The Iron Triangle: Star Wars
The sociopolitical and economic changes of the 1980s ensured that the military-industrial complex that emerged in that decade differed significantly from the one of the 1950s and 1960s. For better and for worse, the defense buildup did not yield a blank check for basic research or university infrastructure. Nor did it underwrite research scientists’ salaries at major corporations. Instead, the new approach to defense R&D concentrated contracts for specific projects—so-called programmatic research—in the hands of a few specialized defense contractors and federal contract research laboratories. On the one hand, fewer researchers had to make their views, scientific or otherwise, conform to military expectations; on the other, the pool of qualified experts willing or able to criticize expensive, half-baked military plans shrank considerably. The most notorious result was President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a plan known to its critics as “Star Wars.”
As a defense hawk and an outspoken anti-Communist, Reagan found the logic of mutually assured destruction difficult to accept. The 1972 agreement to limit ABMs had given official sanction to the idea that the best defense against a nuclear holocaust was no defense at all. Since neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would be able to stop an incoming nuclear attack, the recipient would have no choice but to respond with an equally destructive counterattack. Since by now both superpowers had more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, launching a nuclear attack was equivalent to suicide. Therefore, so the theory went, having the ability to intercept an incoming ICBM would actually increase instability by removing the guarantee of nuclear annihilation.
Mutually assured destruction was, and is, a strategy that requires its adherents to recognize that nuclear weapons are essentially unusable. Thoughtful critics also pointed out that the strategy left no protection against accidental launches or rogue leaders who did not grasp the concept of deterrence. For Reagan, the idea that the United States had absolutely no recourse in the event of a nuclear attack was inconceivable. Critics on the left had, of course, been making the same argument for years, but their solution stressed disarmament rather than missile defense. Having (at this point) rejected disarmament out of hand, Reagan instead resolved early in his administration to commit the United States to a defensive strategy.
Previous plans for nuclear defense, such as Sentinel and Safeguard, had centered on ground-launched missiles, but these plans had obvious limitations. As a condition of the 1972 ABM Treaty, the location of these sites needed to be made public for international inspection, but inspection put the sites at risk of nuclear attack. Moreover, the treaty limited both the United States and the Soviet Union to two ABM sites: one to protect each nation’s capital, and one to protect its ICBMs. The DOD’s scientific advisors also doubted that it would be possible to design ABMs able to overcome the threat of decoys and multiple reentry warheads. ARPA and the remaining Jasons had been exploring possible alternatives throughout the 1970s but had come up with little beyond lasers and particle beams, which most scientists regarded as science fiction.
Few of these doubts reached Reagan. Like Carter and Ford before him, Reagan operated without a PSAC; George Keyworth, the president’s science advisor, informed the scientific community that the president was not interested in hearing the opinions of those “who do not share the Administration’s view.”* Instead of receiving briefs on the strategic and technical limitations of nuclear defense, Reagan heard from such defense advocates as former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director Edward Teller, who assured him that space-based defense systems could protect the nation from nuclear attack. Indeed, Teller began lobbying members of Congress on the possibility of a space-based, nuclear-powered X-ray laser just days after Reagan’s inauguration. Meanwhile, Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop had shared his own vision for a space-based chemical laser defense system with the president. Members of Congress debated the merits of the two laser-based defense systems throughout 1982, despite the skepticism of nearly every scientist familiar with the plans.
The so-called laser lobby depended in part on a new form of private political activism. In 1981, retired Lieutenant General Daniel O. Graham, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, convinced a group of well-heeled conservative activists that the United States was in grave danger of losing its strategic advantage to the Soviets. Under the sponsorship of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, Graham’s High Frontier Panel articulated a vision of missile defense that linked space technology, exploration of the skies, and free enterprise. Although lobbying was hardly novel in 1981, the idea that a group of private activists could influence a presidential decision by bankrolling its own foreign policy study was relatively new. Although differing in the details, the report that the group presented to Reagan in January 1982 contained most of the concepts that would eventually find their way into SDI.
The High Frontier Panel’s report linked military dominance of the skies to future economic development. The Soviet Union was stockpiling enough ICBMs to overwhelm the entire American arsenal, it claimed, thereby negating the concept of deterrence. Meanwhile, political support for building an offensive missile system that could withstand a Soviet attack was on the decline, as the “nuclear freeze” movement gained momentum with public rallies and support from religious leaders. A space-based system that could cripple Soviet ICBMs in the launch phase could address both problems by improving the accuracy of American ABMs (by allowing the American missiles to disable the Soviet missiles before they split into multiple warheads) and eliminating local opposition to nuclear weapons (by removing the problem of siting missile silos on Earth). Moreover, through the process of building a space-based defense system, the government would be establishing an infrastructure for future commercial development. In much the same way that the British Empire was made possible by the Royal Navy’s control of the seas, the nation that controlled space would hold a significant competitive advantage over its economic competitors.
Although Reagan would not announce his plans for SDI for an additional year, he apparently found these arguments compelling. As a former governor of California, home to some of the largest aerospace contractors, Reagan was particularly taken with the idea of commercialization of space. The space shuttle had originally been envisioned as a low-cost carrier for public as well as private satellites, but by 1982 it had already become clear that it would fall short of commercial expectations. Aside from ongoing maintenance issues, the shuttle’s most important limitation was that its low Earth orbit made it incapable of launching valuable geosynchronous satellites to their orbits 22,300 miles up. The French aerospace firm Arianespace had capitalized on this market opportunity with its Ariane rocket, which began offering commercial launch services for high-orbit satellites in 1981. On Independence Day 1982, Reagan announced a major shift in federal space policy that emphasized the “domestic commercial exploitation of space capabilities, technology, and systems for national economic benefit … consistent with national security concerns, treaties, and international agreements.”* The fate of the aeronautics industry, past, present, and future, was therefore very much on Reagan’s mind as he considered the possibilities for nuclear defense.
