The Cold War period was the pinnacle of excessive spending on overambitious— sometimes impossible— military projects. Yet, one particular program achieved notoriety for its over-the-top intentions within hours of its introduction. The Strategic Defense Initiative— SDI for short— was meant to deter Soviet aggression through a handful of technologies that were just beyond the bleeding edge of reality. Among these technologies, one received the overwhelming majority of press coverage and criticism: lasers.
The program was announced in early 1983, mere months before Lucasfilms released “The Return of the Jedi,” the third film in the original Star Wars trilogy. So, in an attempt to brand SDI as impossible and expensive, opponents called it a “Star Wars scheme.” The name caught on, as did the reputation.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the thawing of the Cold War, SDI became unnecessary. It was scrapped after a decade, with reporters and critics pointing out that it had been nothing more than an unproductive money pit. However, some scientists argue that it laid a scientific foundation for many critical technologies in use today, including military-grade lasers. No, the US never built a Death Star, but, thankfully, it didn’t need to. Let’s get started.
The late 1970s and early 80s were a time of constant tension between Americans and Soviets. Both countries spent incredible amounts of money on building weaponry to blast their opposition from the face of the Earth. These offensive weapons took many forms, forcing each country to adopt defensive measures specific to each potential threat. As early as the 1940s, the US Army began looking into ballistic missile defense systems. At that time, military research determined that it was an impossible task. The necessary technology to track a launch, send live launch data to defense systems, and accurately target and deter missiles was decades away from feasibility.
The main concern was speed. Long-range missiles reach velocities far beyond most other military weaponry. They also travel at extreme altitudes and have relatively long flight times, given that they travel massive distances. So, while ballistic missile defense was ruled out in the 40s, many people throughout the defense industry knew that it was possible down the road.
Over the next several decades, the Soviets produced hundreds of missiles. The available defense systems were already expensive, but they became even pricier with every new Soviet rocket. Analysts predicted that the US would have to spend 20 dollars on defense for every dollar that the Soviets spent on attack. So, like a couple of aggressive football coaches, the countries determined that the best defense was a good offense.
This deterrence policy became known as mutually assured destruction. Essentially, no country could strike the other without both nations being blown from the face of the Earth. For Ronald Reagan, the US president elected in 1980, mutually assured destruction was not an option. The president referred to it as a perverse suicide pact— one he had no intention of participating in. Critically, Reagan believed that defending against these missiles was a real option.
Shortly after he was elected California governor in 1967, Reagan attended a lecture by George Shultz, the so-called father of the hydrogen bomb. At the address, Shultz spoke optimistically about the possibility of combatting Soviet missiles with American nuclear weapons. The idea would stick with Reagan for the rest of his life.
In 1979, on the eve of his election year, Reagan toured the North American Aerospace Defense Command facilities. Officials there spoke of their high-tech missile tracking technology. Yet, they were entirely unable to actually stop a nuclear attack. Reagan understood what that would mean for a sitting president. Upon learning of an attack, the president would have mere minutes to decide whether to counterattack or attempt to withstand the destruction.
Later that year, Reagan received information that would push him past the tipping point. One of the foremost experts on nuclear physics was spreading the word that the Soviets were developing space-based weaponry and that advanced x-ray lasers would be required to combat them. Scholars and analysts soundly refuted these claims. The expert knew that the US would have to hire him to build such weapons. Still, Reagan bought it.
In 1983, several years into his first term as president, Reagan announced the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative, saying, “I call upon the scientific community who gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”
Reagan’s announcement may sound quite reasonable. He never used the word “lasers” during his address, but the press and fellow politicians knew just what sort of technology he was referring to. This is what prompted Senator Ted Kennedy to call the program a Star Wars scheme. Yet, Kennedy’s response certainly wasn’t the only pushback that Reagan got, and it wasn’t all based on the feasibility of the technology.
Many American politicians questioned whether building such an expensive defense system would give America the upper hand. Proponents of the plan had a clear argument: by creating a system that would render the Soviet ballistic missiles obsolete, America could effectively end the Cold War. But the opposition was just as obvious. In the eyes of the Soviets, SDI was a new form of aggression. On the one hand, it could give the US more cover to launch their own nuclear attacks. Without the threat of mutually assured destruction, the US could blast Russia off the face of the Earth without facing the consequences. Simultaneously, the Soviets felt that any effort to outdo SDI would result in a total collapse of their economy.
Still, these arguments meant little to Reagan, who pressed forward by forming the SDI Organization, headed by a former Air Force general. The organization would work on various technologies, including particle-beam weapons, nuclear charges, and plasma weapons. The armaments could be ground-based or space-based. Additionally, the SDIO invested in computer systems, component miniaturization, and sensors. However, the main focus of the project was the lasers.
The ground-based defenses relied on radar-homing projectiles that would explode within proximity of incoming missiles. The first versions of these vehicles were loaded with nuclear explosives, as some scientists believed that was the only way to trigger another nuclear device. This was a significant concern for politicians, though, who sought to limit weapons of mass destruction. So, the military changed focus to projectiles that would simply collide with missiles at such high speeds that they would explode.
The Homing Overlay Experiment (HOE) was the first somewhat successful example of this, destroying a mock ballistic missile just outside of Earth’s atmosphere. The HOE used a Kinetic Kill Vehicle containing an infrared seeker and a propulsion system. Once within range of the attacking missile, the vehicle expands like an umbrella, enhancing the cross-section and increasing the likelihood of impact. Despite a few promising tests, the HOE couldn’t successfully intercept mock missiles without seriously handicapping the targets.
