May the Force (Not) Be with You: Missile Defense and the Legacy of SDI

"For a program founded on such grandiose terms, this record is uncertain at best, wasteful at worst."

The Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” is over thirty years old. SDI has never, despite the intentions of several presidents, provided the United States with an effective, reliable defense against the ballistic missiles of an opponent of the scale of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the inauguration of the SDI project marks a crucial inflection point in the history of missile defense in the United States.

But appreciating the break that Star Wars represented requires an understanding of what went before. Ronald Reagan didn’t start the national conversation on missile defense, but he did revive it, and that revival has set the terms for the debate ever since.

The Phantom Menace: Missile Defense Before Star Wars

Shortly after German V-2s began raining down on England, the United States Army started thinking about ways to defeat the missiles. V-1 “buzz bombs” were easy; they were simply unmanned aircraft that flew on predetermined flight paths, and that could be shot down with traditional means. V-2s posed a much more difficult problem, as they moved too fast to shoot down with anything but the wildest stroke of luck.

Army efforts went hand-in-hand with the project of developing surface-to-air missiles that could reliably kill enemy aircraft. The problems associated with anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were in many ways similar, but the latter proved far easier than the former. In simple terms (as described by Ernest Yanarella), the problem of missile defense involved detection of launch, tracking of missile, discrimination between missile and decoy, vectoring of interceptor and destruction of target missile. Each of these five presented complex problems that bedeviled engineers in the 1950s, and have continued to bedevil them today.

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In the 1950s, the ABM project led to bitter interservice squabbles, as the Army tried to find itself a strategic role. The roles and missions of the Army and Air Force changed several times over the course of the decade, as responsibilities for ballistic-missile and SAM development shifted between the services. The Navy, content with developing its own ship-borne SAM systems, stood aside.

The Army opened the 1960s by trying to assert its strategic relevance with the Nike-Zeus ABM system. The Air Force favored investment in offensive systems, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was unconvinced. In 1962, the Department of Defense killed Nike-Zeus, arguing that although it could intercept some ballistic missiles, it did not provide a practical, affordable defense. The Army struggled on for several years with the Nike-X, Sentinel, and Safeguard systems, but never convinced McNamara or the other services of the practicability of the project.

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For their part, the Soviets sought a system that could defeat both NATO and Chinese missiles. Soviet paranoia about the potential for a decapitation strike against the Kremlin made missile-defense development a priority, especially given the sophistication of American submarines and the proximity of NATO intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Soviet developments provided grist for ABM supporters in the United States, but also demonstrated the ease with which a determined attacker could overwhelm and destroy even a significant ABM system.

Fortunately, both the Soviets and the Americans eventually recognized the destabilizing effects of defense systems that could undercut two legs of the nuclear triad. In the United States, McNamara provided one of the strongest institutional voices against strategic missile defense, arguing that it would inevitably amplify the expensive, destabilizing arms race between the United States and the USSR. The 1972 ABM Treaty sharply limited the extent to which either side could develop national ballistic-missile defenses, even as it left some latitude for regional protection (a clause insisted upon by the Soviets). The ABM Treaty didn’t end research on the American side, but it did suggest to the services that investing prestige and resources in missile defense wouldn’t prove a big bureaucratic winner.

A New Hope: Ronald Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative

In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan jump-started ABM research by proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative, a cluster of ground- and space-based systems that promised to defeat a Soviet ballistic-missile attack on the United States. Reagan was suspicious of bilateral efforts at arms limitation, and sought to leverage U.S. technological and economic advantages. Reagan also detested the reliance of the United States on the logic of mutual assured destruction.