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peter j.


Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response

to SDI*
The Reykjavik Summit between the United States and the Soviet Union in
October 1986 presented one of the more dramatic tableaux of the Cold War.
The meeting between President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail
Gorbachev, arranged on short notice to discuss arms control, developed into a
dizzying exchange of proposals for dramatic cuts in nuclear arsenals, but in the
end produced no agreement. Both sides perceived that an extraordinary opportunity to abolish nuclear weapons had appeared and then been lost; at the nal
press briengs the participants faces conveyed deep disappointment, in some
cases verging on tears. The negotiations broke down over the denition of one
word, laboratory, which will not surprise anyone familiar with recent scholarship in the history of science. The Soviets wanted to conne missile defense to
the laboratorythat is, to researchwhereas the United States wanted to test
and eventually deploy its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Reagans proposed
missile defense shield. For questions such as thiswhere exactly does the laboratory end, and the outside world begin?the history of science meets diplomatic history, and the story of SDI suggests the need for research at this
SDI has received few historical treatments. What literature exists provides
the view from the White House, focusing especially on President Reagan, and

*This research was supported by an Olin Fellowship in International Security Studies, Yale
University, and by the National Science Foundation. I thank John Gaddis, Charles Hill, David
Holloway, Paul Kennedy, Daniel Kevles, John Krige, William Odom, Pavel Podvig, and Ethan
Pollock for suggestions and conversations; Richard Garwin for access to his les; and the
National Academy of Sciences for permission to cite CISAC documents from Garwins papers.
Abbreviations in the notes: Bethe: Hans Bethe Papers, Cornell University Archives; Garwin:
Richard Garwin personal les, IBM Thomas J. Watson Laboratory, Yorktown, New York;
RR/SDI: SDI Collection, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California; Teller:
Edward Teller Papers, Hoover Institution Archives; Townes: Charles Townes Papers, Library
of Congress. Citations follow the form: (source, box/folder).
1. Historians of science and technology have recently renewed attention to this subject.
See, for example, John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth, Global Power Knowledge: Science and
Technology in International Affairs, vol. 21, Osiris (Chicago, 2006). For an introduction to recent
literature on laboratories, see the special issue of Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological
Sciences 32, no. 1 (2001); for a different perspective, see Robert E. Kohler, Landscapes and
Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (Chicago, 2002).
Diplomatic History, Vol. 32, No. 5 (November 2008). 2008 The Society for Historians of
American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street,
Malden, MA, 02148, USA and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.


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neglects the science and technology involved.2 For a program consisting of very
high technology, literally, this political focus distorts the picture. This essay aims
to integrate the science and technology with the diplomatic and political history
of SDI, for several reasons. First, because the idea did not just pop out of
Reagans head, but rather derived from decades of R&D that persuaded many
people, besides Reagan, of the possibilities.3 Second, because its evolution
depended on technical developments that constrained the strategy and policy. If
one looks closely at earlier changes in nuclear strategy, one sees the crucial but
subtle role of technology: for example, the shift from countercity to counterforce targeting derived as much from developments in inertial guidance,
geodesy, and reconnaissance satellites as from new political and military considerations.4 Third, because SDI had extensive impact on American science
and technology, with legacies in institutions, disciplines, and technologies that
shaped strategic options far beyond the program itself.
Including science and technology in the history of SDI also yields fresh
insight into a basic historical question: why did the Soviets react so strongly to
SDI? From right after Reagan announced the initiative in March 1983, they
harped on it at every opportunity. Their negotiating positions reected their
xation, as they persisted in linking arms control talks to constraints on SDI.
They did so even though Soviet scientists quickly pointed out that SDI would be
very costly and difcult, and likely circumvented through countermeasures such
as spinning missiles or fast-burn boosters, launching decoy missiles and warheads, or emphasizing cruise missiles.5 If SDI would not work, why not sit back
and let Americans indulge their expensive folly?
Soviet leaders recognized the dangers of overreaction to SDI. Anatoly
Chernyaev, a Gorbachev adviser, in May 1985 complained to his diary that
weve shortsightedly become xated on the U.S.s military space research
programs, making their termination a condition for success in Geneva. Theyve
driven us into a corner here. At a meeting on the nuclear moratorium in March
2. Francis FitzGerald, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold
War (New York, 2000); Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
(New York, 2005). Among the many contemporary discussions of SDI, William Broad framed
the principal scientic view, although with the result of an exclusive focus on the Livermore
weapons lab. See William J. Broad, Star Warriors: A Penetrating Look into the Lives of the Young
Scientists behind Our Space Age Weaponry (New York, 1985) and Tellers War: The Top-Secret Story
behind the Star Wars Deception (New York, 1992). Nigel Hey, The Star Wars Enigma: Behind the
Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense (Washington, DC, 2006), does discuss some of the
technical program, more so for Soviet lasers.
3. Donald R. Baucom, The Origins of SDI, 19441983 (Lawrence, KS, 1992).
4. Donald Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance
(Cambridge, MA, 1990); John Cloud, Hidden in Plain Sight: Corona and the Clandestine
Geography of the Cold War (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2000);
William E. Burrows, Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security (New York, 1986); Curtis
Peebles, The Corona Project: Americas First Spy Satellites (Annapolis, MD, 1997).
5. Committee of Soviet Scientists for Peace against the Nuclear Threat, The Large-Scale
Anti-Missile System and International Security (Moscow, 1986; originally published in Russian,
1984); Evgeni Velikhov interview, 3 October 2006.

