SPECIAL REPORT: The Legacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative

By Jon Harper

Art: iStock

This is part 2 of a 4-part special report on space-based interceptors. 

In a nationally televised address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan in 1983 kicked off efforts that would lead to serious work on space-based interceptor technologies.

“Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope — it is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive,” he said from his desk in the Oval Office at the height of the Cold War.

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” he added.

Reagan noted there would be technical obstacles. “But isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war?” he asked. “We know it is.”

He called upon the U.S. scientific community to provide the means of rendering enemy nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”

Thus began the Strategic Defense Initiative, which critics derided as “Star Wars” in reference to the sci-fi movie franchise.

A research-and-development effort that emerged from SDI was Brilliant Pebbles, which was focused on technology that would enable basing interceptors in space. However, the waning of the Cold War sapped momentum for the initiative. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced that the ambitions of the SDI program would be scaled back from defending against a massive Soviet missile attack, with a new focus called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes.

In 1993, with the Soviet Union no longer in existence and political pressure to cut military budgets, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced “the end of the Star Wars era.”

The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization became the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, with a priority of developing ground- and sea-based regional defensive systems.

Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the legacy of SDI continues to shape today’s debate between proponents and opponents of space-based interceptors.

“Those fault lines are still very evident,” he said. “In the ‘80s with Star Wars, that’s when this really became religion for a lot of people. And many of those people are still around. Some of these people were much younger during those previous debates, and they’ve held onto their views ever since then.”

Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin worked on the SDI effort early in his career.

Harrison noted that today’s opponents of space-based interceptors often tout the same arguments from 30 years ago.

Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, hopes that the United States doesn’t invest in new programs.

“Past U.S. efforts to develop and deploy a space-based missile defense have known many names, including Strategic Defense Initiative, Brilliant Pebbles and Global Protection Against Limited Strikes. And all have suffered the same fate: cancellation due to insurmountable financial, technical and strategic obstacles,” he said in an email. “Space-based interceptors are unaffordable, unworkable and massively destabilizing.”

Democratic politicians have traditionally opposed the idea, a partisan trend which could continue. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has already thrown cold water on it.

“A space-based interceptor layer … has been studied repeatedly and found to be technologically challenging and prohibitively expensive,” he said in a statement after the 2019 Missile Defense Review was released.

Frank Rose, a senior fellow for security and strategy at the Brookings Institution, said he has “a hard time believing” the current Democrat-controlled House of Representatives would fund the development of such a system. “It’s unlikely that we will see any real money after the study is completed, but we’ll see.”


Part 1: Pentagon Reexamining Space-Based Interceptors

Part 3: Would Space-Based Interceptors Spark a New Arms Race?

Part 4: The Pentagon Could Put Directed Energy Weapons in Space

Topics: Space, Missile Defense