Strategic Defense Initiative

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STRATEGIC DEFENSE INITIATIVE (SDI), also known as Star Wars, was a research project to create a missile defense system that would protect the United States from nuclear attack. Begun by the administration of Ronald Reagan, few military programs have been the subject of more intense, even emotional, debate than have SDI and its successors.

By the late 1960s, the primary means that the United States and the Soviet Union had of directly attacking the other was with nuclear weapons delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Despite experimentation by both sides with nuclear-tipped defensive missiles, the difficulties of "hitting a bullet with a bullet" proved immense and military planners concluded that any prospective missile defense could be easily overwhelmed. In 1972 the two countries agreed in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to build no more than two defensive missile sites each, a number reduced to one in 1974. When Congress shut down the sole U.S. missile defense base in 1976 only months after it had become operational, strategic defense appeared to have been abandoned by the United States for good.

Research quietly continued within the U.S. Army, however, now with an eye toward creating interceptor missiles that would not require nuclear warheads of their own. Partially as a result of the deployment of a new generation of Soviet ICBMs, by the early 1980s U.S. military leaders were growing increasingly concerned about the possibility of suffering a crippling first strike in a future war. In February 1983 the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to President Reagan a renewed national program for missile defense, a cause that had already been championed for years by the nuclear physicist Edward Teller and others. Reagan found this emphasis on defense, rather than offense, appealing on both moral and domestic political grounds and in a nationally televised address on 23 March 1983 he delivered a dramatic plea for this new Strategic Defense Initiative. By asking "Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them?" however, he raised the stated goal from the arcane but plausible one of protecting the nation's second strike capability to the unrealistic but emotionally appealing goal of creating an infallible space shield that could withstand even a massive nuclear attack.

SDI immediately became the subject of intense political controversy. Critics argued that it would extend the arms race into space and cause the Soviet Union to expand its own offensive nuclear forces. Furthermore, many of the proposed weapons—including neutron particle beams, rail guns, and lasers—represented exotic and un-proven new technologies. Defenders of SDI responded that the Soviet Union was already expanding its strategic forces at a rapid rate and that missile defense research continued in the Soviet Union as well. Reagan's immense personal popularity triumphed over a reluctant Congress, and by 1987 annual spending on SDI-related programs was more than $3 billion. Although the effect SDI had on the last years of the Cold War remains the subject of heated disagreement, it is apparent that Soviet leaders did take very seriously the threat it represented of a new and very expensive arms race that they could not hope to win.

In 1991 the program's goal was changed to intercepting only a small number of intermediate and long-range missiles, perhaps launched from a rogue state such as Iraq or North Korea. Though public interest had waned, funding quietly continued in the range of $3 billion to $4 billion annually throughout the administration of George H. W. Bush. In 1993 the Clinton administration surprised many by retaining the program, although it was renamed Ballistic Missile Defense and moderately scaled back. By the late 1990s, however, funding was again comparable to that of the years from 1987 to 1993, and following the commencement of a high-profile series of tests in 1999, the subject became once more a matter of great public debate. In 2002 President George W. Bush changed the program's name to Missile Defense Agency and withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty in order ultimately to deploy a national system of missile defense.


Baucom, Donald R. The Origins of SDI, 1944–1983. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. A revised version of the official history.

Fitzgerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. A critical account focusing on the personal role of Ronald Reagan.

McMahon, K. Scott. Pursuit of the Shield: The U.S. Quest for Limited Ballistic Missile Defense. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

Missile Defense Agency. Homepage at Includes histories, congressional testimony, biographical sketches, and other information.


See alsoArms Race and Disarmament ; Missiles, Military .

Strategic Defense Initiative

views updated May 14 2018


The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a United States military research program that President Ronald Reagan first proposed in March 1983, shortly after branding the USSR an "evil empire." Its goal was to intercept incoming missiles in mid-course, high above the earth, hence making nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." Nicknamed "Star Wars" by the media, the program entailed the use of space- and ground-based nuclear X-ray lasers, subatomic particle beams, and computer-guided projectiles fired by electromagnetic rail gunsall under the central control of a supercomputer system.

The Reagan administration peddled the program energetically within the United States and among NATO allies. In April 1984 a Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was established within the Department of Defense. The program's futuristic weapons technologies, several of which were only in a preliminary research stage in the mid-1980s, were projected to cost anywhere from $100 billion to $1 trillion.

After Reagan's SDI speech, General Secretary Yuri Andropov denounced the program, telling a Pravda reporter that if Washington implemented SDI, the "floodgates of a runaway race of all types of strategic arms, both offensive and defensive" would open. Painfully aware of U.S. scientific and engineering skills, the Soviet leadership sought to eschew a costly technological arms race in which the United States was stronger.

With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and USSR, signing of the START I and II treaties, and the 1992 presidential election of Bill Clinton, the SDI received lower budgetary priority (like many other weapons programs). In 1993 Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced the abandonment of SDI and its replacement by a less costly program that would make use of ground-based antimissile systems. The SDIO was then replaced by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO).

In contrast to the actual expenditures on SDI (about $30 billion), spending on BMDO programs exceeded $4 billion annually in the late 1990s.

See also: anti-ballistic missile treaty; arms control; dÉtente; strategic arms reduction talks


Anzovin, Steven. (1986). The Star Wars Debate. New York: Wilson.

Boffey, Philip M. (1988). Claiming the Heavens: The New York Times Complete Guide to the Star Wars Debate. New York: Times Books.

FitzGerald, Frances. (2000). Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster.

FitzGerald, Mary C. (1987). Soviet Views on SDI. Pittsburgh, PA: Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

Teller, Edward. (1987). Better a Shield than a Sword: Perspectives on Defense and Technology. New York: Free Press.

Johanna Granville

Strategic Defense Initiative

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Strategic Defense Initiative (abbr.: SDI) • a military defense strategy proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, in which enemy weapons would be destroyed in space by lasers, antiballistic missiles, etc., launched or directed from orbiting military satellites.


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SDI selective dissemination of information
Strategic Defense Initiative (US Star Wars programme)


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