolete."
Those who adopted Gray's view, however, were not quite ready to argue that a shield in space would be impregnable, or that there was no point in deploying defenses unless they could protect civilian populations. Although the popular impression left by the "Stars Wars" speech was just that, more sophisticated strategists argued that a "robust" strategic defense—one that would intercept all but a fraction of the attacking warheads—would effectively eliminate the threat of nuclear attack by making it too risky for an enemy to contemplate. In the total absence of defenses, an attacker could reasonably calculate that a large-scale counterforce attack could significantly degrade retaliatory capacities and that a countervalue attack (i.e., one directed against civil targets) could cause "unacceptable damage." Faced with a robust defense, an aggressor would be especially unlikely to launch a counterforce attack because there could be no assurance that enough warheads would penetrate
to their targets. Deterring a countervalue attack by relying even on robust defenses would be more difficult because the few surviving warheads could still do fearful damage. But in this case, too, the attacker could not be sure which targets would be destroyed.
Against the argument that an opponent would respond to the deployment of defensive weapons by greatly increasing the offensive threat, strategists in favor of SDI reply that defensive systems will with time become less expensive than offensive ones. Adding offenses to offset defenses will therefore become uneconomical. Why this should necessarily be so, especially in view of the complexities of space-based defenses, is not always made clear. Presumably, proponents of strategic defense anticipate a "learning curve" effect that will eventually reduce costs of defenses, whereas the need to reconfigure and equip offensive forces with penetration aids will continually increase the cost of offense.
Another problem opened up by the president's speech was its implicit recognition that the defensive shield would be ineffective against nuclear attacks not delivered by ballistic missiles. Proponents of strategic defenses acknowledge that the shield envisioned by the president would have to be complemented by an equally effective air defense but claim that some of the technologies developed for BMD (such as sensors) could also be used for air defense. Air-breathing weapons, moreover, are less destabilizing because they cannot be used as effectively in a first strike. Because bombers take more time than ICBMs to reach their targets, retaliatory forces can be launched before they are attacked. Even so, the president's vision of population defense would require air defense. This concern with air defense became more acute after "pre-summit" in October 1986 in Reykjavík, where Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came close to agreeing to halve the number of strategic warheads over a five-year period. As a result, by the end of 1986 a spate of new studies and plans was devoted to the possibility of an "ADI," or air defense initiative.
As to the effects on Western strategy, SDI supporters argue that strategic defenses would make NATO's strategy of "flexible response" more rather than less credible. If the United States did not have to fear nuclear retaliation against its own territory, they contend, it would be more likely to live up to its commitment to respond militarily to a Soviet attack on Western Europe, even if that response should require the first use of nuclear weapons. Because the defensive shield would be designed to protect Western Europe as well, though not from all forms of nuclear attack, it should also enhance the credibility of NATO's resolve, in the view of SDI supporters.
Supporters of the defense transition are more ambivalent about SDI's likely effect on Soviet strategic doctrine and deployments. They argue that the Soviets would be compelled to revise their stated view that nuclear weapons would inevitably be used in a superpower conflict in favor of a recognition that such weapons might not have the desired military effect. Faced with defenses much more effective than its own, the Soviet Union would have to calculate that in any hostilities initiated with conventional forces, it could no longer count on its nuclear weapons to deter a devastating Western response. If the defenses of both East and West were equally strong, then the military balance would rely on conventional forces, where the Soviets could conceivably (and in the view of some of the strategists already do) have advantages. But any Soviet effort to improve, or take advantage of, its conventional posture could be offset by the combined economic and technological resources of the West.
SDI supporters also see a different outcome. They contend that the introduction of defensive weapons could well lead, as Reagan apparently hopes, to U.S.-Soviet cooperation, though not necessarily through the sharing of technology. Most concede that sharing is unlikely because to understand a defensive technology is to learn how to defeat it and because of the superpower competition in high technology for weapons and civil economic advantages. At some stage, they argue, the Soviets will consider it in their interest to exchange monitoring data with the United States, perhaps to make use of the same surveillance satellites and in general to cooperate in order to defend against third parties (especially if the superpowers' offensive weapons are reduced without guarantees against other countries maintaining their own stocks of nuclear weapons).
