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Reagan's Fantasy: On the Star Wars Initiative

If there is anything that can be learned from the failure of the strategic defense initiative, it is the fact that even a superpower like the United States is not all capable

Reagan announces the launch of the project
Reagan announces the launch of the project

Beginning in the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, each of the superpowers had enough nuclear bombs to turn each other into radioactive dust. The balance of terror between them created an equilibrium that ensured that none of the powers would initiate a nuclear war.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made an announcement that stunned the world. He stated the intention of the United States to develop a defense system against intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would be able to stop a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. This system, called the 'Strategic Defense Initiative' (SDI), could have dramatically changed the balance of power and upset the delicate balance. It was supposed to be so sophisticated and technologically advanced that it was soon nicknamed 'Star Wars', after the famous science fiction film series.

Reagan's plan was heavily criticized almost from the moment it was released. The main criticism was, of course, around the question of funding: no one doubted that 'Star Wars' would cost the American taxpayer trillions of dollars. Those in favor of the plan argued, however, that after a nuclear holocaust there would be no American taxpayers left.
Even if we put aside for a moment the question of financing the program, there was still great doubt about its very feasibility. Among the experts there was a heated debate surrounding the question of whether it is even possible, at the current level of technology, to place such a complex system of sensors and weapons in space? In fact, the nickname 'Star Wars' that stuck to the Strategic Defense Initiative was not a compliment - but rather a form of insult: it originated in a commentary article in one of the newspapers in which it was claimed that the entire initiative is nothing more than a fictional fantasy, like the Light Sabers and the human robots in the films of George Lucas .

In order to understand how ambitious the strategic defense initiative was, it is worth getting to know some of the projects that were developed as part of it. For example, one of the earliest ideas was to use laser beams to destroy the approaching missiles, and especially laser beams in the X-ray frequency range. Lasers, as any sci-fi fan knows, are an ideal weapon in space conditions: the beam moves to its target at the speed of light and there is no atmosphere to scatter the beam and reduce its intensity. But an ideal is an ideal and the devil, as we know, is in the details: to produce a laser beam strong enough to destroy a missile, a powerful energy source is needed, and even then the laser can only be fired a limited number of times per minute, to prevent overheating of the system. In the event of a large-scale nuclear attack, it is likely that the Soviets would launch tens of thousands of missiles at the same time at the United States - and a laser cannon would not be able to shoot down more than a few dozen of them, at best.

Senior scientists such as Edward Teller, the father of the American hydrogen bomb, proposed an original solution to this problem.
The chain reaction that occurs during a nuclear explosion creates enormous amounts of photons in the X-ray range. Hence, all that needs to be done is to assemble a lot of devices for laser production around an atomic bomb: the devices will collect the photons emitted from the explosion and channel them to create dozens or even hundreds of powerful laser beams that will shoot out in all directions at the same time and destroy the missiles around them. Of course, only a few nanoseconds will pass from the moment the nuclear fission starts until the whole thing turns into a radioactive fireball and the laser devices turn to dust - but the photons move fast enough in relation to the blast head for this idea to be possible, at least on paper.
In practice, the researchers unfortunately discovered that it is very difficult to conduct controlled experiments in such a system. In all the practical experiments, which included nuclear explosions under the surface of the earth, there was not a trace of a residue from which it could be concluded whether the system worked as expected or failed completely.