Similar to the early ideas on ground-based interceptors, laser-based weapons relied on nuclear explosions contained and directed in an ultra-focused beam— essentially an x-ray laster. The first tests of this weapon took place in March of 1983. The trial, called the CABRA event, involved a massive nuclear explosion in an underground shaft. Researchers placed a detector in the shaft to test the weapon’s effectiveness, but it was entirely destroyed in the blast.
The Air Force tested a handful of other methods for creating lasers, including a hydrogen fluoride laser, which destroyed a Titan missile booster in 1985. However, just like the early surface to air defense systems, the tests only succeeded when the targets were seriously handicapped and primed to produce good results.
As ambitious as those two projects may sound, they were nothing compared to the hypervelocity railgun. The hypervelocity railgun would rely on magnetic forces to fire conductive pellet projectiles at incredible speeds of 2.4 km/second and over 100,000 g. The earliest prototypes could only fire a single shot per month because the force of the gun was so powerful that it literally destroyed the rails that the weapon stood on. During SDI, the military produced a version that could fire two shots per day— a massive improvement but still useless against hundreds of Soviet missiles.
Within the first couple of years of operation, SDI showed extreme ambition, taking the early steps to create some of the most potent weapons ever imagined. However, in 1987, the program would hit its first severe speed bump.
Problems and Changes
In 1986, the SDIO hired the American Physical Society (APS) to review the various concepts that the military was testing. The APS created a panel filled with the foremost experts in the field, including a Nobel laureate who helped create the earliest implementations of the laser. The APS gave their findings to the SDIO in 1986 before going public in 1987. The results were damning.
The report concluded that even the most successful tests were still decades from completion. As for the lasers, the military would need to increase the energy output by at least 100 times before achieving the results that they sought. Many of the concepts were ruled to be completely impossible regardless of technological advances. The best-case scenario would be perhaps one or two of the systems reaching effectiveness by the early 21st-century.
After the report, with billions of dollars already spent on the early phases of the project, SDI pivoted in a new direction. The new plan relied more heavily on space-based weaponry and tracking systems and completely disregarded lasers. Low-flying satellites would gather live data on incoming missiles, triggering non-nuclear kill-vehicles stored in space garages, as well as ground-based missiles. With recent advances in computer tracking technology, this new program, based on a system called “Brilliant Pebbles,” would save the government at least 7 billion dollars, though probably much more than that considering just how far-fetched their earlier plans were. After several years of preliminary tests, the new program was approved in early 1990, mere months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Yet, despite Brilliant Pebbles already being scaled-down versions of the SDI program, government analysts began to assert that a massive attack from the Soviet Union was no longer likely. Even while some war hawks argued that missile technology would proliferate once the Soviet state dissolved and sold off their equipment, it seemed that the most likely defensive scenario would be much smaller than the one envisioned in the early Reagan era.
So, with George H.W. Bush now in office, the program was scaled down again. This time it was renamed the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes program, and the budget was cut from 53 billion dollars to 41. The plan called for a system to deflect much smaller strikes, but from a wide variety of locations. This scheme was based much more heavily on ground-to-air defenses. The plan was called ERIS, or the Exoatmospheric Reentry-vehicle Interceptor Subsystem, which aimed to destroy incoming missiles before they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
Like every other iteration of the Strategic Defense Initiative, GPALS was short-lived. When Bill Clinton took office, he accelerated the transition to ground-based defenses. Instead of renaming SDI, he simply shut it down, creating the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in its place. This final iteration would receive its own name change in 2003 and continues in a limited form today.
It didn’t take the SDI shutting down for critics to speak out about its flaws. Ever since it was first introduced, the initiative was considered a massive waste of money, and, in the end, that’s mostly what it was. The Cold War’s previous protocol had always been defending with offense, and SDI’s attempts to change this were a complete failure. Given the ambitious nature of the technology involved, the cost of producing the defensive weaponry was simply too great to be feasible. This is because of an economic concept called “cost effective at the margin.” Essentially, SDI would never have been effective because, for the cost of shooting down one Soviet missile, the Soviets could build another dozen missiles.
Another limitation of SDI was its inability to respond to other forms of attack. Had the expensive program proved capable of deterring non-space faring weapons, then perhaps the cost would have been justified, but, alas, it would’ve been utterly useless against cruise missiles, bombers, or short-range submarine-based missiles.
While those theoretical criticisms are all great, the most damning critique is that it simply played no role in encouraging the Soviets to stop investing in developing new ballistic missiles. The Soviets saw SDI as a threat, allowing America to launch the first strike. As such, the Soviets spent even more money preparing offensive measures.
To add insult to injury, the program was also illegal. Space-based lasers would have violated the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which banned nuclear weaponry or WMDs from use in outer space. Shockingly, a report in the 1990s revealed that the Soviets actually were developing their own laser weaponry for use in space, though the tests revealed all sorts of problems. So, it seems that both the US and USSR were prepared to break this law in an attempt to outdo the other.
Over ten years, the program cost about 30 billion dollars. Despite the many critiques, though, it can’t be said SDI was a complete waste of money and time. The technology was never used in the Cold War. Yet, it did play an essential role in advancing technology that is still in use today. SDI’s tests on lasers laid the groundwork for modern military-grade lasers, as well as other defensive countermeasures.
They don’t work at all as Ronald Reagan envisioned, and they are a far cry from the Death Star or even an X-Wing Starfighter. But, in the end, that’s probably a good thing.