In sum, then, according to the supporters of the defense transition, the United States' commitment to design and deploy defenses would not endanger the security of the West. First, defense would initially supplement offense, and second, SDI would eventually compel all powers to stress nonnuclear defenses. As a consequence, the condition known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) would inevitably yield to one of Mutual Assured Survival (MAS). The Soviets would find, no less than the United States, that innovation in offense can produce only a temporary change in the military balance. But SDI aims to achieve a qualitative change in warfare, ruling out further reliance on nuclear weapons. Offensive deterrence by conventional weapons would still be necessary, however, to forestall the threat of conventional war. Even if deterrence by conventional weapons could not be completely effective, especially
where the superpowers confront each other through proxies, the damage from such encounters could be contained. Most importantly, they could not escalate to the level of nuclear warfare, with its attendant catastrophic dimensions.
The Economic Rationale
The strategic rationale for research into and eventual deployment of strategic defenses was buttressed by an economic one. Although it did not emerge in the president's speech—which omitted any mention of the economic consequences of the initiative—it had already been stressed by High Frontier. Once the Fletcher panel put a price tag on the research program, however, and critics began to estimate the cost of the program (some in the range of a trillion dollars), the administration began to address the economic issue. Upon receipt of the Fletcher report, DeLauer recommended, and Weinberger endorsed, a research phase that would cost $26 billion over five years, beginning with FY1985. Critics attacked this budgetary request on several grounds. They argued that it would distort research priorities in defense by competing with programs concerned with the modernization of nuclear and conventional forces; that it would contribute further to the "militarization of research" at universities, a process already under way because of the emphasis of the Reagan budgets on military R&D; and that it would be wasteful, because too many technical questions would have to be resolved before an operational system would merit testing. Critics also cautioned that the program would divert scarce talent and industrial resources from a civilian economy that was suffering from "deindustrialization" and had become uncompetitive. The real motivation for such a rapid escalation in expenditures, some argued, was to create a constituency of contractors that would provide the program with enough momentum to make it difficult if not impossible for some future administration to scale back or curtail.
Administration officials responded to these criticisms with several key points: SDI is based on research that has been under way for some time. Expenditure totals should therefore be regarded as increments. In other areas, research was no longer critical because new military technologies were in a development or deployment phase. The research budget for the SDI would amount to no more than a comparatively small fraction of total military research, and would make it possible, early in the 1990s, to decide whether to proceed with the development and deployment of a defensive system. Before then, it was purely speculative to try
to determine the costs of deployment. These costs, too, would in any case be spread over many years and would therefore represent a manageable fraction of the defense budget.
In addition, advocates and administration officials also emphasized the potential importance of the SDI as a source of spillover benefits for civilian high-technology industry. Advances in computers, optical sensors, materials, and other aspects of SDI research, they suggested, would stimulate a resurgence of U.S. industry in much the same way as defense research had done in the 1950s and 1960s, and with greater indirect benefits than the more specialized mission-oriented research of the space program of the 1960s and 1970s. An office of Innovative Science and Technology was created within the SDIO to assure opportunities for broad-gauged research at universities; other efforts were made to assure that smaller, highly innovative companies would receive significant shares of the funding. Critics even wondered whether the SDI was in reality a covert way for a conservative administration to achieve a form of reindustrialization. The French government suspected that whatever the U.S. government's intention, massive support to U.S. industry would leave Europe in the lurch. President François Mitterrand therefore proposed the EUREKA project, a mainly civilian-oriented alternative to SDI.
The Political Rationale
Although the strategic, technological rationale appears to provide most of SDI's raison d'être, with the economic rationale only a subsidiary theme, the political rationale is probably its underlying source. This rationale has both ideological and pragmatic aspects.
The Reagan administration's commitment to SDI reflected its conservative ideology, which emphasizes the goal of advancing the cause of democratic capitalism against Soviet communism and imperialism. This goal is thought to require "a strong military" in virtually every conceivable respect. The ideology is unabashedly nationalistic and skeptical of the value of arms control, détente, and international organizations. Continued nuclear testing is supported on the ground that so long as the United States remains committed to nuclear weapons, the military must be assured the weapons are effective and researchers must be free to improve them. The ABM Treaty is disliked because it inhibits the United States from developing defensive weapons, making military strength a matter of developing offensive capabilities alone.
