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Review: The Star Wars Enigma

The Star Wars Enigma: Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense
By Nigel Hey
Potomac Books, 2006
hardcover, 288 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-57488-981-9

The definitive history of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program will probably never be written. The subject is not only complex and clouded by emotions and politics, but SDI and the reasoning behind it was never fully defined other than by the goals to make nuclear missiles “impotent and obsolete” and “would it not be better to save lives rather than to avenge them”, as Reagan said in his March 23, 1983 “Star Wars” speech. If neither supporters nor opponents at the time could give a good answer as to what the program involved, how should we expect historians and memoirists to do so?

The Star Wars Enigma is a fairly well informed, interesting, and opinionated look at the program’s origin and its role in winning the Cold War. There has never been an offensive weapon that failed to inspire a defensive counter-weapon, and nuclear-armed missiles are no exception. Nigel Hey points out that, “By the time extremely fast, rocket borne nuclear weapons became a reality, both the United States and the Soviet Union were developing ways to blast the out of the sky.” By the early sixties both the US and the USSR were hard at work trying to development and deploy anti-missile weapons.

However, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which was the core of US strategic nuclear policy until Reagan came along, frowned on all but the most limited forms of defensive systems. The 1972 ABM Treaty limited each side to a single ground-based defensive complex. The Russian one around Moscow became operational at about that time, and according to some reports was integrated with a nationwide, treaty-busting network of long-range nuclear-tipped SA-5 surface-to-air missiles with modest ABM capabilities.

The Star Wars Enigma is a fairly well informed, interesting, and opinionated look at the program’s origin and its role in winning the Cold War.

Meanwhile, after years of debate, the US built a facility, called Safeguard, at Grand Forks, North Dakota, to defend the ICBM bases of the upper Midwest. Then, “On October 2nd, 1975, the day after Grand Forks became operational, the House voted to deactivate the system – it could not handle an onslaught from the Soviets’ newly developed multiple independently retarget able reentry vehicles (MIRVs), and its radars would be blinded by a nuclear explosion, whether from a Soviet reentry vehicle or its own defensive missiles.” Instead of working to improve Safeguard, as the Russians did—and still do—with their system, the US chose to shut its one down.

The philosophical issues have been treated elsewhere. What Hey explains, and explains well, is the role that research on directed energy weapons played in both the US and the Soviet programs. Early laser work in both nations was rewarded by a 1964 Nobel Prize. Hey’s sources point out that right from the beginning in 1959–1960 Soviet Russia poured an amazing amount of its limited resources into laser research: “one hundred thousand individuals must have been involved in this giant build up.”

In the US and the West, meanwhile, lasers became part of everyday life, from supermarket scanners to welding and range finding applications, as well as being used as a targeting mechanism for laser-guided bombs. The use of powerful lasers as anti-missile weapons was considered by most experts to be a pipe dream. When Reagan’s speech hit the world like a thunderbolt the media and many experts were quick to blame or credit Edward Teller, who at the time was not only pushing the idea of missile defense, but was also campaigning for his concept of an x-ray laser powered by nuclear explosives.

Teller, known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb”, was an easy figure to demonize and the left, especially the New York Times, held nothing back. They had made an intellectual investment in the idea that the President was an “amiable dunce” and thus any new idea had to the result of some behind-the-scenes manipulation. This book, along with other recent studies, proves that SDI was something that he deeply believed in and that he was determined to continue the program.

Hey, like many others, does a fair job of describing Reagan’s stubborn refusal to trade SDI for Soviet arms control concessions. At one level he knew that the Communist regime could and would cheat on every agreement they signed. He also knew that by refusing to give them the economic relief they sought from the arms race he was putting heavy pressure on their whole unworkable economic and political structure. The agreements he did sign, such as the INF Treaty, were not only verifiable but were also barely disguised humiliations for the USSR, which had planned for a monopoly on so-called “Euro-strategic” weapons.

The enduring controversy that this book illuminates, but does not resolve, is whether the whole program was just a bluff. How advanced was US technology and could the US ever have developed an effective anti-missile shield? The author, who had worked at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, where most of the work on lasers was carried out, believes that the technology was nowhere near ready. Chemical lasers are unwieldy and hard to control, though the progress that has been made recently by the Airborne Laser project has been impressive. Space-based chemical lasers require huge fuel tanks if they are to be capable of firing more than one or two shots. The evidence is that a few people at the top of the Reagan Administration did regard the program as a bluff, but that Reagan himself and the program managers were true believers.

In fact, SDI was not structured as a weapons development program but a technology and research effort designed to answer the question, “Is missile defense possible and, if so, how can it be done?” The answer that the program came up with was inherent in the technology of the age: infrared-guided, space-based, kinetic energy boost phase kill vehicles. Once deployed in large numbers they would be hard to detect and to shoot down. Not only that, but any attack on them in orbit would be seen as a precursor to an all-out nuclear strike, thus they would enhance classic deterrence, as well as being an effective system in their own right.

Eventually this system, originally called “smart rocks” and promoted by retired Army General Daniel Graham, was well within the state of the art in the mid-1980s. Later, a more refined version was promoted by Teller and his colleague Lowell Wood as “Brilliant Pebbles”, which was well on its way to becoming operational when it was canceled by the Clinton Administration in 1993.

SDI was not structured as a weapons development program but a technology and research effort designed to answer the question, “Is missile defense possible and, if so, how can it be done?”

The greatest virtue of this book is the way it illuminates the confusion that existed amongst the opponents of SDI. The Soviets recognized the basic challenge and the fact that it would be very hard for them to make the extra effort needed to match the US effort, so they tried to convince themselves that they could overcome any US system with their own countermeasures. These, however, would be costly and take away precious resources from their offensive buildup. They decided to go all out to try and derail SDI. Their traditional political methods of mobilizing Europe’s leftists had failed to prevent the deployment of US INF missiles in Western Europe, so they had to try diplomacy.

They also attempted to launch a space weapon systems of their own in May 1987, using their giant Energia booster. The Polyus or Skif “orbital weapons platform” launched “not long after Gorbachev had repeated that the arms race should not be extended to space.” The system, whatever it was, failed to reach orbit and crashed into the Pacific. At the same time the US government was entangled in a savage political and legal debate over the broad versus narrow definition of the ABM Treaty.

Within the US many prominent scientists also tried to halt or to at least disrupt SDI research. Hey explains that the detractors (he mentions Richard Garwin, Hans Bethe, and Carl Sagan) had an image problem: they were “detached academics seeking to expose the truth”.

Nigel Hey is a painfully fair storyteller. He gives equal weight to those who thought that SDI was nothing but a delusion or a bluff and to those who saw it as a serious and noble effort to protect America and the world from nuclear missiles. This book will not satisfy those who are looking for a solid set of conclusions, but for those who want to have some idea as to what the SDI debate in the 1980s was all about, they could do worse.