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 957

1986, Gorbachev asked, Maybe we shouldnt be so afraid of SDI? Of course we

cannot just disregard this dangerous program. But we should overcome our
obsession with it. But Gorbachev and his advisers seemed helpless to stop their
obsession. As Soviet scientist Roald Sagdeev put it: If Americans oversold SDI,
we Russians overbought it.6 One might say the Soviet response was just propaganda aimed at Western audiences. But from a diplomatic point of view, the
Soviet xation on SDI only increased American negotiating leverage and solidied SDIs utility as vaporware.7
Contemporary analyses from scholars in the West suggested several reasons
for the Soviet response.8 One explanation was found in strategic calculations: if
one side had an even partially effective missile defense, it might be encouraged
to launch a rst strike, because the defense could mop up any retaliatory missiles
that survived the initial attack. Another reason was Soviet faith in American
technical ingenuity. From the atomic bomb to cruise missiles, the United States
had continued to produce new technologies, and SDI might just be another
one.9 There was also a sense of betrayal: after rst viewing missile defense as a
moral solution to the problem of nuclear weapons in the 1960s, the Soviets had
accepted American arguments on deterrence and signed the Anti-Ballistic
Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which limited missile defense systemsonly to
see the United States turn around a decade later and reject deterrence for
defense. The main explanation, however, for what one commentator called the
paradoxical Soviet responsenamely, the intense criticism even while Soviets
recognized ways to circumvent SDI defenseswas prestige: the Soviets had
long felt that they had earned strategic parity in 1945, only to see it snatched
from their grasp by the atomic bomb. Now, having restored parity through great
national sacrices, they found the United States again threatening to undermine
it and hence threatening their international status as a superpower.10

6. Anatoly S. Chernyaev, My Six Years with Gorbachev, trans. Robert D. English and
Elizabeth Tucker (University Park, PA, 2000), 32, 56; Roald V. Sagdeev, The Making of a Soviet
Scientist: My Adventures in Nuclear Fusion and Space from Stalin to Star Wars (New York, 1994),
273; see also Anatoly Dobrynin, In Condence: Moscows Ambassador to Americas Six Cold War
Presidents (19621986) (New York, 1995), 591.
7. Vaporware is not hardware or software, but rather something that does not exist but can
still be bargained withwhat George Shultz referred to as giving them the sleeves off our
vest, quoted in Frances FitzGerald, The Poseurs of Missile Defense, New York Times, 4 June
8. David Holloway, The Strategic Defense Initiative and the Soviet Union, Daedalus 114,
no. 3 (1985): 25778; Stephen M. Meyer, Soviet Strategic Programmes and US SDI, Survival
27, no. 6 (1985): 27492; Mary G. FitzGerald, The Soviet Military on SDI, Studies in
Comparative Communism 19, nos. 3/4 (1986): 17791; Benjamin S. Lambeth, The Soviet
Union and the Strategic Defense Initiative: Preliminary Findings and Impressions, RAND
Corporation report N-2482-AF ( June 1986); Bruce Parrott, The Soviet Union and Ballistic
Missile Defense (Boulder, CO, 1987); E. M. Holoboff, The Soviet Response to Star Wars: Past,
Present, and Future (Toronto, 1987).
9. Meyer, Soviet Strategic Programmes; Sagdeev, Soviet Scientist, 213.
10. Meyer, Soviet Strategic Programmes; Parrott, Soviet Union; Holoboff, Soviet Response;
David Holloway, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (New Haven, CT, 1983), 104. Paul Nitze,

