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Know the Facts About SDI

by Maj. Gen. Robert Rankine

The 4 March 1988 issue of the Astro News—the Los Angeles Air Force Base newsletter—featured an article by Space Division Vice-Commander Maj. Gen. Robert Rankine that described his views on the work being done on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the Air Force personnel at the base.

He felt there were major misunderstandings about the system, he explained how defenses will be better in the future, and told of the benefits of reduced missile effectiveness.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

Misunderstanding about SDI

It is amazing to me that, five years after the president's address, which re-introduced the concept of strategic defense, there is still so much fundamental misunderstanding about the Strategic Defense Initiative. As servicemen and women, or civil service employees of the military, it is important that we understand the rationale for strategic defense so that we can explain it to friends and acquaintances who are not associated as closely with the military as we are. There is need for informed national debate about the merits of strategic defense if we are to reach a sound decision, but the discussions must not be clouded with false information.

The most common misperception is that SDI is an attempt to build a leak-proof defense, an "astrodome" over the United States. "Everyone knows it is not possible to build a perfect defense, and even a few nuclear re-entry vehicles leaking through would be devastating," is the argument often heard. That argument misses the point. The principal purpose of strategic defenses would be to enhance the deterrence of nuclear war so it does not occur. The best way to save lives is not to have a nuclear war in the first place. Remember, you and I are in the war-prevention business. If defenses against ballistic missiles can contribute to the prevention of nuclear war, then we should pursue the development of such defenses. Right now our strategy for providing deterrence is entirely offensive.

Imagine the future

In order to visualize how defenses might potentially contribute to increased deterrence, imagine a time in the future when defenses are deployed. These defenses are designed to intercept ballistic missiles of all types, whether their targets are military or civilian. They aren't perfect, but they are sufficiently effective so that an enemy contemplating a nuclear attack will realize that he cannot accomplish his war aims—the defenses confound his targeting strategy. A few warheads leaking through at random, undeterminable locations can accomplish no specific military objectives; hence, the incentive to initiate the first nuclear strike is essentially eliminated. Under such circumstances, the nuclear-armed ballistic missile ceases to be a useful instrument for achieving national policy objectives by military means.

Although the defensive system need not be perfect to enhance deterrence, it must meet three important criteria.

Providing for cost-effective and survivable defense is the key challenge to the SDI technology program and illustrates the need for research before an informed decision to begin system development is possible.

Some of the opponents of SDI have argued that the research and technology program currently underway is inconsistent with the ABM treaty and conflicts with arms control in general. Quite to the contrary, the initiative is totally consistent with current U.S. ABM treaty obligations. The initiative contemplates only research and experimentation on a broad range of defensive technologies to provide the basis for a decision in the future whether or not to develop systems, which would provide an effective ballistic missile defense capability.

Decreased value of missiles

In the future, effective defenses have the potential of decreasing the value of ballistic missiles as instruments of national strategy, thereby facilitating negotiated mutual reductions in those ballistic missiles. Negotiated reductions in offensive forces, in turn, will enhance the effectiveness of the defenses; hence, we have created a defensive spiral in which both parties would be more willing to negotiate further reduction. Thus defenses couple synergistically with arms control leading to attainment of the ultimate goal stated by the president, to eliminate the threat posed by nuclear ballistic missiles.

Defenses also facilitate arms reduction agreements by lessening the regrets of undetected violations. With today's total reliance on retaliation for deterrence, a mutual U.S.-Soviet reduction in ballistic missiles to sharply lower levels would leave each side more vulnerable to the risk of cheating. That is, the lower the agreed level of arms, the greater the danger that concealed deployments could be of a magnitude to threaten the other side's forces. But, with effective defenses in place, so many illegal missiles would be required to upset the strategic balance, that significant cheating could not be concealed. Therefore, defenses provide an environment in which significant reductions in ballistic missiles can be negotiated without fear of unobserved cheating.

Finally, it is important for you to be aware of the Air Force's attitude toward SDI. The Air Force fully supports the need for SDI. Furthermore, most SDI space technologies and systems are relevant to Air Force needs; hence, there would be no "funding dividend" from cancellation of the SDI program since the Air Force-executed portion would be likely to continue in order to meet Air Force requirements for ballistic missile attack warning, space surveillance and space control.


For those of you who took the time to read this column, I appreciate it. Perhaps you are now better prepared to discuss this important program with others. You will be better representatives of your profession if you take the time to understand complex national security issues like SDI, which affect the future of the United States and the world.

Defend with honor

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Federation of American Scientists articles on Strategic Defense Initiative

History of the Missile Defense Organization - U.S. Department of Defense

SDI History Resources


(Notice: The School for Champions may earn commissions from book purchases)

Secret Weapons of the Cold War: From the H-Bomb to SDI by William Yenne; Berkley (2005) $7.99

US Strategic And Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, Chris Taylor; Osprey Books (2005) $16.95

Top-rated books on Missle Defense


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