Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI] I

President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative on 23 March 1983 marked an even more explicit bid to use US technology to compete with the Soviet Union. As he put it:

Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today.

What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US 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?

I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

The US National Intelligence Council assessed that the Soviet Union would encounter difficulties in developing and deploying countermeasures to SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative). As one September 1983 memorandum put it,

They are likely to encounter technical and manufacturing problems in developing and deploying more advanced systems. If they attempted to deploy new advanced systems not presently planned, while continuing their overall planned force modernization, significant additional levels of spending would be required. This would place substantial additional pressures on the Soviet economy and confront the leadership with difficult policy choices.

SDI was announced in March 1983 by President Ronald Reagan as a plan for a system to defend against nuclear weapons delivered by ICBM (INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILE). As planned, SDI would constitute an array of space-based vehicles that would destroy incoming missiles in the suborbital phase of attack.

The plan was controversial on three broad fronts. First, the Soviet Union, at the time the world’s other great nuclear superpower, saw SDI as a violation of the 1972 SALT I Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems and there- fore an upset to the balance of power. Second, proponents of the policy of mutually assured destruction (“MAD”), who saw the policy as the chief deterrent to nuclear war, criticized SDI as a means of making nuclear war appear as a viable strategic alternative. Third, a great many scientists and others believed SDI was far too complex and expensive to work. These critics dubbed the “futuristic” program “Star Wars,” after the popular science fiction movie, and the label was widely adopted by the media.

Indeed, the technical problems involved in SDI were daunting. Multiple incoming missiles, which could be equipped with a variety of decoy devices, had to be detected and intercepted in space. Even those friendly to the project likened this to “shooting a bullet with a bullet.” Congress, unpersuaded, refused to grant funding for the full SDI program, although modified and spin-off programs consumed billions of dollars in development.

The `Star Wars’ programme or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), outlined by Reagan in a speech on 23 March 1983, was designed to enable the USA to dominate space, using space-mounted weapons to destroy Soviet satellites and missiles. It was not clear that the technology would work, in part because of the possible Soviet use of devices and techniques to confuse interceptor missiles. Indeed, Gorbachev was to support the Soviet army in claiming that the SDI could be countered. 12 However, the programme was also a product of the financial, technological and economic capabilities of the USA, and thus highlighted the contrast in each respect with the Soviet Union. The Soviets were not capable of matching the American effort, in part because they proved far less successful in developing electronics and computing and in applying them in challenging environments. Effective in heavy industry, although the many tanks produced had pretty crude driving mechanisms by Western standards, the Soviet Union failed to match such advances in electronics. Moreover, the shift in weaponry from traditional engineering to electronics, alongside the development of control systems dependent on the latter, saw a clear correlation between technology, industrial capacity, and military capability. It was in the 1980s that the Soviet Union fell behind notably. In 1986, an American interceptor rocket fired from Guam hit a mock missile warhead dead-on. This test encouraged the Soviets to negotiate.

The collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989 seemed to many to render SDI a moot point-although others pointed out that a Russian arsenal still existed and that other nations had or were developing missiles of intercontinental range. There were, during the early 1990s, accusations and admissions that favorable results of some SDI tests had been faked, and former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger asserted that while the SDI program had failed to produce practical weapons and had cost a fortune, its very existence forced the Soviet Union to spend itself into bankruptcy. In this sense, SDI might be seen as the most effective weapon of the cold war. In the administration of George W. Bush, beginning in 2001, SDI was revived, and the USAF resumed development and testing of components of the system.

Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO)

SDI’s formal beginnings date from NSDD 119 signed by President Reagan on January 6, 1984 and placed the program under DOD’s leadership. Key elements of this document reflecting SDI’s raison d’etre include DOD managing the program and the SDI program manager reporting directly to the secretary of Defense, SDI placing primary emphasis on technologies involving nonnuclear components, and research continuing on nuclear-based strategic defense concepts as a hedge against a Soviet ABM breakout (Feycock 2006, 216).

On March 27, 1984, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger (1917-2006) appointed Air Force lieutenant general James Abrahamson (1933-) as the first director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), which was given responsibility for developing SDI. Weinberger signed the SDIO charter on April 24, 1984, giving Abrahamson extensive freedom in managing the program (Federation of American Scientists n. d., 5).

A May 7, 1984 memorandum from Deputy Secretary of Defense William H. Taft IV (1945-) to the secretary of the Air Force provided additional direction and guidance on the mission and program management of SDI’s boost and space surveillance tracking systems. SDI attributes mandated in this document included the ability to provide ballistic missile TW/AA; satellite attack warning/verification (SAW/V); satellite targeting for U. S. ASAT operations; and SDI surveillance, acquisition, tracking and kill assessment SATKA. Additional program mandates included program plans showing specific requirements, critical milestones, and costs along with alternative means of achieving these objectives (Spires 2004, 2:1130-1131).