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All of these factors no doubt contributed, but there is an additional explanation for the Soviet response. The Soviets did not like to call Reagans initiative
by its ofcial name and instead referred to space-strike weapons. The Soviet
military coined the term explicitly to include space-based devices that could
strike targets on earth, in addition to missiles in ight.11 This was not just
rhetorical propaganda. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of offensive aspects of
SDI, and not just in the usually recognized strategic sense of encouraging a rst
strike with missiles. Rather, they feared a new generation of space-based beam
weapons that could instantly strike targets on Soviet territory at any time.
Although some Soviet scientists doubted this threat, other scientists and
analystswhose belief in space-strike weapons resonated with institutional and
political interestsmanaged to inuence Soviet foreign policy. Hence the
Soviet objections at Reykjavik included the offensive threat of SDI.
The potential offensive uses of SDI technologies and their role in the Soviet
response to SDI have been almost completely ignored on the American side, in
both contemporary public debate and historical accounts.12 Although many
documents on the subject remain classied, the combination of published Soviet
sources and policies, interviews with former Soviet scientists, and American
archival sources illuminates the role offensive SDI technologies played in the
Soviet reaction. These sources also reveal that some American analysts at the
time did recognize both the offensive possibilities and Soviet fears. U.S. foreign
policy in the end discounted offensive uses, but the decision turned on a distinction between capability and intent that the Soviets refused to follow.
The issue matters in two ways. SDI was a crucial piece in the endgame of the
Cold War. Some commentators have credited it with ending the Cold War, by
confronting the Soviets with a new high-tech race they could not win; others
argue that SDI aggravated tensions, undermined Soviet reformers, and prolonged the Cold War.13 This article shows that SDIs unsettling of the Soviets,
who helped negotiate the ABM Treaty, rejected the idea that the treaty represented a common
commitment to deterrence, or anything beyond the treatys specic obligations; see Nitze in
Michael Charlton, Star Wars or Peace-in-the-Skies (II), Encounter (March 1986): 1327.
11. Aleksandr G. Savelyev and Nikolay N. Detinov, The Big Five: Arms Control DecisionMaking in the Soviet Union, trans. Dmitriy Trenin (Westport, CT, 1995), 85, 94n1. A search of
Soviet statements by American analysts saw the space-strike term rst come into use in June
1984, in a proposal to begin talks on space weapons. Lynn Rusten to Wolfgang Panofsky, 12
March 1986 (Garwin, CISAC 6).
12. One exception is Matthew von Bencke, International Identity Crises: Explaining
Soviet and Russian Strategic Defense Policies (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley,
2004), 5458, although von Bencke focuses on antisatellite weapons. See also William E.
Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military (New Haven, CT, 1998), 170.
13. The triumphalist view appears most forcefully in Robert C. McFarlane, Special Trust
(New York, 1994); Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administrations Secret Strategy that
Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York, 1994); and Mira Duric, The Strategic Defence
Initiative: US Policy and the Soviet Union (Aldershot, England, 2003). The contrary view: Georgi
Arbatov, The System: An Insiders Life in Soviet Politics (New York, 1992); FitzGerald, Way Out
There in the Blue; Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the
Cold War (Ithaca, NY, 1999); and, more generally, Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 959

whichever way it led, had a dimension unanticipated and underappreciated by

the United States.14 It suggests further that this issue contributed to greater
continuity in Soviet resistance to SDI than is currently recognized. More generally, this story highlights the intersection of technology and foreign policy, and
the need for scientic experts and diplomats, as well as their historians, to
remain alert to the different meanings that technologies can have in different

the thre at
Soviet space-strike fears derived from technological developments in beam
weapons. SDI was pursuing so-called directed-energy weapons, such as lasers,
beams of neutral or charged particles, and high-power microwaves. The idea to
use a particle beam to destroy an incoming nuclear warhead had been explored
in the United States since at least 1949, and SDI sought to capitalize on advances
in beam and laser power to destroy strategic missiles or warheads in ight.15 The
perceived offensive threat arose from the very high power and precise targeting
that SDI proposed to attain. A space-based, 25 megawatt laser, say, that could
deliver a uence on the order of a kilojoule per square centimeter (1 kJ/cm2) on
an ascending missilearound the low end of capabilities pursued for SDI
might deliver similar energy to a target on the ground, far above the 40 J/cm2
ignition point of common combustibles and at a level certainly sufcient to kill
human beings.16
A particular class of directed-energy devices involved nuclear weapons. SDI
coincided with talk of a quantum jump in nuclear weapons design; designers at
Los Alamos and Livermore, the two main U.S. weapons labs, at the time were
working on so-called third-generation nuclear weapons, which promised a revolutionary leap in military power comparable to that of the rst generationthe
atomic bomb itselfand the second generation, the hydrogen bomb. These new
designs would take a nuclear blast and channel it in particular directions. Instead
of a spherical bomb dispersing its energy in all directions, a properly shaped
explosion could deliver one thousand times the energy per unit area on a
particular targetsomething like the difference between lighting a pile of
gunpowder and shooting a rie. A particular device could also maximize certain
forms of energy, whether microwaves, gamma rays, or other types of radiation;

