Reagan's 'Star Wars' and Trump’s Space Force

March 14, 2019 18:25
Donald Trump displays the "Space Policy Directive 4" after signing an order on Feb. 19 to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces. Photo: Reuters

Despite being flamboyant and boastful, US President Donald Trump has a very strong ability to set the agenda on key topics.

A year ago, Trump floated the idea of a “space force” as a new military branch under the Pentagon, and pointed out that the outer space will become the new battleground in the coming days.

I believe the ongoing Sino-US technology rivalry, which is being carried out in the name of a “trade war”, is likely to extend into the field of space technology very soon, which reminds me of the famous “Star Wars” program initiated by former US leader Ronald Reagan during the Cold War era.

Dubbed Star Wars, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a space-based anti-missile system proposed by Reagan in 1983 with a view to protecting US soil from potential military threats from the former Soviet Union.

Over the years, the prevailing view among conventional scholars is that the SDI was nothing more than a hoax intended to bluff the Soviet Union into committing itself to an endless arms race in order to drain its resources and bring down the entire Communist bloc.

As such, for decades Reagan has often been hailed as the genius behind ending the Cold War.

The key components of the SDI—anti-ballistic missiles including laser weapons and the electromagnetic weapons, proposed in the SDI—were largely deemed technologically impossible at the time when they were first proposed, but have since come of age in recent years, thanks to the Pentagon’s trillion US dollar investment in developing the new technologies over the years.

The fact that the Unite States has poured an immense amount of resources into developing these cutting-edge technologies suggests that the SDI wasn’t entirely a hoax, because Washington at least has tried its very best in pulling it off.

And that automatically begs the question: what was Reagan actually thinking when he put forward this highly ambitious military program?

According to the 2000 bestseller "Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War" from prominent American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Frances FitzGerald, the SDI was definitely not a deliberate scam.

Nor was it a carefully perpetrated trap aimed to lure the Soviet Union into a new round of money-guzzling arms race that would eventually bleed it white as previously suggested by many historians.

Instead, FitzGerald, who had access to a lot of first-hand investigation and studies when she wrote the book, concluded that the Reagan administration did mean business when it proposed the SDI.

Moreover, she pointed out that the SDI was indeed fully consistent with the American outlook on history and religion.

For generations since the country’s independence, many Americans have remained firm believers in the so-called “American Exceptionalism” and the “Manifest Destiny”.

Under this set of deep-seated doctrines, they are convinced that the American people are chosen by God, which explains why the US has a unique and definite geographical advantage over other great powers, i.e. it is isolated and protected by the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald said, as the Soviet Union was developing and deploying nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at a jaw-dropping pace at the height of the Cold War, such a centuries-old “civic religion” embraced by the American people had come under serious threat.

It is because the unparalleled striking distance of the ICBMs means that the US could no longer rely on the Pacific and the Atlantic as natural geographical barriers against foreign aggression.

Meanwhile, according to the account of New York Times journalist William Broad, physicist and leading SDI advocate Dr. Edward Teller once stressed that the conquest of the entire world by the Soviet Union would be inevitable if Moscow succeeded in building its own hi-tech military defense system while Washington didn’t.

Therefore, Teller argued, the US must also establish its own missile defense system in the face of imminent Soviet threat. It is against such a background that Reagan started calling the Soviet Union an “an evil empire” and proposed the SDI.

In other words, as suggested by Fitzgerald, Reagan was indeed sincere in his hope of neutralizing Soviet military threat once and for all through the use of state-of-the-art technologies.

Yet, there is also the objective truth that the SDI did play some part in draining the Soviet Union of its resources and eventually leading to its fall in 1991.

That gets me thinking: when Trump announced the formation of the US space force, was he just trying to set an agenda and drain China of its resources, or was he really determined to mount a space arms race against Beijing?

Judging from the experience of Reagan’s SDI, perhaps my questions are a bit redundant because the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal