Soviet Star Wars
The launch that saved the world from orbiting laser battle stations.
- By Dwayne A. Day and Robert G. Kennedy III
- Air & Space magazine, January 2010
Background: www.buran-energia.com; Foreground: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
(Page 2 of 5)
Reagan was taken with the idea, and three years later, in a televised speech on national security, he announced a plan to build a defensive shield to "make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete," essentially changing the nation's strategic posture from offense to defense. The proposal was immediately attacked by Democrats in Congress, who called it unworkable; it was the late Senator Ted Kennedy who tagged it with the moniker "Star Wars." Despite the skeptics, funding for missile defense increased dramatically, and reached nearly $3 billion a year by 1986.
As prominent planetary scientist and Gorbachev advisor Roald Sagdeev wrote in his 1994 memoir The Making of a Soviet Scientist, "If Americans oversold [the Strategic Defense Initiative], we Russians overbought it." In the summer after Reagan's Star Wars speech, Under Secretary of Defense Fred Iklé requested a CIA study on how the Soviets might respond. The work fell to three analysts, including Allen Thomson, a senior analyst working for the CIA's Office of Scientific and Weapons Research. Thomson had studied other Soviet military research programs, including efforts to develop directed-energy weapons and sensors for space-based submarine detection.
He recalls: "The resulting study basically said that both politically and technically, the Soviets had a very wide range of options for responding to foreseeable U.S. SDI developments." They could build more ICBMs, try to thwart the American missile shield, or attempt to drum up international opposition to the American plan. "There was some recognition that the USSR might be financially strapped if it had to initiate new major weapons systems. But there was no indication that it would be unable to respond," Thomson says.
In fact, Reagan's SDI served as an instant kick in the pants for the Soviet space weapons program, giving the aerospace design bureaus the ammunition they needed to persuade the Politburo to increase funding for Polyus and Kaskad. Both projects had been simmering at the Salyut (now Khrunichev) bureau within Energia, and experiments with high-powered lasers for anti-missile work had been under way since 1981. So far the work had been confined to the laboratory, however. Now, in the wake of Reagan's speech, the rubles started flowing for actual flight hardware. The motive wasn't so much fear that the SDI might prevent Soviet missiles from reaching their targets, but something more ominous, and weirder: a conviction that the Americans were about to set up battle stations in space.
Paranoid fantasies weren't uncommon among senior Soviet generals, according to Peter Westwick, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has written about science during the cold war. "They thought that maybe the [U.S.] space shuttle was going to be doing shallow dives into the atmosphere and deploying hydrogen bombs," he says.
Siddiqi elaborates on how the Soviets misinterpreted U.S. intentions for the space shuttle: "To the Soviets, the shuttle was the big thing. It was a sign to them that the Americans were about to move war into space." The official U.S. explanation was that the spaceplane, which debuted in 1981, was to provide routine access to orbit. By the mid-1980s, however, it was also being used to launch classified military satellites (see "Secret Space Shuttles," Aug. 2009). "The shuttle really scared the Soviets big-time because they couldn't figure why you would need a vehicle like that, one that made no economic sense," Siddiqi explains. "So they figured that there must be some unstated military rationale for the vehicle—for example, to deliver and recover large space-based weapons platforms, or to bomb Moscow." The Soviets responded to the perceived threat by building their own space shuttle, a near-exact copy of NASA's, which made a single flight and was then retired in 1993 (see "White Elephant," Dec. 2002/Jan. 2003).
Shortly after Reagan's speech, the Soviet Academy of Sciences was asked to assess whether a space-based missile shield was feasible. Evgeny Velikhov, a prominent physicist, led the study group. Their conclusion, says Westwick, was " ‘We looked at it, we studied it, we determined that it wouldn't work.' " But other Soviet scientists were more alarmist, and succeeded in convincing military and political leaders that even if the SDI wasn't an effective missile shield, it could be used offensively, to hit targets on the ground.
The idea of orbiting lasers shooting at Soviet territory was truly terrifying. According to Westwick, the theories that floated through the Kremlin about the real purpose of the SDI got batty: "Selective political assassination. Say the Politburo is standing outside on May Day and a single laser could take them all out…. These things are overhead, they're invisible, but with zero warning they could zap you."