WASHINGTON — It seems like Donald Trump wants to bring back “Star Wars.” No, not the movie — the Strategic Defense Initiative of the Reagan era that relied on a space-based, anti-missile defense system. It didn’t work well more than three decades ago. And it won’t work at all now.
Indeed, throughout its checkered history, the implementation of the SDI as a response to enemy missile buildups has only led to the least effective results — more missiles, less stability, ever greater chances of another step toward an unthinkable third world war.
Word has begun spreading in Washington that Michael Griffin, now 69, and a principal architect of Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, is back in the Pentagon as “undersecretary of defense for research and engineering”– effectively the chief technology officer for the Defense Department. Though Griffin acknowledges any workable space defense may still be years in the future, he’s hoping to revive his dream that has now become Trump’s as well. And the world’s nightmare.
This project of a space-based anti-missile system also seems to have become linked with Space Force — a new branch of the military, alongside the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, that Trump has ordered to be created without any of the congressional action to enable it. The incentive is not dissimilar to the one that so motivated President Ronald Reagan. “We have renewed great power competition,” Griffin told The Washington Post. “Well, great powers regrettably aim missiles at one another.”
Regrettably, perhaps. But so far the world has largely managed to avoid going from targeting or aiming to actually launching any such weapons of mass destruction. Any number of international agreements have helped to preserve this uneasy peace, each more or less observed and negotiated in conference rooms and not at gunpoint. Somehow we must manage to negotiate again if we are to preserve the peace and not return to escalating and ever more sophisticated weapons development.
At the time Reagan’s SDI was first proposed, there were only two major nuclear arsenals in the world — those of the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side believed it had sufficient destructive power to deter the other side from launching its missiles first. They would most certainly be obliterated by a second strike from a wounded, but hardly out of commission, enemy. It was a doctrine known as mutually assured destruction, or MAD.
Then along came SDI — an anti-missile system that promised to knock out any Soviet capability with impunity. The Kremlin knew it had nothing near the capacity or resources to counter it. So, in October 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev came to the summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, with a unique proposal for Reagan. Each side would destroy its entire nuclear arsenal. But there was one condition. SDI would have to be limited in its pace of development as well — a gesture, Gorbachev observed, of good faith. Neither side could have any advantage, certainly not one as great as a fully developed SDI.
Reagan refused. And thus evaporated the world’s last and best hope of ridding itself forever of the nuclear curse. Of course there was a trade-off. Reagan’s broad pressure on attempting to spend the Soviet Union out of existence did play an important role in that eventual consequence. Today, there is little hope that such a regime change is Trump’s goal or is even possible.
This is not your grandfather’s Kremlin. Nor is it your grandfather’s Pyongyang, or Tehran for that matter.
The Russian military machine has already debuted a so-called hypersonic missile, which President Vladimir Putin said last month would be deployed in months. This nuclear-armed “Avangard” system, Putin claims, can outrun any anti-missile defense system. “We are improving our attack systems in response to the construction of a missile defense system by the United States. Some of them are already in service, and some will be supplied in the near future,” Putin said, posing a direct challenge.
For the moment, at least, such missiles are intermediate-range weapons threatening Europe. By announcing last month that the United States is pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — the 1987 pact that grew directly out of the failure to achieve a comprehensive treaty in Reykjavik — Trump has added yet another layer of instability.
While the 21st-century Kremlin has the capacity to produce a weapon unlike the 20th-century Kremlin of Gorbachev or his predecessors, Kim Jong Un clearly has the ability to produce an intercontinental weapon unlike any his grandfather or father could have hoped to produce when they ruled from Pyongyang. And despite all Trump’s tweeted denials, there is clear evidence that North Korea is pressing on in building bases that can launch such missiles.
Finally, there is every suggestion that the mullahs in Iran, if and when they are convinced that the American sanctions will not be lifted or effectively circumvented, are quite likely to go full tilt toward their own deliverable nuclear force.
So, unsurprisingly, we are revisiting that ultimately destabilizing face-off that the SDI instigated all those years ago — but this time with a multiplicity of nuclear forces arrayed against the American military with little of unquestionable reliability to defend the homeland. Facing a world of multiple threats, no system, not even a figment of a fevered imagination, can really keep pace. This could lead to a war where no winner would emerge.
Trump must find an intelligent, diplomatic route forward or we could be headed to World War III, having learned none of the 100-year-old lessons of World War I — the conflict billed as “the war to end all wars” before leading to the Second World War barely 20 years later. The difference this time is that tomorrow’s global conflict risks a holocaust of an existential scale on America’s own soil.