For almost the entire Cold War, America and the Soviet Union had relied on ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (Mad) to protect themselves from a nuclear attack from the other.
The theory went along the following lines: “You have nuclear weapons. So do I. If you use your nukes against me, I’ll use mine against you. So, let’s neither of us use them.” That works just fine – until somebody does use them.
And it wouldn’t be just the combatants whose destruction would be assured. You could pretty much kiss the entire planet goodbye. So, as a survival policy, relying on everybody to keep their cool isn’t exactly a good one.
Take the infamous false alarm incident of September 1983. Russian lieutenant-colonel Stanislav Petrov had expected another boring day at the office. His job was to keep a look out for incoming American intercontinental ballistic missiles.
That day was to be anything but quiet. All of a sudden, he was presented with flashing screens and wailing sirens. “Nuclear warheads on the way”, screamed the Soviet Union’s early warning system.
Luckily for you and me, Petrov decided it was a glitch. He was supposed to have sounded the alarm immediately. A nuclear missile would have taken only 12 minutes to reach Moscow. As it was, World War Three was avoided and Petrov was sacked.
That incident alone underscored the fragility of the nuclear deterrent idea. And US president, Ronald Reagan, thought so too. That’s why in a speech on 23 March 1983 – just six months before Petrov arrived for work – he announced the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI).
Gleefully dubbed “Star Wars” by the press, the idea was to construct a defensive system capable of destroying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in space before they could re-enter the atmosphere and hit their target.
The Soviets, however, didn’t see it that way. The United States, they feared, was trying to gain a knock-out advantage that would render them vulnerable to attack. No weapon is ever purely defensive after all. Nor did it help that Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as ‘the Evil Empire’.
The Soviet Union responded by researching a similar system of its own, but, ironically, the massive costs contributed to its own downfall in 1991.
With no clear enemy, President George HW Bush downgraded the plans to ‘national missile defence’ (NMD) – home and shorter-ranged defence. The Congressional Budget Office reckoned that NMD would cost around $29.5bn between 1996 and this year.
As for satellites shooting down nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in the 1980s, that was always going to be more Star Wars than feasible reality.