Weapons in Space: Technology, Politics, and the Rise and Fall of the Strategic Defense Initiative

July/August 2024

The Long, Sad History of Weapons in Space

Weapons in Space: Technology, Politics, and the Rise and Fall of the Strategic Defense Initiative
By Aaron Bateman
The MIT Press

Reviewed by Joe Cirincione

This year, Congress will authorize $30 billion for missile defense programs with little or no oversight. It will be no different from last year or the year before that. Whether Democrats or Republicans are in control, neither party shows much interest in knowing what became of the more than $415 billion that Congress has authorized for these programs since President Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), commonly called “Star Wars,” in 1983.1

Most of these funds have been spent on failed national missile defense, that is, weapons designed to shoot down an adversary’s long-range, nuclear-armed missiles that could cross the oceans to attack the continental United States. Other funds devoted to intercepting short-range missiles that fly a few hundred miles eventually produced fairly valuable weapons, as the recent Russian attacks on Ukraine and Iranian attacks on Israel have demonstrated.

That is chiefly because short-range missiles are slow, fat, and hot and travel primarily in the atmosphere, preventing their deployment of effective decoys. Reliably intercepting long-range missile warheads that are fast, small, and cold as they speed through outer space has proved impossible, particularly if the adversary deploys countermeasures, such as decoys, chaff, and jammers.2

U.S. policymakers have known this for decades. Scores of independent technical studies informed anyone who cared to read them that national missile defense would not work.3 Republicans largely did not care. The SDI program became the tip of their ideological spear aimed at killing arms control agreements in favor of strategically overwhelming adversaries with superior weaponry and massive budgets.

For Democrats, it was largely a game of blunting political attacks by continuing to fund the program so as not to look weak on national security. Democratic efforts in Congress helped contain the missile defense program and, for a while, prevented hard-line Republicans from killing arms control.4 Yet, Democratic presidents never restructured Reagan’s unrealistic missile defense vision into a reasonable research program or disbanded what became a permanent pro-missile defense lobby within the Department of Defense known today as the Missile Defense Agency.

Those who favor national missile defense programs despite the scientific evidence are part of the long history of forces within the military and defense establishments who have championed the weaponization of space. George Washington University professor Aaron Bateman details the policy disputes in his new book, Weapons in Space: The Rise and Fall of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

His history is particularly useful in understanding the debates of the 1960s that, over the objections of hard-liners in the Air Force and the Pentagon, yielded the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banning nuclear weapons in space. That victory endured for almost 60 years, but it may now evaporate. Russia again appears to be developing precisely this capability. The treaty may soon become the most recent of the giant arms control treaties to fall to an ideological axe.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, flanked by Vice President George H.W. Bush (L) and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (R) displays bumper sticker showing support for his Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed Star Wars, in 1987. (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor)

Bateman shows how the desire to deploy new or imagined technologies in space became a key motivation for those who favored using military superiority to defeat the Soviet Union, rather than negotiated agreements to contain and prevent a wider conflict. For decades, some strategists have seen space as just the newest battleground, a “high frontier” that the United States must dominate. Treaties that limited the military’s ability to deploy these weapons were, in this view, signs of weakness and retreat.

Thus, the drive to develop and deploy anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons in the 1960s and 1970s morphed into proposals to deploy ASAT and anti-missile battle stations in space in the 1980s. President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to get an ASAT weapons ban were opposed by those who claimed that the United States was losing a fierce “space race.” Batemen writes, “George Keegan, the recently retired former head of U.S. Air Force intelligence, stirred anxieties about ‘a fast-emerging beam weapon ‘gap’ with the Soviet Union [in the lead].’ He claimed that Soviet laser weapons would be able to ‘completely neutralize the American strategic deterrent.’”

Such fantasies not only derailed Carter’s efforts, but they became the main argument for those who dreamed of U.S. space weapons that could defeat Soviet missiles and satellites. These included the U.S. Committee on the Present Danger, which warned of a “window of vulnerability” wherein the Soviets could wipe out all U.S. nuclear forces in a surprise first strike, and Senator Malcom Wallop (R-Wyo.), who convened a “laser lobby” of 39 senators in favor of deploying a space-based strategic defense system.

Fueled by dreams of techno-dominance, Reagan announced that “the United States will develop and deploy an ASAT capability” and, in March 1983, launched SDI, promising to make ballistic missiles “impotent and obsolete.” Bateman’s history helps us understand the rise of SDI, but his story falters on its fall. Although the author says that the aim of the book is to move “SDI’s technological dimensions to the center stage of the narrative,” he is surprisingly short on the program’s technological failures. Bateman never comes to grips with the fact that none of SDI’s proposed weapons ever worked.

Weapons in Space came out in May, 33 years to the month after Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, convened the first of a series of investigative hearings into the Star Wars program.5 Conyers opened the hearing with an overview of SDI failures. He said that billions had been poured into too many projects that were later abandoned, including $1 billion for the Free Electron Laser, $1 billion for the Boost Surveillance and Tracking satellite system, $720 million for the Space-Based Chemical Laser, $700 million for the Neutral Particle Beam, and $866 million for the Airborne Optical Aircraft.