Another idea, which is also probably familiar to fans of science fiction and computer games, is a 'Rail Gun' - or as it is called in foreign, Rail Gun.
The principle behind the rail gun is quite simple: firing a projectile at a tremendous speed of up to several tens of kilometers per second. A projectile moving at such a speed has so much kinetic energy that there is no reason to equip it with an explosive warhead: a piece of metal weighing a single kilogram moving at a speed of ten kilometers per second will hit the target with a force equal to the explosion of ten kilograms of TNT. One of the great advantages of the railgun is that its projectiles are much lighter than conventional shells, because they do not contain explosives - a fact that also makes them completely safe during storage.
The projectiles can be accelerated using propellant explosives: there are tank shells that work on the same principle. But to deal with fast targets like intercontinental missiles, you need extremely fast projectiles - above and beyond the thrust force that a chemical explosive can provide. Currently, it seems that the best way to accelerate the projectiles is to place them on a long rail made of conductive materials, and push them using a powerful magnetic field. Theoretically, in this way, it is possible to launch projectile after projectile at a fast pace and destroy dozens of missiles from a long distance.
And again, theory separately and reality separately. The electric currents that move inside the gun rails may reach up to half a million amperes. The resulting heat melts and distorts the rails and requires them to be replaced after each firing. At the height of the development boom, the engineers managed to shoot a total of two projectiles a day - and we have not yet mentioned the difficulty of aiming the rifle so that it would hit such a small and fast target. Despite the difficulties, the railgun is among the few technologies of the Star Wars program still in development today, as a weapon that may one day replace the cannons on the ships of the US Navy.

The last two examples show how difficult and complicated the technological challenges were that the United States faced in realizing Reagan's dream - and all this in the days of Commodore computers, video and double-cast tape.
To all this must be added the fact that the Soviets will certainly not sit idly by either. Their scientists were no less brilliant than their American counterparts and would surely have found ways to deceive the defense system and fool it with dummy missiles, for example.
In fact, they might not even have to strain their brains too much. The basic weak point of any anti-missile defense system is the fact that the price of the defense system will almost always be higher than the price of an attacking missile. All the Soviet Union has to do is double, triple or quadruple the number of ballistic missiles it possesses! After all, in the end, the American defense system will reach the limit of its capacity - and at least a few dozen missiles will manage to infiltrate. If we consider that every intercontinental ballistic missile usually contains several nuclear warheads that split above the target...then all the investment in Star Wars achieved nothing. No wonder, then, that most of the program's vocal critics argued that it was a complete waste of money and a pursuit of the impossible.

When the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War came to an end, the Strategic Defense Initiative also ended its life. Slowly and steadily, successive administrations, from George Bush Sr. to Bill Clinton, eliminated Reagan's grandiose plan. It was converted to smaller short- and medium-range missile defense programs. Here and there Star Wars produced technological developments that also found their way to the civilian market and research laboratories.
The astronomers, for example, profited greatly. Telescopes placed on Earth have a severe limitation: the light coming from the stars is constantly deflected by the movement of air in the atmosphere, so the image obtained on the telescope mirror is always slightly blurred. This is a problem that also affects the performance of laser beams, so the US military has invested a lot of money in finding methods to minimize the effect of air turbulence. The result of these studies is a technology known as 'Adaptive Optics', or Adaptive Optics: before each exposure of the telescope, a weak laser beam is fired at the point in space that they wish to photograph and the laser light that is reflected back is measured. The measurement results are compared against the known characteristics of the laser beam, and from this it is possible to calculate the expected interference to the starlight which does exactly the same way. Now you can change the shape of the lens accordingly, and eliminate the interference. The result is exceptionally sharp and clear images that were once only obtainable by space telescopes.

Despite these and other developments, it is difficult to assess how much the huge financial investment in the Star Wars program was really justified. Who knows - if Reagan had directed the same budgets to research in the field of medicine, for example, we might have had a cure for cancer today.
At the very least, if there is anything to be learned from the failure of the Strategic Defense Initiative, it is the fact that even a superpower like the United States is not omnipotent. The Star Wars program did not get off the ground even though all the economic, political and cultural power of the United States was behind it. In other words, a little modesty never hurt.

[Ran Levy is a science writer, and hosts the podcast 'Making History!'- a program about science, technology and history.]

15 תגובות

  1. I agree that superpowers are not omnipotent, but intercepting ballistic missiles is a problematic example.
    It is true that Reagan announced the program publicly, but work on interception systems began in the XNUMXs along with the first ballistic missiles. During the Reagan era it simply went from being a legitimate effort to something absurd, possibly really on purpose to drive the Soviets crazy and make them pursue imaginary technologies. If so, it may have been a bad idea because the Soviets were much more practical than the Americans and may have achieved achievements in the field. It should be remembered that the Soviets already had military space stations and even armed with cannons for self-defense and also operated nuclear reactors in space which are necessary to operate electromagnetic cannons or lasers.

