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."