- The Star Wars Enigma: Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense
Nigel Hey's book, The Star Wars Enigma, is a diplomatic/political history of President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The book belongs on the shelf with Francis Fitzgerald's Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) and William Broad's Star Warriors: A Penetrating Look into the Lives of the Young Scientists behind Our Space-Age Weaponry (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985). The Star Wars Enigma avoids technical analysis of SDI beyond stating the consensus view that SDI was made up of a series of difficult tasks that were well beyond the technology of the time. A puzzling question thus arises when Hey describes the political and diplomatic impact of SDI on the Soviet Union. Why did Mikhail Gorbachev remain so concerned about SDI even after he received advice from Roald Sagdeev (the director of the Soviet Space Institute) and Evgenii Velikhov (the vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute) that SDI was modern-day Lysenkoism (p. 133)? I will return to this issue shortly.
Most scientists and engineers who examined the SDI technologies came to the conclusion that SDI was several orders of magnitude away from being a viable system. The daunting obstacles to SDI's success can be seen by asking a question: Would an X-ray laser based on a pop-up missile launched from a U.S. submarine in the southernmost Artic Ocean have had sufficient time to destroy a missile launched 3,000 kilometers away in Kazakhstan? Not enough time would have been available to destroy the Soviet missile in its boost phase. Closer missiles could have used fast-burn boosters to survive, if indeed the X-ray laser ever would have worked in the first place. Beyond these complications, SDI was further compromised by the extreme difficulty of obtaining adequate battle-management information for thousands of directed-energy weapons (DEW) mobilized against a massive nuclear attack. This pessimism was further compounded by the relative ease of offensive countermeasures to foil SDI. Hey describes the technical reservations of Gerald Yonas, who spearheaded the first technical programs when he was the SDI Organization's deputy director and chief science adviser from 1984 to 1986. Hey discusses the reports put out by the Office of Technology Assessment and the National Academy of Sciences back-channel communications with Soviet scientists, but he fails to mention the best technical analysis of SDI, [End Page 139] which was carried out by the American Physical Society (APS). The APS DEW panel of seventeen scientists had a strong contingent of insiders, four from government weapons laboratories and three from industrial laboratories. These insiders were well-versed in the government's SDI research. After the APS report went through declassification in 1987, the presidential Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), acting for the Executive Branch, refused to allow the APS to present its results. The government denied itself the best study on SDI because APS identified the physical limitations of SDI. While working in the State Department's Office of Strategic Nuclear Policy at the time, I was contacted by the APS to arrange a briefing for the report at the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. OSTP tried twice to cancel the briefing, but my State Department boss would not allow this to happen. He encouraged me to hold the briefing as long as nothing about it was disclosed to the press. Twenty years later it seems reasonable to recount this episode in the Journal of Cold War Studies.
In 1987, the SDIO abruptly shifted from DEW to hit-to-kill weapons using kinetic-kill vehicles. Hey does not adequately explain the specific reasons for this major change other than quoting Yonas's 1986 speech: "The most straightforward and best–proven approach to interception of a...