Courtesy Reuters

The Star Wars Debate: Ballistic Missile Defense: The Illusion of Security

Toward the end of what almost immediately came to be called his "Star Wars" speech in March of 1983, President Reagan concluded an impassioned defense of his arms budget by proposing that American scientists begin research on a very advanced system that could protect the West from ballistic missile attack by the turn of the century or soon thereafter.

"What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack; that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?," the President asked, rhetorically. The effect of the statement was to make public his belief that an effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) might well be feasible and, if so, that it could lead to an arms control breakthrough of monumental proportions while guaranteeing the safety of the nations of the Western Alliance.

The reference to ballistic missile defense was the catalyst for the creation of two blue-ribbon panels, composed for the most part of aerospace specialists from industry, think tanks, research institutions and the Pentagon. After spending the summer studying the problem, the panels submitted reports in mid-autumn which came to the conclusion that an effective ballistic missile defense is so promising that an initial five-year research effort is warranted at a cost of about $26 billion (or nearly as much as it took to land men on the moon). The goal, according to a combined report, is to have a multilayered ballistic missile defense in place within 20 years at a cost estimated at between $250-$500 billion. The panels' conclusions, which were heartily endorsed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and applauded by the trade press, touched off a frenzy of activity within the industry and among a wide variety of defense-dependent research institutions.

It is not difficult to understand the initial appeal of the BMD concept. The possibility of assured protection against nuclear attack

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