Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI] II

Changing SDI program objectives complicated SDIO’s work and operational efficiency. SDI was originally intended to provide a massive system for defending the United States against Soviet ballistic missile attacks. During 1987 program objectives shifted from defending against massive missile strikes to deterring such strikes. The 1990 introduction of the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor (see next entry) caused SDIO to change organizational direction again. A number of organizational realignments were implemented during September 1988 such as adding a chief of staff to oversee SDIO activities; adding a chief engineer to ensure multiple engineering tasks and analysis received top-level attention; and the creation of a Resource Management Directorate, which merged Comptroller and Support Services Directorates in an effort to enhance management efficiency (U. S. General Accounting Office 1992(a), 2; Federation of American Scientists n. d., 8).

Operation Desert Storm also heralded important changes in SDIO program activities. The use of Patriot missile batteries against Iraqi Scud missiles during this 1991 conflict achieved some success but with significant attending controversy over how successful the Patriot system had actually performed (U. S. Congress, House Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security 1993; Snodgrass 1993).

During his January 29, 1991 State of the Union address to Congress as this conflict raged, President Bush announced another SDI shift to the concept called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) as reflected in the following statement “. . . I have directed that the Strategic Defense Initiative program be refocused on providing protection from limited ballistic missile strikes, whatever their source. Let us pursue an SDI pro- gram that can deal with any future threat to the United States, to our forces overseas and to our friends and allies” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States 1991, 78).

This shift to GPALS came about as a result of a perceived decline in the Soviet missile threat and the emergence of tactical ballistic missile threats from Iraq and other third world countries. GPALS would have two ground-based and one space-based segment. One of the ground-based components would consist of sensors and interceptors to protect U. S. and allied missile forces overseas from missile attack. An additional ground- based segment would protect the United States from accidental or limited attacks of up to 200 warheads. GPALS spaced-based component would help detect and intercept missiles and warheads launched from anywhere in the world. SDIO sought to integrate these three segments to provide mutual coordinated support and required that each of these entities be designed to work together using automated data processing and communication networks (U. S. General Accounting Office 1992(a), 2-3).

This governmental emphasis on localized theater, as opposed to global strategic missile defense, was also reflected in the fiscal year 1991 congressional conference committee report on the defense budget issued October 24, 1990. This legislation called for the secretary of Defense to establish a centrally managed theater missile defense program funded at $218,249,000, required DOD to accelerate research and development on theater and tactical ballistic missile defense systems, and called for the inclusion of Air Force and Navy requirements in such a plan and the participation of these services (U. S. Congress, House Committee on Appropriations 1990, 117-118).

SDI and the concept of ballistic missile defense continued generating controversy throughout its first decade. Although SDIO was able to achieve relatively viable funding and enough operational successes to retain sufficient political support within DOD and in Congress to persevere as an organization, its organizational mission focus never remained constant. Contentiousness over whether there was even a need for SDI or ballistic missile defense was reflected in the following 1991 statements before House Government Operations Committee oversight hearings on SDI.

Opponents of SDI such as Federation of American Scientist’s Space Policy Project director John Pike claimed that ballistic missile threats to the United States were examples of hyperbolic rhetoric, that SDI was too expensive, had numerous technical problems, and that its deployment could jeopardize international arms control. Pike described SDI as being a “Chicken Little” approach to existing threats, which would cost more than $100 billion instead of current projections of $40 billion. He also contended that SDI had significant computing and software problems, that its deployment would end the ABM Treaty and imperil arms control progress, and there was no compelling reason to deploy SDI based on the existing strategic environment (U. S. Congress, House Committee on Governmental Operations, Legislation and National Security Subcommittee 1992, 194).

Proponents of SDI such as Keith Payne of the National Institute for Public Policy emphasized how the Iraqi use of Scud missiles during Operation Desert Storm had drastically changed Cold War strategic assumptions about how ballistic missiles might be used in future military conflicts. These proponents stressed the threat to civilians from missiles that could carry chemical warheads, how normal life ended in cities threatened by Iraqi Scud attacks, how Iraqi conventionally armed missile attacks during the Iran-Iraq War caused nearly 2,000 deaths, forced the evacuation of urban areas like Tehran with ruinous economic consequences, and warned that such events could happen to U. S. and allied metropolitan areas due to ballistic missile proliferation (U. S. Congress, House Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security 1992, 284).