From this perspective, military R&D of all kinds is vital. Military
strength can best be assured not only by providing the armed services with the hardware they need and with the ability to attract and keep the personnel to operate it but also by encouraging the weapons laboratories to advance the state of the art. There is no room in this position for President Eisenhower's strictures against the "military-industrial complex" or for the liberal and radical view that argues for economic conversion of military industry to civilian pursuits. A cardinal tenet of the conservative view in general, which applies especially to SDI, is the belief that the United States' great strength is its free-enterprise economy, especially the high-technology sector. By freeing industry from the burden of high taxes, conservatives expect to stimulate enterprise. By providing government subsidies for military R&D, they aim to direct that industrial strength to the maintenance of national security. By maintaining stringent security classifications and restrictions on exports of technology to the Soviet bloc, they aim to protect the military advantages conferred by the West's superiority over the Soviet Union in industry and most areas of science and engineering.
The fundamental beliefs informing this general policy are that the United States is locked in a deadly competition with the Soviet Union and that superiority in military technology is a critical factor. The Soviets, conservatives believe, are determined to achieve military superiority even at continued cost to the civilian sector of the economy. Unlike liberals, who tend to interpret increased Soviet military expenditures mainly as an effort to attain and maintain strategic parity with the West, conservatives hold that the U.S.S.R.'s aim is not parity but superiority—a superiority it would seek to exploit for political gain and, if possible, to achieve a military victory over the West. From this point of view, détente generally serves the interest of the Soviets far more than that of the United States. Détente lets them conduct subversive proxy efforts to destabilize the West through "wars of national liberation" in the developing countries and through "low-intensity warfare," including terrorism. Wherever they can, conservatives contend, the Soviets seek to block resolution of conflicts in the developing countries, hoping to pick up the pieces or to force the West to protect its interests by committing resources to these conflicts. Within its own spheres of influence, in Western Europe or Asia, the Soviet Union remains committed to the "Brezhnev doctrine," i.e., it aims to consolidate its hold and to extend it if possible. A U.S. commitment to military improvements helps to put the U.S.S.R. on the defensive, forcing it to match Western expenditures, thereby straining its resources. Such strains are apt to inhibit the Soviets
from attempting to acquire new dependencies and foment difficulties for the West, especially insofar as they find that they need access to Western technology in order to keep pace, both in military and in civil terms.
In this international perspective, SDI can be regarded as merely another facet of the "Reagan doctrine"—that is, of a plan to take the offensive in the competition with the Soviets and to counter their efforts to intimidate the West. The Soviets fear SDI, according to this reasoning, because they know the West can make it work and that it will degrade their efforts to achieve offensive superiority. To cope with it, they will be compelled to increase expenditures on countermeasures and defenses of their own which could put an unbearable strain on their economy. SDI, moreover, can be seen as a pragmatic response to the Soviet effort to seize the high ground of space and to develop advanced weapons. It is an effort both to steal a march on the Soviets and to make sure they do not do the same to the West.
This political rationale greatly appeals to hard-core conservatives and to a broader public attuned to the same sentiments. Adherence to the SDI has thus become a litmus test of personal loyalty not only to the president but also to his legacy. Aspirants to the Reagan mantle, like Jack Kemp and Dan Quayle, have pledged to maintain SDI as a token of their commitment to the conservative agenda, along with tax reduction and militant anticommunism. The president's acute sense for U.S. public opinion also led him to see SDI's broader appeal. To those concerned about the prospect of nuclear attack but opposed to political accommodation with the U.S.S.R., it provided hope for protection. This hope, moreover, entailed the development of nonnuclear systems in the main and therefore was not vulnerable to the usual objection that increasing U.S. military strength would only escalate the arms race. SDI thus responded to a widespread longing for a mitigation of the nuclear threat without requiring any progress in arms control or trust in the Soviets. Instead, it required only traditional American beliefs: self-confidence in the U.S. economy and in the country's capacities for technological achievement.