    In any case, the history of intercepting ballistic missiles did not begin with Reagan:
    Already in the late sixties there were operational systems that, due to the low accuracy, were armed with tactical nuclear bombs of 1-2 kilotons. The Soviets defended Moscow with such a system starting in 1972.

    Here is a launch of an American Sprint missile whose aerodynamic configuration is not coincidentally very similar to Pressure 1, in the shape of a cone throughout. His acceleration was crazy, 100g means that he passed the speed of sound after a third of a second, at a height of about a hundred meters...

    Here is a picture in which the pressure imagery is very prominent:

  2. A curiosity that relates to the benefit that grew to astronomy from Star Wars. The article mentioned that today
    A laser beam is used to get information about the atmosphere and thus correct the resulting optical image
    from the starlight As described in the article: "They shoot a weak laser beam at the point in space that they wish to photograph and measure the laser light that is reflected back". In the US there is a fear that shooting a laser beam like this will cause a plane to be shot down
    Not in the same way that the Star Wars promoters would have wanted it but simply out of the glare of the pilot. Regarding the commercial aircraft, the Americans have information, but they are afraid of planes coming from Mexico that are used for smuggling and do not report. Due to the fear of smuggler planes there is a research student whose job it is to observe and see that there are no planes in the air during the firing of the Kranz. There is a certain irony in this that a project designed at the time to shoot down ballistic missiles is now afraid of shooting down illegal Mexican planes.

  3. As far as I know, Reagan wanted to reduce the government and transfer the budget to a few small and successful contractors who would open toys for him and at the same time directly press for an alliance with the Soviets in the only remaining open channel.

    It worked.

  4. Someone should show Obama this article..maybe it will finally sink into his head a little... 🙂

    In any case, but..note that quite a bit of what was studied in Star Wars will be applied today in one way or another
    1. Lasers - there is... like what they wanted to put in Israel that intercepts rockets, and they also have a plane with a laser on it, something strange and monstrous like that.
    2. RAIL GUN.... According to rumors, there is such a thing and it is installed on a large platform, meaning a ship, etc..
    3. Etc. Etc.. There are quite a few layers that have benefited from this adventure.

  5. When you upload an article, you also specify tags (keywords) whose function is to link it to articles on related topics.
    When I uploaded the current article, I specified two keywords that are not directly related to the topic so that they and the articles that will be automatically linked will feed the debate (since I also had reservations about the conclusion).
    The two keywords discussed are "psychological warfare" and "arrow missile".
    The responses do refer indirectly to the subject of psychological warfare, but for some reason no one has yet said a word about the arrow missile (by the way - exactly the opposite of the automatically linked articles that specifically refer to the arrow missile)

  6. Star Wars and Ronald Reagan (not a brilliant president) will go down in history as the ones who brought down the communist Soviet Union.
    Star Wars was the last economic push for the impoverished Soviet Union for additional spending that it could no longer afford.
    Star Wars, if it had been a program facing a similar strong economic force, would have developed rapidly as any subject develops under duress - see the developments of World War II

  7. You forgot a very important central point here.
    Reagan's Star Wars program is considered one of the most central and important points for the fall of the USSR. At that time, the USA had an economy that was approximately fifteen times larger than the economy of the USSR (you read that correctly, 15 times). The Soviets, following the pressure they came under in light of Reagan's grandiose plan, were forced to start investing huge resources in such and other developments that could maintain their strategic balance of power against the Americans. These huge financial investments were a major factor in their economic collapse during the XNUMXs and were an extremely important catalyst for perestroika.

  8. Your article is beautiful and interesting as usual.
    But if I'm not mistaken, the idea was to confuse the Soviets and show how much money the US is still able to continue investing in development - something the Soviets didn't have. The war was actually economic and the "space war" field was a trick to scare the Soviets. Today it is known that it was a catalyst that caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate.

  9. Cool…
    I'm in favor of focused initiatives - maybe less warlike, but at least those that focus efforts on current needs...
    For example, alternative energies or food production...
    If they had concentrated all the knowledge in the field with a lot of financial investment.. we might have been there already..

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