Sunday, March 24, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Star Wars at 30 – the Program that ‘Blew the USSR Away’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 24 – Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of US President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of his strategic defense initiative, a program that quickly became known as Star Wars because of that movie’s references to the Evil Empire and one that played a major role in the demise of the Soviet Union.

            While this anniversary passed virtually unnoticed in the United States – a search of Google news for Star Wars this morning called up references to the film but not SDI – it was recalled by some outlets in the post-Soviet states perhaps because of the far greater role in played in their history than it does in the current thinking of Americans.

            Indeed, in the view of many experts in those countries, Reagan’s Star Wars program became a major cause of the demise of the Soviet Union. As one of them put it to the author of these lines several years ago, “Star Wars may not have been able to shoot a missile out of the sky, but it has succeeded in blowing a country off the face of the earth.”

            Reagan’s futurist plan to create a defense shield on land and in space to block any incoming rockets was dismissed by many commentators in the West as something that could not be achieved except at enormous cost and over a lengthy period of time. But it was seen as a game changer by the Soviet leadership.

            On the one hand, Star Wars, by making the US invulnerable to attack by Soviet missiles, effectively destroyed the notion of mutually assured destruction on which the Soviet-American balance of terror, the so-called mutually assured destruction principle, rested by rendering much of the Soviet arsenal irrelevant.

            And on the other hand, for Moscow to respond with its own version of such a program was in itself a threat to the Soviet system.  Not only would a Soviet SDI be enormously expensive and put a new burden on the Soviet economy, but it would require Moscow to do two things that would undermine the nature of the communist dictatorship.

            Star Wars technology presupposed a huge telecommunications system and massive computerization, two areas the USSR could develop only at the cost of its totalitarian system since no such system could long tolerate decent telephone service or, even more, the appearance of powerful computers, at least some of which would be used by its citizens.

            Thus, President Reagan effectively put the Soviet leadership in a bind: If it tried to counter Star Wars, it would effectively dig its own grave politically.  But if it didn’t or couldn’t, Moscow would find its enormous nuclear arsenal and the power that gave the center at home and abroad seriously compromised.

            Consequently, as a commentary on Irkutsk’s news site points out today, “despite its fantastic quality, the SDI project generated extreme concern in the USSR,” a trend that, in the words of the site, “strengthened Reagan and his command in the opinion that they were on the right path,” whatever the critics said (

            In the United States and elsewhere, those critics were legion. Some suggested that the program was too expensive or would never work. Others pointed to the danger that terrorists could seize control of it and use it against the US. And still others suggested SDI was profoundly destabilizing because of its impact on the Soviet-American balance.

            In the Soviet Union, Academician Andrey Sakharov led the public criticism of SDI by arguing that the program would not achieve its goals because its components could be rendered useless at an early stage of any nuclear conflict. But Sakharov’s words appear to have had a greater impact in the United States than in the Soviet Union, suggests.

            In the US and under the impact of an increasingly skeptical public, Congress “step by step reduced spending on SDI and in the end closed down the program.”  But in the USSR, Moscow launched a program under the direction of Academician Yevgeny Velikhov to build a Soviet version of Reagan’s vision.

            At the same time, the USSR launched a diplomatic offensive, one that involved attacks on SDI as a program and proposals to talk about the military use of outer space and the placement of nuclear weapons there. Following talks in Geneva beginning in 1985, the two sides reached agreement on limiting the military use of space.

These accords represented a major victory for President Reagan and his SDI program even as it was being limited by Congressional action. But a still greater victory was ahead: Moscow continued to try to build its own version, a drive that put insupportable pressures on the Soviet system and contributed to its demise in 1991.
American missile defense programs over the last decade, implies, are an echo of Reagan’s Star Wars program.  Like their predecessor, these programs and especially US plans to put such defense weapons in countries near the Soviet Union have been viewed “extremely negatively” by the Russian Federation.

But also like the situation of 30 years ago, a major reason for this anger is that “at the present time, “Russia having catastrophically fallen behind the US in the area of arms is not capable of an adequate response” to what the Americans are doing, a situation that just as a generation ago poses a serious challenge to the Russian leadership.

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