Although liberals claimed it would unleash a new, no-holds-barred phase of the arms race, most Americans reacted favorably to the project, even though they also favored arms-control agreements. SDI carried a particular appeal for young people because of their absorption in the romance of science-fiction-style space adventure. Even though critics warned that SDI would unleash a new, unrestrained chapter in the
arms race, everywhere—even in Europe, where leaders openly expressed skepticism about its feasibility—SDI generated public enthusiasm precisely because it seemed to respond to a deep fear (ironically, one that had been reinforced by disarmament campaigns) by offering a hope that did not seem unduly provocative or warlike. A nonnuclear shield seemed a good deal less threatening than a Damoclean sword composed of fifty thousand nuclear weapons. By promising to share the technology with the Soviets and emphasizing his intention to achieve a defense for all humankind and not U.S. military advantage, Reagan couched SDI in terms that gave it a very broad appeal. In the case of SDI, as Garry Wills has observed, "others have the arguments, but Reagan has the audience."
Adjusting The Focus
Despite its widespread appeal, SDI was soon enveloped in controversy. What, exactly, were its goals? Was it designed to provide a total, i.e., "leakproof," defense against all nuclear weapons, or a "robust" defense against missile-borne weapons? What of other nuclear threats? Was it, rather, a way to get support for a program to protect only missile silos, with perhaps some minimal population coverage as a side benefit? Was it really designed to produce better ASAT systems? Or was it supposed to produce a relatively light nuclear defense that would serve as an "insurance policy" once radical reductions had been achieved in strategic offensive weapons and a "thick defense" was therefore no longer needed? Or was it just a bargaining chip to be traded for Soviet concessions in arms-control negotiations?
Although the president and administration officials continued to argue that his plan contained no contradictions or inconsistencies, others interpreted the project rather differently—including some who were engaged in it and others who have argued that, regardless of the president's declared intentions, SDI would actually work out differently.
Reagan himself clearly wanted to develop a form of defense that would protect people and not just missile silos. He also wanted it to be comprehensive, although in his speech he referred only to defense against strategic missiles. Apparently, Reagan wanted to avoid the criticism that such a total defense would be even more unaffordable than one against missiles alone. He had also been advised that BMD was the harder technical problem to solve. If a defense could be achieved against ICBMs, it would be comparatively easy to design a defense against bombers, cruise
missiles, and low-trajectory SLBMs. The president's vision was of a world virtually free of nuclear weapons, but not in the sense that a space shield could guarantee that no nuclear weapons would remain in the possession of any state or that no such weapons could possibly be used against the United States. (Critics have pointed out that bombs could be smuggled into the United States or other countries and detonated by remote control, or delivered by and then detonated in ships docking at ports or in civil aircraft.) The aim was to provide an effective defense against massive nuclear attack and thus to eliminate nuclear weapons from the strategic calculations of states. By nullifying nuclear weapons as the key element in superpower conflict and, with it, the threat of nuclear holocaust facing all of humanity, the president could embrace the ends of those who clamored for disarmament without embracing their means—either mutual agreement by the superpowers (which had so far proved futile) or the unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons, which would leave the West at the mercy of its adversary.
At the same time, the U.S. military would be strengthened vis-à-vis Soviet superiority in offensive weapons, one of the main strategic motivations for SDI. By adding defenses to offenses, the United States could blunt the effect of any Soviet military buildup, which would otherwise upset the military balance. Thus, in the short term SDI might well serve to deter a Soviet buildup. In the longer term, if the Soviets persisted, it could negate such a buildup, especially inasmuch as U.S. retaliatory forces could be defended more readily than populations.