(Washington, DC, 1994), and Richard K. Herrmann and Richard Ned Lebow, Ending the Cold
War: Interpretations, Causation, and the Study of International Relations (New York, 2004).
14. On SDI unsettling the Russians, see John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the End
of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (Oxford, 1992), 131.
15. On early concepts, see Peter J. Westwick, The National Labs: Science in an American
System, 19471974 (Cambridge, MA, 2003), 14344.
16. Harvey Lynch, Technical Evaluation of Offensive Uses of SDI, working paper of the
Center for International Security and Arms Control, Stanford University, 1987 (Townes,
accession 22,004, 10/NAS-CISAC). For comparison, 40 J/cm2 is about the same uence as that
delivered by a 20 kiloton nuclear warhead at a distance of 2 kilometers.

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the X-ray laser promoted by Edward Teller and Lowell Wood from Livermore
was just one example of such a nuclear-driven device. A Scientic American article
in 1987 by Ted Taylor, a former weapons designer, described this new generation of weapons and sketched out one scenario where a microwave beam,
generated by a 1 kiloton bomb in geosynchronous orbit, could strike an area
bigger than Moscow with enough radiation to fry electronics.17
These new nuclear designs threatened to open a new stage in the nuclear
arms race and helped motivate the Soviet push for a nuclear test moratorium.18
Even if the Soviets accepted that ballistic missile defense enhanced stability,
which they did not, they could not tolerate a revolutionary new class of offensive
weapons in the American arsenal. The effects of all these beam weapons traveled
at or close to the speed of light. To Soviet leaders with an ingrained fear of
surprise attack, instilled in June 1941 and subsequently reinforced by nuclear
bombs and missiles, the prospect of a literal bolt from the blue with a warning
time of only milliseconds would not be a welcome prospect.19 Furthermore,
beam weapons did not t into existing theories of nuclear deterrence. Whereas
existing nuclear weapons were blunt instruments, directed-energy weapons were
surgical. It might be hard to justify launching nuclear weapons at New York
because Moscow got hit by microwaves, and the Soviet strategic deterrent could
be rendered worthless.

t h e soviet resp o n se
Soviet scientists understood the possibilities. They had pursued military laser
systems since the 1960s, including a substantial program called Terra, on highpower lasers for missile defense, under Nikolai Basov, who had shared the Nobel
Prize for conceiving the laser.20 In 1976 the Soviets began a broader research
program on directed-energy and space-based weapons known as Fon; the
program accelerated after 1983 and included possible space-strike devices.21
17. Theodore B. Taylor, Third-Generation Nuclear Weapons, Scientic American (April
1987): 3039. See also Paul S. Brown, Requirements for the Development of Advanced
Nuclear Weapon Concepts, Livermore report UCRL-JC-103507 (15 January 1990), who
notes that as with any weapon, NDEWs [nuclear directed-energy weapons] could be used in
an offensive manner as well as a defensive one. The White House Science Council received
briengs on several third-generation designs the summer before Reagans SDI speech: White
House Science Council, Military Technology Panel (Frieman panel), agenda 23 June 1982
(Townes, accession 22,004, 16/OSTP).
18. CISAC joint meeting with Soviets, minutes, 29 September1 October 1986 (Townes,
accession 22,004, 10/NAS-CISAC); Evgeni Velikhov, Science and Scientists for a NuclearWeapon-Free World, Physics Today (November 1989): 3236.
19. On Soviet fears of surprise attack, see Holloway, Soviet Union and the Arms Race, 1012.
20. P. V. Zarubin, Academician Basov, High-Power Lasers and the Antimissile Defense
Problem, Kvantovaya Elektronika [Quantum Electronics] 32, no. 12 (2002): 104864.
21. D. Tikhanov, Interview with Col. Gen. Yuriy Votintsev, Vecherniy Almata, 23 June
1993, in JPRS-UMA-93-035, 22 September 1993, 89; Col. Gen. Yuriy Votintsev, Unknown
Troops of an Extinct Superpower, Voyenno-Istoricheskiy Zhurnal 9 (1993): 2638, and 11 (1993):
1227; Steven J. Zaloga, Red Star Wars, Janes Intelligence Review 9, no. 5 (1997); Pavel
Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 41820; Hey, The Star

