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Context of 'January 29, 1991: Bush Announces Revamped ‘Star Wars’ Program'

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Strategic Defense Initiative logo.Strategic Defense Initiative logo. [Source: United States Missile Defense Agency]President Reagan announces his proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, later nicknamed “Star Wars”), originally conceived two years earlier (see 1981). SDI is envisioned as a wide-ranging missile defense system that, if it works, will protect the United States from nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union or other countries with ballistic missiles, essentially rendering nuclear weapons, in Reagan’s words, “impotent and obsolete.” Reagan says, “I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s response is unprececented in its anger (see March 27, 1983); Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinyn says SDI will “open a new phase in the arms race.” [PBS, 2000; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 129]
US Hardliners 'Ecstatic' - Hardliners in and out of the Reagan administration are, in author J. Peter Scoblic’s characterization, “ecstatic, seeing SDI as the ultimate refutation of [the principle of] mutual assured destruction and therefore of the status quo, which left [the US] unable to seek victory over the Soviet Union.” The day after the speech, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) sends Reagan a one-sentence letter: “That was the best statement I have heard from any president.”
'Less Suicidal' Adjunct to First Strike - Scoblic will write that if SDI is implemented as envisioned, “[a]lthough the Soviets would still be able to inflict enough damage that a first strike by the United States would be suicidal, it would be ‘less suicidal’ to the extent that such a concept made sense, which some Reagan officials believed it did. In short, SDI was a better adjunct to a first strike than it was a standalone defense. That made it critically destabilizing, which is why missile defense had been outlawed by [earlier treaties] in the first place.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 129-130]

Entity Tags: Strategic Defense Initiative, J. Peter Scoblic, Ronald Reagan, Anatoly Dobrinyn, Barry Goldwater, Yuri Andropov

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

An ‘exo-atmospheric kill vehicle,’ or EKV, part of the ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ space-based missile defense system.An ‘exo-atmospheric kill vehicle,’ or EKV, part of the ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ space-based missile defense system. [Source: Claremont Institute]In his State of the Union address, President Bush announces a drastic revision of the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) missile defense system (see March 23, 1983). The system, still in its research and development stages, will no longer attempt to protect the majority of the US population from nuclear assault. Now, Bush says, SDI will be retooled to “provid[e] protection against limited ballistic missile strikes—whatever their source.” The system, called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), will include some 1,000 space-based “Brilliant Pebbles” interceptors, 750 to 1,000 long-range ground-based interceptors at six sites, space-based and mobile sensors, and transportable ballistic missile defenses. [Federation of American Scientists, 1/15/2008] The concept is based on an earlier proposal by nuclear weapons experts Edward Teller, Lowell Wood, and Gregory Canavan of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who came up with the idea of a “Smart Rocks” defense system based on thousands of small rocket-propelled canisters in Earth orbit, each capable of ramming an incoming ballistic missile and exploding it outside the lower atmosphere. The “Smart Rocks” concept was one component of the original SDI concept, but was retooled, upgraded, and renamed “Brilliant Pebbles” to be the main component of the program. It will never be deployed, and will be defunded entirely during the first year of the Clinton administration. [Claremont Institute, 12/24/2007]

Entity Tags: Gregory Canavan, Clinton administration, Brilliant Pebbles, Edward Teller, George Herbert Walker Bush, Global Protection Against Limited Strikes, Lowell Wood, Strategic Defense Initiative, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposes that the US and Russia engage in a “joint” global defense system that would supplant the US-only Strategic Defense Initiative (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991). He says that Russia will continue to honor the US-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see May 26, 1972), and proposes that all existing anti-satellite (ASAT) programs be eliminated and banned. [Federation of American Scientists, 1/15/2008]

Entity Tags: Strategic Defense Initiative, Boris Yeltsin

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President-elect Bill Clinton announces that his administration rejects the idea of a US-only space-based defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991) and would instead support the development of what he calls “a limited missile defense system within the strict framework” of the ABM Treaty (see May 26, 1972). He announces that his administration also supports the development and deployment of theater missile defense (TMD) systems “to protect our troops from short- and medium-range missiles.” [Federation of American Scientists, 1/15/2008]

Entity Tags: William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Strategic Defense Initiative

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

A total of 350 Republican candidates for Congress announce their support for the so-called “Contract with America,” a broad platform of hardline conservative positions which includes a call for the US deployment of both an anti-ballistic missile defense system (SDI or “Star Wars”—see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991) and more limited theater missile defense systems (TMD—see November 3, 1992). [Federation of American Scientists, 1/15/2008]

Entity Tags: Strategic Defense Initiative

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Clinton signs the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (NMDA), which states in its entirety, “It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate).” The NMDA mandates that the US will deploy some sort of missile defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991), but Clinton will refuse to order the system’s deployment in 2000, in part because it has failed its tests and in part because to deploy the system would require the US to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see May 26, 1972), a move Clinton is unwilling to make. Clinton will acknowledge that the US makes its own national security decision, but will add, “We can never afford to overlook the fact that the actions and reactions of others in this increasingly interdependent world do bear on our security.” [US Senate, 7/22/1999; White House, 7/22/1999; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 173-174]

Entity Tags: National Missile Defense Act, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

The Senate, led by Republican opponents such as Jesse Helms (R-NC), votes not to ratify the UN’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons (see September 10, 1996). This is the first time in 80 years that the Senate has refused to ratify a security-related treaty. Helms and other Senate Republicans do not wish to give up the US’s ability to test nuclear weapons if desired, nor do they want to impede the continued development of the “Star Wars” / “Brilliant Pebbles” missile defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991). [Federation of American Scientists, 12/18/2007; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 169] The Times of India notes that many of the opposing senators fear “that abandoning forever the right to conduct explosive nuclear tests will undermine the hegemonic position of the US. The world is virtually unipolar today and they would like to keep it that way.” But, the Times goes on to observe: “The irony is that President Bill Clinton wants the CTBT for precisely the same reason. For all his administration’s propaganda about disarmament, the CTBT is intended to lock in to place the technological lead the US has over other nuclear weapon states in terms of weapon designs and delivery systems.” [Times of India, 10/16/1999] The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, will later say, “The Senate vote against the ban on nuclear tests was a devastating blow to our efforts to gain acceptance of more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities around the world.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 277]

Entity Tags: William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Jesse Helms, International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, Strategic Defense Initiative

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Neoconservative journalist Lawrence Kaplan argues that the US must withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see May 26, 1972) and immediately begin development of a new missile defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991). “[M]issile defense is about preserving America’s ability to wield power abroad,” Kaplan writes. “It’s not about defense. It’s about offense. And that’s exactly why we need it.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 176]

Entity Tags: Lawrence F. Kaplan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations, Neoconservative Influence

The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports on an array of problems with the military’s missile defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991). Its report includes an unclassified list of 50 recommendations for improving the system that originated in a public report produced by the Pentagon in 2000. Instead of acting on the recommendations, the Pentagon declares the list of recommendations “retroactively classified,” thereby forbidding Congressional members from discussing the recommendations in public. House members Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Tierney (D-MA), who requested the GAO report, send an angry letter to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld calling the decision to classify the recommendations “highly dubious” and “an attempt to stymie public debate through the use of the classification system.” Rumsfeld ignores the protest. [Savage, 2007, pp. 103-104]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Henry A. Waxman, John Tierney, Donald Rumsfeld, General Accounting Office

Timeline Tags: US Military, US International Relations, Civil Liberties


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