Despite Reagan’s well-known interest in both space and nuclear defense, his announcement of a space-based Strategic Defense Initiative in March 1983 came as a surprise to almost everyone, including his closest advisors. The sincerity of Reagan’s desire to protect the nation from nuclear attack via space-based lasers does not change the fact that space-based lasers did not, at that time, exist. The response from the academic scientific community was swift and unforgiving. Virtually all of the leading figures of 1950s- and 1960s-era science defense policy—including Jerome Wiesner, Lee DuBridge, and I. I. Rabi—condemned SDI as a costly boondoggle that would destabilize international relations. Editorials in Science, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and even the New York Times criticized Star Wars as bad science and bad foreign policy. Star Wars nevertheless became official government policy in 1984 with the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, with funding for the first year alone set at $1.4 billion.
The course of the Star Wars debate shows how the relationship between science, technology, and national security had fractured in twenty years’ time. Where once the defense establishment fretted about keeping academic physicists on tap in the event of a national emergency, the establishment now turned to its own experts in sympathetic nonprofit think tanks, defense contracting companies, and national laboratories. Of the $7.6 billion spent on SDI from March 1983 to June 1986, 95 percent went to private contractors and federal laboratories, with only 2.3 percent going to universities. In addition, these university contracts were spread thin, with an average contract value of $1 million. Defense contractors had meanwhile gained an outsized role in the political process, in part through a 1974 federal election law that granted federal contractors the right to contribute to political campaigns. Collectively, political action committees associated with the top twenty SDI contractors contributed almost $4 million to candidates running for federal office in 1984. Decisions on defense R&D policy were increasingly controlled by what came to be known as the “Iron Triangle” of defense contractors, defense agencies, and Congress, with outsiders largely shut out of the process.
Once under way, Star Wars proved difficult to rein in, despite a dismal experimental record, nearly continuous criticism from the scientific community, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton scaled the program back to a regional, primarily ground-based antiballistic missile system, but under President George W. Bush, high-powered lasers once again entered the (theoretical) armamentarium. Since 1985, the United States has spent well over $100 billion on various high-technology nuclear defense programs, some more plausible than others. While having some sort of means to intercept incoming missiles is an utterly reasonable, even essential, part of national defense in a post–Cold War world, the entrenchment of the Iron Triangle has made a rational discussion of missile defense impossible. On the rare occasions when policymakers have reconsidered the structure and function of missile defense, research scientists—whose opposition to the program is well known—have not generally been consulted.
The End of an Era
Defying all odds, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union ended peacefully in the late 1980s. The normalization in relations occurred in spite of, rather than because of, the nuclear weapons that had for so long symbolized the tensions between the two superpowers. A full discussion of the reasons for the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union is beyond the scope of this book, but most historians now agree that the fall of the regime had as much to do with internal disarray as it did with pressure from the United States. A global commitment to the concept of human rights and national sovereignty had made the position of the Soviet Union vis-àvis its satellites and its citizens increasingly untenable. Without the personal commitment of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the end result might have been very different, but as it was, the Soviet Union went out with a whimper, not a bang.
Which is not to say that weapons were not part of the equation. From all accounts, it appears that the Soviet Union was nearly bankrupt by the mid-1980s, having spent vast sums of money building a nuclear arsenal. Besides its enormous stockpile of ICBMs, the Soviet Union had invested heavily in expensive antisatellite weapons. Whatever the American scientific community’s assessment of SDI, it seems to have genuinely spooked the Soviets into spending money that they did not have on defense. Exact figures on Soviet defense spending are hard to come by, but American experts at the time believed that, as a function of gross national product, the Soviets were spending about two-and-a-half times as much as the Americans. Perhaps because the funds to counter SDI were not available, the Soviets frequently returned to the arms control bargaining table in the 1980s. Even so, it would be an error of hindsight to say, as some champions of Reagan have, that the United States won the Cold War by forcing the Soviet Union to spend its way into disarray. By the mid-1980s, SDI was only one of many problems facing the Soviet Union.
The United States, meanwhile, entered a brief period of economic boom, fueled by investments and advances in a series of high-tech industries, most notably biotechnology and information technology. In retrospect, however, it has become clear that the economic gains of the 1980s and 1990s were spread unevenly across the population. Corporate profits, driven by changes in the tax code, masked the precipitous decline of American manufacturing. U.S. factory owners moved production to Asia and Latin America to take advantage of cheap labor and infrastructure—infrastructure that had often been funded, at least in part, by international development projects. Nor would the globalization of capital have been possible without new communications technologies developed by American defense laboratories and relayed by American and European satellites. The new neoliberal consensus, meanwhile, had succeeded in shifting American colleges and universities to private, rather than public support, most notably in the forms of dramatic tuition increases and corporate partnerships. With public support for higher education on the wane, academic scientists increasingly felt the pressure to focus their research on areas ripe for outside investment. Science, which for so long had ridden the coattails of postwar American power, suddenly had to pay its own way.