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 961

They also had a strong tradition in plasma physics and were very advanced in
pulsed-power researchthat is, the generation of very strong transient electromagnetic elds.22 This effort included high-power microwave weapons, starting
in the early 1950s and expanding in the mid-1970s, and a plasma weapon for
missile defense.23 American commentators also suspected the Soviets were pursuing nuclear-driven microwave beams, since the concept of a bomb-driven
current generator was rst proposed by Andrei Sakharov in 1966.24 Finally, the
Chelyabinsk nuclear weapons lab was pursuing the X-ray laser, apparently after
leaks to the American press about Livermores early X-ray laser tests in 1981,
and successfully tested it in an underground nuclear explosion in 1987.25
The results of this research persuaded some Soviet scientists that the threat
from SDI was overstated. By 1978, Basov and the Terra project had concluded
that lasers would not work for missile defense, and most Soviet laser experts
similarly dismissed the space-strike possibility.26 Nuclear-weapons scientists,
including leading designers such as Lev Artsimovich and Yuli Khariton, had
likewise long provided a doubtful view of lasers and other missile defense
technologies. Scientists in the relevant elds were well placed to advise Soviet
leaders on the strategic prospects: plasma physicist Evgeni Velikhov was vice
president of the Academy of Sciences and a top scientic adviser to Gorbachev;
Sagdeev, a plasma physicist who now ran the main space science institute, was
another key arms control adviser. Velikhov had chaired a special study for the
Soviet military evaluating the feasibility of SDI technologies immediately after
Reagans speech, which produced a skeptical report.27
Wars Enigma, 4051. The Soviets also used lasers for space tracking; in October 1984, at the
order of Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, a Terra laser was beamed on the U.S. space shuttle
Challenger in orbit, causing malfunctions and eliciting a formal U.S. protest.
22. On plasma physics, see Loren R. Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short
History (Cambridge, England, 1993), 209; see also David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb (New
Haven, CT, 1988), 35862.
23. Simon Kassel, Soviet Development of Gyrotrons, RAND Corporation report
R-3377-ARPA, May 1986; Department of Defense, Soviet Military Power 1983, quoted in Jeff
Hecht, Beam Weapons (New York, 1984), 172; A. Karpenko, ABM and Space Defense, Nevsky
Bastion 4 (1999): 247; Zarubin interview; William T. Lee, The ABM Treaty Charade: A Study in
Elite Illusion and Delusion (Washington, DC, 1997), 86. The plasma weapon used microwaves to
ionize an area of the atmosphere ahead of a missiles trajectory and was pursued for many years
by academician A. Avramenko; after 1991, he proposed that Russia and the United States
collaborate on what he now called Project Doverie, or Trust, with testing to take place at the
U.S. missile defense complex at Kwajalein.
24. Dan Fenstermacher, Arms Race: The Next Generation, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
(March 1991): 2933; Peter Laurie, Exploding the Beam Weapon Myth, New Scientist (26
April 1979): 24850.
25. E. N. Avrorin et al., Review of Theoretical Works on X-Ray Laser Research Performed at RFNC-VNIITF, Laser and Particle Beams 15, no. 1 (1997): 315. The leaks appeared
in Aviation Week, 23 February 1981.
26. Zarubin, Academician Basov, and Zarubin interview, 5 October 2006.
27. Evgeni Velikhov interview, 3 October 2006; Sagdeev interview; Arbatov interview. See
also the criticism of the absurd idea of UHF weapons by ABM designer Grigoriy Kisunko:
ABM Designer Sees Squandering of Resources, Sovetskaya Rossiya, 5 August 1990, FBISSOV-90-151.