Those SDI supporters skeptical of the ultimate prospects for population defense could endorse the president's vision but still keep their own eyes fixed on the near-term goal of strengthening U.S. security by adding defenses to offenses. Thus, the Hoffman report, commissioned by the DOD, urged that "intermediate deployments" be made to prevent erosion in the military balance and to provide protection for military targets in Europe, where Soviet short- and intermediate-range nuclear threats combined with conventional preponderance to pose an even more serious military imbalance. Such a near-term deployment would run afoul of the ABM Treaty, unless it were restricted to defenses against tactical missiles and involved no transfer of ABM technology—a difficult objective inasmuch as the technology for ABMs and ATBMs is so similar as to make the systems nearly indistinguishable apart from location. The authors of the Hoffman report, and those who shared their general view, implied or asserted that the ABM Treaty was not sacrosanct and should therefore not be permitted to stand in the way of a
deployment that would actually serve the purpose of the accepted view of deterrence (i.e., by protecting the capacity to retaliate) and that, in addition, would reduce the threat of nuclear attack, a reduction not achieved by the ABM Treaty.
Advocates of the defense transition sought to integrate both the president's long-term vision and the military's short-term interest in deploying defenses. In this view, near-term deployments should represent "downpayments" on a fuller system, producing experience and reinforcing deterrence, while leading toward greater and greater reliance on defensive systems. In the Nitze version, this would be a period of transition in which offensive weapons on both sides might be reduced as defenses were deployed.
As critics and skeptics pressed the complaint that no leakproof defense was on the horizon, even conceptually (let alone one that could meet the formidable operational requirements of such a layered defense), the president's vision was modified. A defense need not be leakproof to be effective, it was argued; even an imperfect shield would strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive to risk a preemptive strike. More advanced technologies might make the shield virtually impenetrable, assuring "deterrence by denial" rather than "deterrence by uncertainty."
Other confusions developed over the degree to which the administration was committed to relatively rapid deployment. Although the program was originally touted solely as a research effort, designed to make it possible to decide after six years or so whether a defensive system might be feasible, and only then to enter a phase of development and deployment, it soon became evident that many of SDI's more ardent supporters regarded it as a commitment to deployment. Those in Congress in particular argued that it would be impolitic to spend the requested $26 billion unless there were a commitment to deploy defenses later on. Moreover, some members were persuaded by the High Frontier argument that effective systems could be deployed immediately, using "off the shelf" technology.
Still others, including the skeptics, viewed it as a potential bargaining chip in arms-control negotiations, although the Soviets were clearly using the issue to paint the United States as opposed to arms control and to divide the Western alliance. Concern over SDI played some role—perhaps the leading role—in persuading the Soviets to return to the arms-control negotiations. Because there was great uncertainty about whether a defensive shield that met the Nitze criteria (survivability,
military effectiveness, and cost-effectiveness at the margin) could ever be achieved, reluctant supporters thought the United States should be prepared to stretch out and otherwise constrain the research program in the interests of an arms-reduction agreement.
Two supporters of a defense transition, Alvin M. Weinberg and Jack N. Barkenbus, argued that defense was the key to arms reductions. They proposed a "defense-protected build-down" in which units of offense would be traded away for units of defense. In this way, nuclear arsenals could be gradually reduced without affecting the strategic balance and without diminishing security. Although they found it hard to conceive of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons (agreeing with those who argued that minimal stockpiles would always be necessary for deterrence, inasmuch as affordable defenses would never be perfect), they contended that the process of an exchange-based build-down would promote a more cooperative relationship between the superpowers, which would greatly reduce tensions and diminish the prospect of conflict.
In a variation of this approach, Freeman Dyson proposed that the superpowers move from a climate of confrontation to one of "live and let live," to be achieved through the virtual elimination of nuclear weapons. To protect against cheating or third-party attacks, a relatively light, ground-based defense would be installed by both sides. (This is, in fact, similar to the rationale McNamara presented in his 1967 speech, when he justified President Johnson's decision to begin ABM deployment. McNamara's proposal was commonly called a "Chinese defense," because it could address only a relatively minor attack such as one China might then have mounted.) To attempt a more elaborate defense would probably prove impossible, Dyson argued, because every defense is eventually vulnerable if offenses are not constrained. But if offenses could be reduced, even a relatively light defense might be adequate. This idea emerged in the president's reference, after the Reykjavík pre-summit, to the notion that a strategic defense might serve as "long-run insurance" to accompany radical reductions of nuclear weapons. Such an insurance policy might resemble Dyson's proposal.
