Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reagan's Star Wars: 30 years ago

Ronald Reagan gave the following 30-minute talk on March 23rd, 1983, i.e. 30 years ago:

Most of the talk is about the motivation and the situation. The very SDI comments begin at 25:00 or so.

The visionary SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) speech was arguably the most consequential presidential speech in the modern U.S. history. I am somewhat impressed by the depth of the technical arguments that Reagan offered.

In July 1979, Reagan would visit some defense folks in Colorado and they showed him that the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine was the only possible conclusion. Ronald Reagan couldn't accept such an attitude and the speech above symbolized what he wanted to do to protect the civilians against the Soviet-led attacks from outer space and change the doctrine.

I was 10 years old, I spoke no English, and today was actually the first time I listened to the speech above. But I remember that during a gym class, when I was a 3rd grader or a 4th grader, at the 21st Elementary School in Pilsen with an extended education of languages (Russian, in my case then), we suddenly had to listen to a bizarre scary speech in the school radio sometimes in 1983 or 1984 or so.

We were told that the international situation got worsened a lot and a war could be imminent. Of course, we were told about the imperialist warmongers all the time but this was the only time when I heard an announcement fully dedicated to a possibly looming war.

I have never reconstructed the date of that bizarre announcement or the reason behind it. Now, it seems plausible that Reagan's speech was what sparked the school radio announcement. Some commies at our school could have gotten anxious that the American imperialists could get really strong now and it's necessary to upgrade the war preparations and war rhetoric (although we've never heard anything that would be so pro-war as the North Korean propaganda we observe these days: the official propaganda would always paint us as the "camp of peace" while the capitalist world were the "warmongers").

At any rate, this was the impact of Reagan's speech on the Soviet politicians. Arms races escalated and they effectively led to the surrender of the Soviet Union. It has overspent the money for arms races. This caused some problems in the economy and that helped Gorbachev to be elected and ultimately terminate the totalitarian Cold War era in the Soviet Union – and, indirectly, in the whole Soviet bloc.

Many people – especially left-wingers – have been trying to humiliate the SDI. In 1987, the American Physical Society joined these critics and questioned whether the SDI is allowed by the laws of physics. But it's clear that "something like that" may be immensely useful and nowadays, similar technologies belong to the responsible defense strategists' standard toolkit. The critics usually employ excessively high standards when they evaluate the SDI. They say that because the technology can't be perfectly reliable under all circumstances, it's useless. But nothing in the real world is perfectly reliable but we are still using many things and they are useful.

Also, the critics who said that Reagan would effectively revive an "offensive mode" of the arms races have ultimately been proved wrong. SDI is clearly a defense technology and while it temporarily led the Soviets to be even more offensive in their strategic planning, this had to collapse and this did collapse, leading the world to the end of the Cold War. I would summarize the U.S. critics' motivation by saying that the real reason why most of them were annoyed was that they wanted the Soviet Union to prevail and Reagan's plan made that outcome less likely. They were commies. In fact, Obama's administration is the first Democratic administration after Reagan that accepted that SDI is a good idea. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel proposed to increase the GBIs on Friday.

Before the SDI plans managed to undermine the Soviet empire, the CIA has played an effective misinformation game. The Soviets have spent lots of money on similar anti-rockets, too. X-rays were planned to be the defensive bullets. Most of these devices remained on paper but the implications of these papers were damn tangible and damn far-reaching.


  1. Lubos - Possibly what you heard about as a 3rd-grader was the deployment of Pershing missiles to Western Europe in 1984. The news here in the U.S. was showing a massive demonstration at the air base at Grenham Down in the UK as American planes carrying the missiles were landing. All the scenes I saw on TV were at night, making it look extremely ominous - Reagan the "warmonger" etc.

  2. A very plausible alternative explanation...

    We would go to the Bohemian Forest - even for skiing - around 1984 and someone had the idea that these structures on Gross Arber on the German side

    were Pershings. Guess what those things are! :-) I think that the teacher heard it but let the Pershing explanation live - either the teacher was dumb or scared or a communist ideologue...

    These days, one may get to Gross Arber virtually without any showing of the passport.

  3. I can't tell. Radar? Water tanks?

  4. Yup, they're actually radars, and probably were military radars. In the later most pro-Western era, I thought they were astronomical observatories.

  5. These “early warning” radars were quite common in the US four to five decades ago. The dome protects a rotating parabolic antenna around 7 meters wide, which produces a beam width of about three degrees using a wavelength of about one meter.

  6. As everyone seriously involved in missile countermeasures knows well, offensive capability ultimately overwhelms defensive measures simply due to the laws of physics.
    At the time of Reagan’s speech the Soviets did not yet possess such overwhelming technology but they were motivated to develop it and they did so at great expense. There is a continuing argument as to the role of this expenditure in the collapse of the Soviet Union. It likely accelerated the collapse but certainly was not the sole cause.
    If your offensive missiles have the capability to re-enter the atmosphere more or less vertically at close to three km/sec, accompanied by 25-30 G evasive capability they will all get through. Of course this requires an ablative nose cone; ceramics will simply melt. When Putin claims that Russia’s missiles are unstoppable he is totally correct. The only hope is to destroy the missile in the launch phase but that is unrealistic, too.
    Needless to say, it will be decades before rogue states such as North Korea will be able to develop this sophisticated technology. Their missiles are quite stoppable but a small fraction might still get through.

  7. Dear Gene, it's a very interesting analysis! But if the proof of the claims - that the offensive power overwhelms and Putin's rockets are unstoppable - is supposed to be included somewhere in your comment, then I must have missed it somehow! ;-)

  8. It’s pretty simple, Lubos:
    A missile descending from thinner air can go faster than one rising from thicker air because nose-cone heating ultimately limits its airspeed and the heating rate is proportional to the air density for a given airspeed. When heating is properly accounted, along with achievable rocket accelerations (and gravity), the descending missile can travel much faster than the rising one.

    It is impossible to hit a faster bullet with a slower one unless you can accurately predict its trajectory and high-G lateral accelerations can easily prevent that. It’s analogous to a fast running back in American football getting by slower defensive back in a field without boundaries. He will score every time.

  9. Militarily, however, there is a better strategy. Such evasive missiles are very costly for a given payload. Multiple re-entry warheads are much more economical.
    A single Trident submarine, if not limited by arms treaties, could shower around three hundred

  10. Strategically, however, there is a better technology. Such evasive missiles are very costly for a given payload and multiple re-entry warheads are much more economical.
    A single Trident submarine, if not limited by arms treaties, could shower almost three hundred W-88, 475 kT warheads on an enemy almost simultaneously and we could field many submarines. This really amounts to an unstoppable second strike capability. No matter what an enemy does to us, he will simply cease to exist. It is an effective deterrent.

  11. Gene, The SDI Early Deployment System was designed to destroy ICBMs in launch phase merely by hitting them with a non-explosive kill vehicle.

  12. One of Obama's first acts as President was to drop missile defense commitments made to Poland and Czech Republic.

  13. SDI was an offensive weapon then (Reagan era) and, still, an offensive weapon now. Just calling a spade, a spade.

  14. I guess that's a vision of the self-anointed (thanks to Thomas Sowell for that phrase). Unfortunately, we mortals have to reason.

  15. It was "The Vision of the Anointed..." by T. Sowell. Not certain what you mean.