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Star Wars Didn’t Matter

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Given the coincidence of “May the Fourth be With You,” and the season finale of The Americans, this is worth a look:

The archival documents also help dispel the notion that the Star Wars program pushed the Soviet Union closer to the brink of an economic collapse. No one would argue that the Soviet economy was in good shape, and military spending was one of the factors dragging it down. But the cost of the arms race was very far down the Soviet leadership’s list of concerns at the time of the Reykjavik summit. Rather, it was the danger of a continuing nuclear buildup that motivated Gorbachev and his advisers to seek negotiated weapons reductions. While the Soviet Union did have a plan to respond to SDI with a similar program of its own, the documents show that work on that plan wound down long before the Soviet leaders came to appreciate the expense associated with missile defense.

US missile defense was never really an effective economic stressor on the Soviets — according to their estimates, technical counter-measures to defeat missile defenses would have cost no more than five percent of their SDI-like program. With these estimates in hand by the summer of 1987, the Soviet leadership felt confident that it could drop its opposition to Star Wars and go ahead with treaty negotiations and later disarmament talks. Although SDI remained a contentious political issue for many more years, the documents show that the Soviets did not believe it posed a danger to their nuclear forces, even after significant reductions in their arsenal.

Finally, the Soviet documents very clearly demonstrate the fallacy of the “dissuasion” argument advanced by American missile defense proponents. One of the ideas that emerged from the Star Wars debate and still circulates involves introducing uncertainty into calculations about the potential effectiveness of ballistic missiles. By creating such uncertainty, this argument goes, SDI demonstrated to the Russians that investing in missiles was futile. Instead, Star Wars had exactly the opposite effect. Far from being dissuaded from investing in missiles, the Soviet Union launched a number of projects in the mid-1980s that were designed to build new and better intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would be able to counter an SDI-like system.

I’m not sure that there’s any defense program in modern history that’s founded more on fantasy and falsehood than BMD. The critical scene in The Americans was perfect:

It is incredible. From the Latin, ‘incredibilis.’ ‘In’ meaning ‘not.’ “Credibili’ meaning … The technology, it’s ‘incredibilis.’ At best, it’s 50 years from being even remotely operational. The whole thing’s a fantasy.

Incidentally, The Americans is so much better than Homeland that it’s no longer useful to compare the two. Noah Emmerich is the real star, playing an FBI agent that plausibly resembles in attitude and mannerism actual, human employees of the FBI.

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