Controversy also broke out over the ways in which the SDI would or would not conform to the ABM Treaty. Although the president and his advisors paid little if any attention to the treaty in deciding to initiate the program, the Fletcher report made it obvious that testing and deployment in space in particular would come into conflict with the requirements of the treaty. The administration's position was that SDI was
still a research program and that the United States' adherence to the treaty was an issue that could be faced later, when the actual testing of space-based systems might be necessary and decisions about deployment had to be made. Some supporters of the SDI, who had never favored the treaty in the first place, were quite prepared to see it abrogated. Indeed, in some cases, support for SDI seemed to be stimulated by a desire to abrogate the treaty. Conversely, critics of the administration's venture argued that SDI would erode the treaty and thereby open the floodgates to an offensive arms race. The president's reelection in 1984, coupled with the widespread acknowledgement that some degree of research should be conducted on strategic defense, if only as a hedge against a possible Soviet breakout, enabled him to win congressional support for SDI, though not at the budgetary levels recommended by the Fletcher Committee. Still, the question of conformity to the treaty remained in doubt, especially in view of the president's sometimes casual statements that SDI would have to involve testing as well as research. Critics argued that the experiments contemplated by the SDIO violated the terms of the treaty.
The issue of SDI's conformance with the treaty arose in U.S.-Soviet discussions concerning the resumption of stalled arms-control talks. The U.S.S.R. insisted that there could be no agreement on arms reduction unless the United States abandoned its intention (the Soviets preferred to call it a "dream") of militarizing space. The Soviets referred to the contemplated weapons not as strategic defense but as "space-strike weapons" and "space-based anti-missile systems" (SBAMS). The U.S. side insisted that SDI was a research program and not negotiable in exchange for offensive reductions.
To complicate matters, debate within the Reagan administration cast doubt on its willingness to adhere to the terms of the treaty as enunciated by U.S. negotiators. Early in 1985 the Heritage Foundation circulated a paper arguing that the ABM Treaty had been improperly construed as restricting SDI testing. In September Perle—on record as critical of the ABM Treaty and skeptical of the possibilities for progress in arms control—asked a young Defense Department lawyer, Philip Kunsberg, to examine the text of the treaty to determine whether it did in fact prohibit development and testing of newer ABM technologies. Kunsberg reviewed the text of the treaty and a few days later replied that in his view it did not ban such work. Perle asked him to go over the record of the negotiations, still classified, to determine whether the record supported his interpretation. He did so and reported that there was no indication the negotiators had intended to rule out testing and development
of futuristic technologies. Perle took this news to Shultz, who ordered the State Department's legal counsel, Judge Abraham D. Sofaer, to do a study of his own. Sofaer examined both the treaty and the negotiating record and concluded that the Pentagon lawyer's conclusions were correct.
Before this reinterpretation was made known, the president created a special National Security Planning Group to formulate policy on arms control, headed by McFarlane. McFarlane was apprised of the new interpretation and declared it to be administration policy. On October 6 he said: "Research involving new physical concepts, as well as testing, as well as development, indeed are approved and authorized by the treaty. Only deployment is foreclosed."
When a reporter asked Gerard C. Smith, the chief U.S. negotiator of the treaty, what he thought about McFarlane's interpretation, the response was blunt: "He's got it all screwed up." In a letter to the New York Times , Smith declared that there had been no intention on the part of the U.S. delegation that any type of technology for space-based ABM systems could be developed or tested under the treaty and that this has been the official understanding of the U.S. government as well as of the Soviet Union.
At this point, the controversy became too intense to be ignored by the president. Many in Congress were furious, claiming that the administration was twisting the terms of the treaty to suit its purposes and in effect abrogating it. Shultz was shortly to address the North Atlantic Assembly and then to meet with NATO leaders. He had good reason to expect that they would express sharp disagreement with the new interpretation, especially because the president had assured British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the United States intended SDI to be only a research program to be carried out in conformity with treaty obligations. As a result, a meeting was called, at which the president presided, to resolve the conflict over interpretation. The result was a statement supporting the new interpretation as a matter of principle but promising to abide by the old interpretation in planning SDI experiments. As Shultz explained to a meeting of the North Atlantic Assembly, "It is our view, based on a careful analysis of the treaty text and the negotiating record, that a broader interpretation of our authority is fully justified. This is, however, a moot point; our SDI research program has been structured and, as the President has reaffirmed on Friday, will continue to be conducted in accordance with a restrictive interpretation of the treaty's obligations."