Conyers presciently warned that these weapons had not only failed but that President George H.W. Bush’s plan to restructure the program also would fail. He was right. Bush’s plan for a limited, ground-based missile defense system was just the first of multiple efforts to reconfigure the program, reduce its goals, and lower exceptions, all while keeping the contracts going. As Conyers warned, “This year, the administration officially abandoned its quest for a system that could protect the United States from a massive Soviet nuclear attack. President Bush has tried to find a new mission for this faltering program. Although the new plan is little more than a series of [viewgraphs], SDI officials are repeating the mistakes of the past and plunging ahead with plans to spend over $120 billion over the next 15 years.”

SDI officials explained that lasers in space would be replaced by kinetic interceptors in space (“Brilliant Pebbles”) and ground-based interceptors that would be highly effective against what they claimed was a growing threat of “Third World” ballistic missiles. These claims would prove to be just as false as the previous claims. None of the systems ever worked. The failure to learn the lessons of the past condemns people to repeat them, and the U.S. government has repeated them every year.

Bateman defends the program. “The fact that Reagan’s strategic defense dream never came to fruition makes it easy to dismiss SDI as a science-fiction fantasy,” he writes. Well, yes, it does. It was a fantasy. It still is.

The author also claims that by focusing on “the rationale for particular missile defense technologies,” we can better understand why SDI “continues to shape the space security environment at the present time.” That may be partially true, but not as much as two other aspects of the policy debate that are sidelined in his book: contracts and Congress.

Unarguably, spending $415 billion on a program is a lot of money. The drive to secure and continue weapons programs, whether they are real or imagined, effective or not, is the major factor that explains why these efforts continue. The strategic rationale and policy pronouncements are just a veneer justifying a mountain of contracts. Focusing on what officials say is not nearly as important as looking at why they are saying it.

The defense industry deploys an army of 775 lobbyists in Washington. No one can understand why the military budget is more than $850 billion this year and why the country continues to fund weapons that do not work and are not needed without examining the activities of the corporations profiting from the Pentagon’s largesse.

Similarly, the role of Congress is a vital element in any defense discussion. At least, it was during the SDI program. Congress featured significantly in restraining the excesses of the program and in limiting the new offensive weapons proposed as the “swords” to accompany this SDI “shield.” Public opposition to the nuclear arms race and the members of Congress who reflected that opposition in the authorization and appropriations processes where major factors in bringing SDI to ground. They are sidelined in Bateman’s book.

For example, Bateman minimizes the seminal 1985 Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies report from the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which exposed the infeasibility of Reagan’s space plans. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) disbanded the office when he became speaker as revenge for this report. The author similarly airbrushes the 1987 congressional hearings centered on the American Physical Society’s devastating technical critique of SDI’s infeasibility and vulnerability.6 That report and hearing largely killed the fanciful notion that the United States could soon deploy giant lasers in space.

This neglect may be because Congress no longer plays a significant role in shaping Pentagon budgets or programs. It is difficult to name any major investigation into failed weapons programs in the past 15 years. The last serious oversight hearing on missile defense was conducted in 2008 by Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), chair of the same defense subcommittee of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee that had held the 1991 hearings.7

The defense industry learned from the gun, oil, and drug lobbies. They poured grants into Washington think tanks to neuter criticism and produce scores of favorable reports. They flooded Congress with campaign contributions. As Tierney said recently, “Too many members of the key committees have been captured by the industry. They buy what the companies are selling, without sufficient oversight, without serious questioning.”8

This is why Bateman’s prediction that there will be a new push for space-based anti-missile systems is so chilling. He asserts that technical considerations will be a minor factor in such a decision. In the coming debates, “[b]oth perceptions of threats and ideas about the proper role of space in U.S. national strategy will be overwhelmingly powerful,” he writes. He may be right. Proponents are very likely to push bothersome scientific facts aside. They would much prefer to let abstract policy assertions decide budgets and programs.

Bateman’s book is a useful but not sufficient contribution to this history. Until there is serious, hard-hitting governmental oversight for these expansive programs, Americans will continue to buy the snake oil that defense corporations and their policy advocates are selling.



1. Estimate provided by Stephen Schwartz, author of Atomic Audit, in conversation with Joseph Cirincione, Washington, DC, June 2024.

2. See Joseph Cirincione, “Assessing the Assessment: The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate of the Ballistic Missile Threat,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 2000), https://www.nonproliferation.org

3. Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress, “Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies,” OTA-ISC-254, September 1985, https://ota.fas.org/reports/8504.pdf.

4. Joseph Cirincione, “Why the Right Lost the Missile Defense Debate,” Foreign Policy, No. 106 (Spring 1997), pp. 38-55.

5. R. Jeffrey Smith, “GAO Calls ‘Star Wars” Planners Too Optimistic,” The Washington Post, May 15, 1991.

6. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Physicists Fault SDI Timetable,” The Washington Post, April 23, 1987.

7. Subcomm. on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the Comm. on Oversight and Government Reform, “Oversight of Missile Defense (Part 3): Questions for the Missile Defense Agency,” H.R. Rept. No. 110-150 (2008).

8. Rep. John Tierney, conversation with author, Washington, DC, May 2024.

Joe Cirincione is a national security author and analyst with 40 years of experience, including as director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Non-Proliferation Program and president of Ploughshares Fund. He was chief investigator for the House Government Operations Committee during major battles over missile defense programs.