Snap Fact #256
President Obama Ended The Unsuccessful "Star Wars" Program! 
On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan shocked the American security establishment by calling upon the nation’s scientific community, “who," Reagan said, "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 weapons impotent and obsolete." Seventeen years since that speech, and after the United States had spent more than $60 billion trying to develop a defense against ballistic missiles, it was apparent that Ronald Reagan's ideal was unrealized and unrealizable. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) and its successors had cost more than twice as much as the Manhattan Project (in constant dollars) and had not produced a single workable weapon. 

President George H.W. Bush announced in 1989 that he would vigorously pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative, and later shifted the program’s mission to protect against limited ballistic missile strikes. Later that year, Mr. Bush signed the Missile Defense Act, which charged the Defense Department to develop a missile defense system by 1996. The Pentagon's planned Phase 1 of the SDI program, employing a limited number of sensors and missile interceptors in space, would cost at least $170 billion. A more comprehensive Phase 2 program would cost another $541 billion. That would bring the total cost of the first two pieces of the missile defense system to nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars with no certainty of its effectiveness. This program was a mess at every level except in unbridled spending where it excelled. It generated what was probably a record in the annals of wasteful defense procurement. One can say that never has so much been spent for so long with so little to show for it. 

Star Wars faded into the realm of misbegotten high-tech dreams, but the idea lived on. President George W. Bush put a new focus on missile defense when he took office in 2001. The new system relied on agile but fairly ordinary rockets to smash incoming warheads rather than nuclear-powered lasers in space. Pentagon planners saw the system as a bulwark against the ultimate calamity, a nuclear attack, while skeptics ridiculed it as a defense that will not work against a threat that does not exist.

The impermeable shield that President Reagan described in glowing terms in 1983 was a considerable political triumph for President Reagan as well as a diplomatic triumph even while it was a technological flop. Missile defense had always been more about international politics than about a new military technology. In the last years of the cold war, it helped nudge the Soviets toward the START I and START II agreements that sharply reduced nuclear arsenals.

But times have changed dramatically. We are no longer saber rattling with Russia and the tension and threat of a massive nuclear air attack has faded from our political radar screen. 
Other threats from other places and peoples now vie for our attention and chill our collective bones. The bush administration's plans, which included facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, increased tensions with Russia. Critics were not convinced that it was the best defense against the new kinds of military threat faced by the United States in the twenty-first century. 

 In a related issue, in 2009 the Obama team had decided to embrace the strategy of nuclear disarmament. Barack Obama became the first American president to make nuclear disarmament a centerpiece of American defense policy. He made a speech in Prague laying out a vision of an eventual dismantling of all nuclear weapons. In April of 2009 he ended financing for a new type of nuclear warhead sought by the Bush administration. By September President Obama said that he would scrap the Bush plans for SDI in favor of a system that was focused on intercepting shorter range Iranian missiles. President Obama sought out information from many leading experts in the field. An analysis of the system by highly regarded analysts at MIT and Cornell cast severe doubt on the reliability of the proposed new weapons and upon the entire plan. 

A year later, he announced a new nuclear strategy that narrowed the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons and traveled to Prague to meet Russia's president, Dmitiri A. Medvedev, where they signed a treaty that would pare back both countries' nuclear arsenals. That treaty, known as New Start, was given final approval by the Senate on Dec. 22, 2010, capping a surprisingly successful lame-duck session for President Obama just weeks after his party’s electoral debacle The pact would bar each side from deploying more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads or 700 launchers starting seven years after final ratification. Perhaps just as significantly, it would establish a new inspection and monitoring regime to replace the longstanding program that lapsed in 2009 with the expiration of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, or Start.

President Obama, in his usual common sense manner, saw the abuse, the waste, and the foolhardiness of continuing the SDI endeavor and he put a pin in the ever expanding balloon and finally ended the SDI with a hard fought Congressional victory. The 71-to-26 vote on Dec. 22 2010 sent the New Start treaty to the president for his signature, and cemented what is certainly one of the most tangible foreign policy achievement of Mr. Obama’s first two years in office. Thirteen Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic caucus to vote in favor, exceeding the two-thirds majority required by the Senate.

Like many other issues, the President has only begun to create a more stable, more rational, and more sustainable future for our country and our world. Does it not make sense to keep the torch in the hands of this man who has the light to see a bright future and the fire to make it happen.