SDI supporters further stressed how the presence of ballistic missiles equipped with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of third world countries such as Iraq could drastically reduce the flexibility of U. S. leaders in responding to such threats. Examples of this reduced flexibility would involve U. S. leaders having to assess the possibility of third party ballistic missile strikes against U. S. forces, allies, or U. S. population centers, sufficient to limit the president’s freedom of action to respond; emerging ballistic missile threats could have a debilitating effect on the U. S. capability to establish allied coalitions and respond to aggression as it did in Operation Desert Storm; and activities such as escorting threatened commercial shipping through hostile waters during the Iran-Iraq War or militarily evacuating U. S. citizens from foreign hot spots could become increasingly dangerous. Payne and other missile defense supporters stress that such defenses enable the United States to maintain the credibility of its overseas security commitments and encourage the belief that the United States will not be deterred from defending its national interests and allies (U. S. Congress, House Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security 1992, 284-285).

SDIO continued its activities as the Clinton administration began in 1993. Ballistic missile defense was not high on the national security priorities of this administration as it took office (Lindsay and O’Hanlon 2001, 87). SDIO’s initial institutional incarnation came to an end with DOD Directive 5134.9 on June 14, 1994, which established the BMDO as the organizational focal point for U. S. ballistic missile defense efforts. The now preponderant emphasis on developing defenses against theater ballistic missile threats, while also adhering to the ABM Treaty, was reflected in BMDO’s mission, whose characteristics included deploying an effective and rapidly mobile theater missile defense system to protect forward-deployed and expeditionary components of U. S. and allied armed forces; defending the U. S. homeland against limited ballistic missile attacks; demonstrating advanced technology options for enhanced missile defense systems including space-based defenses and associated sensors; making informed decisions on development, production, and deployment of such systems in consultation with U. S. allies; and adhering to existing international agreements and treaty obligations while using non-nuclear weapon technologies (U. S. Department of Defense 1994, 1-2). SDI may have been conceived and initially presented with idealistic fervor, but its inception was driven by profound and substantive dissatisfaction with the military and moral predicament of the United States being unable to defend its population and military interests against hostile ballistic missile attacks. SDI and its successor programs have survived and evolved into contemporary national missile defense programs because of their ability to pragmatically adapt to prevailing political, economic, and military environments facing the United States and its national security interests (Clagett 1996).

ASAT (antisatellite) weapons

Concern over a growing Soviet ASAT program caused the Reagan administration to begin efforts to remove congressional restrictions on testing ASAT capability in space. This concern resulted in the February 6, 1987 issuance of NSDD 258 in which DOD and the Air Force requested funding to conduct relevant research and development efforts in this area and that further study of long-range U. S. ASAT requirements should continue (U. S. National Security Council 2006(a), 255-256).

A final noteworthy Reagan administration space policy document was NSDD 293 on national space policy issued January 5, 1988. This document reaffirmed that the United States was committed to peacefully exploring and using outer space and that peaceful purposes allowed for military and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national security and other goals, that the United States would pursue these military and intelligence activities to support its inherent self-defense rights and defense commitments to allies, that the United States rejected the claims of other nations to sovereignty over space or celestial bodies, that there can be limits on the fundamental right of sovereign nations to acquire data from space, and that the United States considers other national space systems to have the right to pass through and conduct space operations without interference (U. S. National Security Council 2006(b), 13-14).