Even before this retreat from adoption of the "broader interpretation,"
the DOD had set up a committee to review the experiments planned for the SDI. It concluded that none of them would violate the terms of the treaty—by which was presumably meant the older, "restrictive" interpretation. All fifteen of the major experiments, the committee reported, would be in conformity with the treaty, because they would be performed "under roof" or be configured so they could not be components of an ABM system (but only subcomponents or adjuncts), or they would not be tested in an ABM mode and would not be capable of performing the functions of ABM components or systems.
As arms-control negotiations proceeded in Geneva, the Soviets seemed to back away from their earlier position to the effect that all research on space-based weapons would violate the treaty. Instead, they distinguished between research in laboratory settings and testing in space. The stage seemed set for an agreement to reaffirm the provisions of the treaty, but at the Iceland meeting in October 1986, disagreement over the terms of these restrictions was said to have been the stumbling block to a comprehensive arms-control agreement.
The SDI In Perspective
As the impasse at Reykjavík demonstrated, both the intention behind the SDI and its implications are open to considerable confusion and disagreement. Reagan saw it as an effort to develop a strategic alternative to reliance on the deterrent effect of a nuclear attack and as an effort to maintain U.S. military strength in the face of a continuing Soviet buildup. He also argued that the achievement of a comprehensive strategic defense would benefit humanity by providing protection against the damage a nuclear war would inflict should the present form of deterrence fail. Others see the project quite differently. To a legion of skeptics inside and outside the Pentagon, there is little prospect that its stated goals can be achieved in the foreseeable future. Technologically sophisticated critics see the SDI—especially that aspect of it oriented toward boostphase and midcourse interception—as being based on nothing more substantial than wishful thinking. (But even some critics concede that defenses may be advisable as a means of shoring up deterrence by retaliation—especially hard-point defenses capable of protecting retaliatory capacities from preemptive attack.) Enthusiasts see the project as a way to gain superiority over the Soviets by exploiting the United States' qualitative advantages in high technology in order to seize the high ground of space, to prevent the Soviets from gaining a military advantage
there, to put them on the defensive, and perhaps to compel them to give up other efforts to maintain superiority in strategic and conventional forces. Others see SDI as a possible opportunity for both superpowers to recognize the need to achieve agreements on reducing arms and controlling the testing and deployment of destabilizing weapons.
It is in this last interpretation that the best hope lies for converting SDI into a much less controversial undertaking. Even some wellinformed critics acknowledge that if a comprehensive defense were really feasible, it would be desirable. Although the world has survived for forty years with the threat of a nuclear catastrophe—some would say because of it—there can be no assurance that this form of deterrence will work indefinitely. As specialists in strategy often note, the current arrangement cannot prevent an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon—an incident that could trigger a war and do considerable damage even if the launch were recognized as unintentional. More probable is the danger that a conventional war, perhaps initially involving only proxies or allies of the two superpowers, might "go nuclear," as conventional forces are introduced with "dual capable" (conventional and nuclear) weapons and either side decides to risk using nuclear weapons on a "limited" or tactical basis. A mutually deterring defensive shield might well be preferable, even though it would remove the offensive threat that NATO now uses to deter Soviet conventional advantages; any extra burden that may be required to assure a conventional balance would be small compared to the catastrophic threat lurking in the potential failure of offensive deterrence.
The desirability of defense is justification for some level of research expenditure to investigate the prospects. Even some of the severest critics of the SDI concede that research is justified in case it should lead to effective technologies and as a hedge against Soviet breakout. What they object to is the projected scale of the research, which would not only be wasteful but could also lead the Soviets to refuse to abide by existing arms-control agreements or to enter into new ones. The most direct response to a promising defensive program is to build offenses and countermeasures capable of dealing with it—an effort that could be incompatible with the ABM Treaty and, indeed, with the entire effort to achieve arms control.