SDIO was organized into five program areas covering SATKA, Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) Technology, Kinetic Energy Weapons (KEW) Technology, Systems Concept/Battle Management (SC/BM), and Survivability, Lethality, and Key Technologies (SLKT). SATKA program objectives included investigating sensing technologies capable of providing information to activate defense systems, conduct battle management, and assess force status before and during military engagements. A key SATKA challenge was developing the ability to discriminate among hostile warheads, decoys, and chaff during midcourse and early terminal phases of their trajectories (DiMaggio et al. 1986, 6-7).

The DEW program sought to examine the potential for using laser and/or particle beams for ballistic missile defense. DEW can deliver destructive energy to targets near or at light speed and are particularly attractive for using against missiles as they rise through the atmosphere. Successfully engaging missiles during these flight stages can allow missiles to be destroyed before they release multiple independently targeted warheads. Relevant weapon concepts studied under DEW included space-based lasers, ground-beam lasers using orbiting relay mirrors, space-based neutral particle beams, and endoatmospheric charged particle beams guided by low-power lasers (DiMaggio et al. 1986, 7-8).

KEW program applications involved studying ways of accurately directing fairly light objects at high speed to intercept missiles or warheads during any flight phase. Technologies being investigated by this program include space-based chemically launched projectiles with homing devises and space-based electromagnetic rail guns (DiMaggio et al. 1986, 8).

Research pertinent to SC/BM programs explores defensive architecture options allowing for deployment of extremely responsive, reliable, survivable, and cost-effective battle management and command, control, and communications systems. Factors examined in such programs must include mission objectives, offensive threat analyses, technical capabilities, risk, and cost (DiMaggio et al. 1986, 8-9).

SLKT program components seek to support research and technology development for improving system effectiveness and satisfying system logistical needs. Such survivability and lethality study efforts seek to produce information about expected enemy threats and the ability of SDI systems to survive efforts to destroy or defeat it. Relevant SLKT supporting technology research areas include space transportation and power, orbital maintenance, and energy storage and conversion. Pertinent SDI logistical research, under program auspices, is crucial for evaluating and reducing deployment and operational costs (DiMaggio et al. 1986, 10).

SDI achieved significant program and technical accomplishments over the next decade. A June 1984 Homing Overlay Experiment achieved the first kinetic kill intercept of an ICBM reentry vehicle, SDIO established an Exoatmospheric Reentry Vehicle Interceptor Subsystem (ERIS) Project Office in July 1984, and a High Endoatmospheric Defense Interceptor (HEDI) Project Office in October 1984. March 1985 saw Weinberger invite allied participation in U. S. ballistic missile defense programs, and in October 1985 National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane (1937-) introduced a controversial “broad interpretation” of the ABM Treaty, which asserted that certain space-based and mobile ABM systems and components such as lasers and particle beams could be developed and tested but not deployed (U. S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, n. d. 2-3; U. S. Congress, Senate Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Theater and Strategic Nuclear Forces 1986, 136-144).

During August 1986 the Army’s vice chief of staff approved the U. S. Army Strategic Defense Command theater missile defense research program, and the following month this official also directed the establishment of a Joint Theater Missile Defense Program Office in Huntsville, Alabama to coordinate Army theater missile defense requirements. May 1987 saw the successful kinetic energy intercept by the Flexible Lightweight Agile Guided Experiment of a Lance missile, which was a high-velocity, low-altitude target. In July 1988 Hughes Aircraft delivered the Airborne Surveillance Testbed Sensor to the military, which was the most complex long-wavelength infrared sensor built at that time.

February 1989 saw President George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) announce that his administration would continue SDI developments; a June 1989 national defense strategy review concluded that SDI program goals were sound; SDIO approved an Endoatmospheric/Exoatmospheric Interceptor program during summer 1990 to succeed HEDI; the first successful ERIS intercept took place during January 1991; and in June 1991 there were successful tests of the lightweight exoatmospheric projectile integrated vehicle strap down and free flight hover (U. S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command n. d., 3-4; U. S. Department of Defense 1989, 1-31).

SDI was able to achieve significant accomplishments during the 1980s and early 1990s as the list above demonstrates. The program remained controversial during its first decade before SDIO was renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) by the Clinton administration on June 14, 1994 (U. S. Department of Defense 1994, 1).

Program expenditures remained a source of controversy for some congressional appropriators. SDIO’s budget, according to a 1989 DOD report, was $3.8 billion for fiscal year 1989 representing 0.33% of the $282.4 defense budget for that year (U. S. Department of Defense 1989, 27). A 1992 congressional review of SDIO expenditures quantified that the organization had received $25 billion since 1984 for ballistic missile defense system research and development and that the Bush administration’s proposed fiscal year 1992 budget estimated system acquisition costs to be $46 billion (U. S. General Accounting Office 1992(a), 10).