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.