A commonly expressed Soviet view is that SDI is being undertaken not merely to provide the West with a strategic defense but to give the United States a decisive edge by adding "space strike" weapons. Such weapons, in their view, could be used for offensive purposes as well: to
destroy Soviet reconnaissance and communications satellites (especially those that the Soviets are developing to provide real-time targeting); to enable the United States to launch a first strike against the U.S.S.R., secure in the knowledge that it could absorb a second, supposedly "ragged," strike; or to exploit its military advantage for political gain. The Soviet view can claim some substantiation from official U.S. sources. The day the president made his "Star Wars" speech, DOD officials testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee pointed out that directed-energy weapons could have offensive uses. Such weapons could "deny the use of space for collecting and distributing crisis management and targeting information while protecting our space assets that warn against a surprise attack," and they could be used to "neutralize or disrupt enemy targets" as well as to aid U.S. retaliatory strikes.
The Soviets, like some domestic critics, also see SDI as a calculated effort to force them into a competition with the U.S. economy. Such an effort would confront them with the handicap of their relative back-wardness in technology and production, imposing expenditure burdens that would make it impossible to meet growing demands for an improved standard of consumption as well as improved performance in the civilian sectors of the economy. It is also possible, however, that the Soviet leadership is deliberately exaggerating the threat it sees in SDI. The technological challenge of SDI serves a useful domestic purpose in making Gorbachev's economic reforms seem critical to national security. By claiming that the United States aims to "militarize space," the Soviets can divert attention from their own considerable efforts to exploit space for military purposes in the hope of inciting opposition to the United States in Europe and elswhere. The Soviets may also be preparing the ground for a negotiating strategy whereby they would offer to accommodate SDI by accepting a broader definition of the ABM Treaty provisions on research in exchange for U.S. acceptance of Soviet activities now considered violations of existing treaties or perhaps for even more valuable concessions.
Because the SDI has been made to figure so prominently in the equation of U.S.-Soviet relations, it has a political import far in excess of its realistic prospects. Reagan and his supporters have come to see it as an ideological touchstone for long-term adherence to the conservative goal of defending the United States and its allies from what they see as an unremitting, long-term march toward world domination by the U.S.S.R. SDI has become more than just a hope for a technological answer to nuclear weapons. It is now a symbol of the U.S. willingness to use resources
and know-how to ensure the survival of the West. For the Soviet Union, it is yet another example of the United States' refusal to accept parity and to acknowledge that it must respect the right of the Socialist bloc not only to maintain itself but also to extend its fraternal assistance to other nations struggling to shake off the yoke of imperialism. For the U.S.S.R., SDI is both a practical threat to strategic parity and a symbolic threat to the belief that socialism, not capitalism, is the wave of the future. Soviet achievements in space have come to symbolize a renewal of belief in the Marxist prophecy that only under socialism would the means of production be unfettered to reach their highest possible level. If the United States succeeds in exploiting space more successfully than the Soviet Union, that confidence would be as threatened as the appeal of communism now is by comparisons of industrial productivity and consumer choice. Politics, then, and not just the dream of building the perfect defense by using the latest advances in technology, explains why SDI was declared and why the Soviets perceive it as such a threat. Military researchers in both countries had long been engaged in a competition to develop defenses, but without success. SDI was a signal that the competition was to be reopened, but this time in greater earnest on the part of the United States, and in a direction that might well entail a qualitatively new phase in the militarization of outer space.
The unusually political character of its initiation, however, could prove to be SDI's undoing, at least in the short run. In the post-Reagan era, SDI will become more vulnerable to attacks that began to be mounted during Reagan's last months in the White House. The armed services will view large increases for SDI as competitive with other priorities. Members of Congress seeking ways to control the federal budget will find SDI a prime target. Skepticism rife in the defense community over the technical prospects may be expressed more openly. And, ironically, the Reagan administration's own achievements in arms control, even if limited to the signing of the treaty banning intermediate-range weapons, will leave SDI as a major obstacle in the way of broader progress toward arms reduction and better relations between East and West.