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Iron Dome, “Star Wars” and Me

I can’t remember where, but in one of the good number of articles that have appeared in the last few days extolling the success of Israel’s Iron Dome short-range missile interceptor system, I saw someone make a comment to the effect that, somewhere, Ronald Reagan was smiling.  I know the feeling.

I became aware of what would eventually become Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”) in the late 1970s from an article in Aviation Week and Space Technology (known by military tech geeks like me as “AvWeek” or, more cynically, “AvLeak“).  I was an undergraduate college student studying Chinese in a program that had been famous (or to some, infamous) as a conveyor belt feeding young recruits into the State Department and various intelligence agencies.  I was also the son of an aerospace engineer that had been raised reading my dad’s week-old copies of AvWeek throughout the 1960s — a kid who had followed the space program the way other kids followed professional football, and who knew the names and biographies of astronauts and cosmonauts the way other kids knew the backgrounds of their favorite quarterbacks and wide receivers.  And I was just as interested in military aerospace technology: By the time I was eight or nine years old, I could instantly recognize every military aircraft and missile on both sides of the Cold War.

So I was electrified by the article in AvWeek that described the basic outline of ballistic missile defense as it was being conceived in the late 1970s: swiftly developing sensor and computing technology (“command, control, communications and intelligence” or “3CI technology,” as it was known) was making it possible to begin to think about actual systems that could change the balance of terror that had been in place since the development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The implications were enormous and obvious, even to me.  I knew that the technical challenges would be great and that it would take years to bring effective ballistic missile defense to the level of practical utility.  But the payoff seemed well worth the effort to me.

Not long after I read that article in AvWeek, a senior academic and “policy wonk” specializing in Soviet history and affairs spoke at a seminar at my school.  After the seminar, the participants made themselves available to the eager young students in attendance.  I approached this fellow and excitedly asked him whether he’d seen the article in Aviation Week and, if so, what he thought about it.  He hadn’t, so I told him about it — in hindsight, I’m sure I seemed like a feverish young idiot.  “A fantasy … science fiction,” he responded, when I had finished describing the idea of space-based interceptors that was the centerpiece of the ideas the article had contained.

Crestfallen and embarrassed, I withdrew.  Months passed, and any chance that I might have had a career in government straight out of school fell victim to the fact that I graduated when Jimmy Carter was president.  It’s a long story of interest only to me, but my trajectory toward government service was derailed when I encountered a defense and intelligence establishment under Carter that was not, shall I say, welcoming to my ideas and values.

But I didn’t forget the idea of ballistic missile defense. Reagan became president.  By then, the path of my life had moved on, and I watched the changes in defense policy as only an interested outside observer.  Once again, I was thrilled to the core when Reagan announced that his administration would pursue what he called SDI as a basic strategic policy.  Naturally, the more “realistic” mainstream media — who despised Reagan and characterized him as an idiot — lambasted the idea.  “Star Wars,” they called it.  Although there was a critique of SDI worth considering — that it was destabilizing and could actually increase the chance of nuclear war — the more common criticism one heard was that it wasn’t technologically feasible.  In between was an idea that, while SDI might work, it was uneconomical, since it would always cost more to intercept and destroy an incoming warhead than it would to build another attacking missile.  But Reagan and his administration ignored the critics and poured enormous resources into a project that, in hindsight, may turn out to have been as important as the Manhattan Project.

A few months after Reagan’s famous SDI speech, I was watching one of the Sunday afternoon talking-head shows and who should I see but the academic I’d buttonholed after the seminar some years before.  He had just returned to academia after having served for a couple of years in the Reagan administration.  And what was the subject of discussion?  Why, ballistic missile defense!  This fellow was being confronted by critics of the SDI program, who were liberally (pun intended) using the pejorative “Star Wars” term to label SDI as “fantasy” and “science fiction.”  Imagine my pleasure when the response came that, in fact, the basic concept was technically feasible and that it was worth pursuing.  I couldn’t help but think that the fellow I’d confronted some years before had had the chance to see the same technical studies Reagan had, and had concluded that the goal of intercepting ballistic missiles and their warheads — “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” as it was said — was not only achievable but that the result of that achievement would be a change in the military balance that would free us from the terrible prospect of nuclear Armageddon.

That was thirty years ago.  During that thirty years, the people who have been working on missile defense have made amazing progress.  The basic missile defense 3CI technology that has been painstakingly developed over the last three decades is what has made Iron Dome possible.  As more than a few people have pointed out since Hamas has started firing volleys of rockets from Gaza, Iron Dome’s success has actually made it possible for Israel to forego a ground invasion — at least for now.  Were it not for the successful interception of the vast majority of Hamas’ rockets, Israel would have had no choice but to send hundreds of tanks and tens of thousands of troops into the rat’s nest of Gaza to hunt out the rocket launching and storehouse sites on a retail level.  Some of the same 3CI technology that was pushed forward by SDI has also enabled the drones that attack Hamas’ launching sites to identify, target and destroy them within minutes or even seconds of each launch.

I’m reminded of a scene in the old BBC Masterpiece Theater series about Henry Tudor, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  I can’t find a citation, but I think it’s a dinner scene at the Boleyn house, when Henry is becoming infatuated with Anne.  The subject of conversation is the relatively new technology of infantry firearms and the impact it may have on the role of the traditional English bowman in warfare.  As I recall it, Henry holds forth in response that while guns have their place, nothing will ever supplant the longbowman as the foundation of England’s military power on land.

Whether that conversation ever really took place or not, soon thereafter, the firearm indeed replaced the longbow, and gunpowder artillery became the “King of Battle.”  That King, and it’s offspring, the ballistic missile (short, medium and long range), have reigned supreme for almost five centuries.  Now, even the doubters who sneered at Ronald Regan’s “Star Wars fantasy” can see that the long rule of the ballistic weapon may well be coming to an end.

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One Comment on “Iron Dome, “Star Wars” and Me”

  1. […] few days ago I posted about my own personal early exposure to missile defense, and how that technology is now on the verge of bringing about a truly revolutionary change at […]


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