Historic blunders

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative was intended to save the world - well, the American bit - from the madness of mutually assured destruction. That was until most people realised that the scheme was just as bonkers as what it was intended to replace.

SDI was launched with a flourish by President Reagan in 1983. It became known as Star Wars, to the annoyance of George Lucas, director of the movie classic. He sued to stop the press using the nickname, but lost. In other respects, though, he was the winner.

Lucas's Star Wars, the first film to take more than $400 million at the US box office, was a hit. Ronnie's Star Wars, a shield in space to protect Americans from Soviet missiles, cost at least $55 billion in its first 15 years. It was an astronomical flop.

Thousands of scientists refused to work on this "fraudulent and dangerous" programme. The Soviets were upset, believing that nuclear war was imminent.

Perhaps neither group should have worried. SDI failed to meet virtually every goal it had been set. Much of its armoury - X-ray lasers, rail guns, space-based radars, and particle-beam weapons - simply did not happen. This did not stop the army which, according to the New York Times, rigged a key test in 1984 so that a target missile would blow up whether or not it was taken out by a Star Wars weapon. Results continued to be abysmal. A "hit-to-kill" vehicle failed seven of its nine tests in the 1990s. And a "theatre high altitude area defence" missile failed five tests in a row. Strategic experts concluded that the first four years of Star Wars resulted merely in learning what did not work.

The end of the Cold War saw Congress won over by critics of this "expensive folly". They slashed its budget, but the "gold-plated rat hole", as one newspaper editor called it, refused to die. Even Bill Clinton did not give it up entirely and, of course, George W Bush is an enthusiast. Perhaps Reagan will send him a message of support. Something along the lines of "May the force be with you."

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