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Friday, March 29, 2013

The thirtieth anniversary of Strategic Defense Initiative

SDI, Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars, missiles, nuclear weapons, antiballistic
It was thirty years ago this week that President Ronald Reagan gave a historic speech proposing, for the first time, a space-based anti-ballistic missile system for the United States.  The plan, once developed, would utilize ground and space-based weaponry to blast apart incoming nuclear missiles.  The basic premise was an array of missile-launching satellites around the Earth.  A far more radical design called for the deployment of platforms in orbit: either carrying anti-missile lasers or particle beams, or as part of an adaptive-optics system which would focus a surface-generated laser onto a moving target anywhere around the world (see illustration).

The official name for the concept was Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI.  But for reasons apparent to everyone it was quickly labeled "Star Wars" by the mainstream press and the name stuck.

SDI gained notoriety overnight, as much from many people in the United States as from the government of the Soviet Union.  Reagan's political enemies swore and declared that "Star Wars" was a ridiculous fantasy that would never work.  Soviet officials were outraged: among other things, claiming that SDI was a violation of the SALT II treaty.

The thing is, Strategic Defense Initiative did work.  But not at all in the way that it was advertised.  And out of all of Reagan's accomplishments, it is SDI that stands as the most genius.  Because SDI didn't have to function at all as Reagan had proposed.  Instead, it was the very idea of SDI that compelled the Soviet government to pour an insane amount of money into its military budget in an effort to "catch up" with the United States.  It was money that the Russians didn't really have to begin with and the rush to build up that country's military and technology took a severe toll on an economy that was severe enough already.

In short: SDI was one of the biggest reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union.  It drastically accelerated the Russian's bankruptcy and inability to contain its own people as it had for many decades.

I'll put it in even shorter terms: Ronald Reagan is the man most responsible for ending the Cold War.  He did it with SDI.  And he did it without a single shot being fired by either side.

Like I said: genius.

There are a number of retrospectives about the thirtieth anniversary of Strategic Defense Initiative, but one of the better ones I've found is a series by Jay Nordlinger running all this week on National Review's website.  It's recommended reading for anyone interested in the very rare crossing of politics, technology and history that is SDI.