This document went on to outline four basic DOD space mission areas including space support, force enhancement, space control, and force application. Space support guidelines stressed that military and intelligence space sectors could use manned and un- manned launch systems as determined by specific DOD or intelligence mission requirements. Force enhancement guidelines stressed that DOD would work with the intelligence community to develop, operate, and maintain space systems and develop appropriate plans and structures for meeting the operational requirements of land, sea, and air forces through all conflict levels. Space control guidelines stressed that DOD would develop, operate, and maintain enduring space systems to ensure freedom of action in space and deny such mobility to adversaries, that the United States would develop and deploy a comprehensive ASAT capability including both kinetic and directed energy weapons, and that DOD space programs would explore developing a space assets survivability enhancement program emphasizing long-term planning for future requirements. Where force application was concerned, this document proclaimed that DOD would, consistent with treaty requirements, conduct research, development, and planning to be prepared to acquire and deploy space weapons systems if national security conditions required them (U. S. National Security Council 2006(b), 15-16).

Projecting force from space was a particularly significant new facet of U. S. military space policy asserted in this document. This statement also reflected a belief in many governmental sectors that space was comparable to air, land, and sea war-fighting environments and that space combat operations should be pursued to defend national interests and enhance national security. NSDD 293 culminated a period of significant growth in U. S. military space policy during the Reagan presidency. This administration saw AFSPACOM established in 1982 to consolidate space activities and link space-related research and development with operational space users. Army and Navy space commands were also created during this time and USSPACECOM was established in 1985 as a unified multi – service space command. Additional Reagan administration developments in military space policy included establishing a Space Technology Center at New Mexico’s Kirtland Air Force Base; forming a DOD Space Operations Committee, elevating NORAD’s commander in chief to a four-star position and broadening that position’s space responsibilities; creating a separate Air Force Space Division and establishing a deputy commander for Space Operations; constructing a consolidated Space Operations Center; creating a Directorate for Space Operations in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff/Plans and Operations in Air Force headquarters; establishing SDIO; and establishing a space operations course at the Air Force Institute of Technology (Lambakis 2001, 229-230).

Broader Implications of the Strategic Defense Initiative

Though compelling for its parsimonious logic, mutually assured destruction came at a cost. By holding each other’s population hostage to nuclear annihilation, the superpowers reinforced preexisting ideological and geopolitical hostility. From this angle, the underlying logic of mutual vulnerability violated civilized norms, a necessary evil in the absence of viable policy alternatives such as disarmament or strategic defense. This calculus changed after the Reagan administration took office.

Long before assuming the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan developed an interest in strategic defense, stimulated in part by visits to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the North American Air Defense Command. Reagan’s distaste for mutually assured destruction, combined with technological advances, convinced him to embark on a new strategic path, against the advice of some of his closest advisors. After deeming mutually assured destruction immoral in a nationally televised address on March 23, 1983, President Reagan challenged the scientific community “to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Some critics immediately challenged the president on purely technical grounds, saying it would never work. Others deemed it provocative, believing the Soviets would conclude that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a cover for the United States to achieve a first-strike capability.

Though clearly aspirational in the near term, SDI jarred the Soviets. So did Reagan’s later refusal to consider SDI a bargaining chip at Reykjavik, Iceland, talks in October 1986. After spending decades and hundreds of billions building their land-based ICBM force, Moscow found itself at the wrong end of a cost-imposition strategy. To be sure, the ensuing SDI debate included lots of talk about the potential for the Soviets to use cheap countermeasures to defeat an American missile defense system. Since Reagan’s initial concept of SDI did not specify technologies in advance, these scenarios reflected far more speculation than analysis. This much was clear: The United States changed the strategic debate to favor its own technological potential at the expense of the Soviet Union.

The Reagan administration’s newfound commitment to strategic defense exploited the Soviet’s relative disadvantage in microelectronics and computer technology. The Soviet leadership grasped the implications of this revolution even before Reagan announced his SDI initiative. In the past, the Soviets’ wide-ranging espionage efforts offset some of the US technological advantages, as Soviet agents pilfered certain weapons designs, including, most spectacularly, that of the atomic weapon. But the microelectronics-based revolution was too broad and too deep for the Soviets to steal their way to technological equivalency. Equally problematic, the Soviet’s centralized economic system lacked the ability to create disruptive technologies of its own, let alone match those of the United States. In this case, as it usually does, entrepreneurship handily beat centralized planning in generating technological innovation.

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