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Such advice, however, clashed with the institutional interests of the design
bureaus and ministries building these systems and with other internal political
forces. Some laser advocates were also well placed: a main laser lab, called
Astrozika, was led by Nikolai Ustinov, whose father Dmitri was defense minister until his death at the end of 1984, at which point his son lost his job. The
Soviet missile and space agency, the Ministry of General Machine Building
(MOM), under Oleg Baklanov, in particular was pushing for a vigorous Soviet
space-based program to match the American initiative. Playing up the offensive
potential of SDI technology served Baklanovs bureaucratic interests. At this
time one of MOMs main design bureaus, Energia, was proposing space battle
stations bristling with either kinetic-energy or directed-energy weapons, and
one such station was designed to strike targets on the ground. The ministrys
central analysis institute, a think tank known by the abbreviation TsNIIMash,
was a prime source of what one Soviet laser specialistand skepticcalled the
hotheads who bought into offensive speculations about SDI. One such analyst,
Yuri Ablekov, spun persuasive scenarios of beam-weapon attack based on
research in the Arzamas and Chelyabinsk weapons labs on nuclear-pumped
lasersnot the X-ray laser, but longer-wavelength devices that used nuclear
bombs or reactors to optically pump the lasing material, and whose laser radiation could penetrate the atmosphere.28
These speculations found a receptive audience in certain parts of the Soviet
military, whose strategic doctrine had historically stressed a fundamental link
between offensive and defensive systems.29 In the late 1970s the Soviet General
Staff began writing about a military-technical revolution, in which information technology and precision weapons would allow near-instantaneous engagement at great distances. The revolution would comprise two stages, with the
second including directed-energy weapons, and the result threatened to render
Soviet doctrine obsolete. The main proponent of this view, Nikolai Ogarkov,
was chief of the General Staff until late 1984; although Ogarkov himself does
not seem to have discussed space-strike weapons directly, his writings provided
a theoretical background.30 As one Soviet general put it at a disarmament
28. Peter Zarubin interview, 5 October 2006; Karpenko, ABM and Space Defense;
Sagdeev interview; Projects of Combat Space Complexes, excerpt from RocketCosmnautics Corporation Energia, trans. Maxim Taraskenko (available from http://, accessed 12 August 2008. See also V. N. Mikhaylov,
Why Should the Countrys Nuclear Test Sites Remain Silent? Pravda, 24 October 1990,
reprinted in Mikhaylov, I Am a Hawk (Durham, England, 1996), 8091, on 84. Mikhaylov, a
former Arzamas physicist who would soon become minister of atomic energy for Russia,
warned against the development of the third generation of nuclear weapons or the so called
directed energy weapons. The evil jinn, as he called them, would be capable of killing
strategic targets of an adversary both in outer space and on earth.
29. Holoboff, Soviet Response, 5; Meyer, Soviet Strategic Programmes, 285; Parrott, Soviet
Union, 39; FitzGerald, Soviet Military on SDI, 182.
30. Dale R. Herspring, Nikolay Ogarkov and the Scientic-Technical Revolution in
Soviet Military Affairs, Comparative Strategy 6, no. 1 (1987): 2959; Andrew Krepinevich,
The Military-Technical Revolution: A Preliminary Assessment, Ofce of Net Assessment

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 963

conference in 1986, with space based weapons an attack could come in nanoseconds. Consequently, the Soviet General Staff would have no time to make key
Ogarkovs successor as chief of staff, Sergei Akhromeev, although more of a
skeptic on SDI, likewise sounded the theme of space weapons striking targets on
earth.32 Another general on the staff, Nikolai Chervov, was apparently one of the
main believers. Chervov propagated his suspicion as head of the General Staff s
Department of Negotiations and Law, which helped prepare the nal form of
arms control documents.33 The scare campaign about space-strike weapons
also inuenced the Foreign Ministry, at least until 1985, while Andrei Gromyko
presided as foreign minister. Gromyko generally followed the positions of the
Defense Ministry and KGB, both of which believed the SDI threat, and he
repeatedly denounced SDI as mere camouage for offensive technologies.34
The upshot of all this activity was that Soviet foreign policy perceived a
direct offensive threat from SDI. Their arms negotiators have portrayed the
main Soviet fear of SDI not as the strategic encouragement of an ICBM rst
strike, but rather as the basic possibility of weapons in space, including spaceto-earth weapons.35 These fears appeared right from the start in 1983, when
the Soviets proposed to the United Nations a treaty against the use of force
in outer space and from space against the Earth.36 In 1985 the Soviet delegation to the Nuclear and Space Talks in Geneva had three main instructions:
ban antisatellite weapons, ban space-based missile defense, and ban weapons
designed for hitting targets in the atmosphere and on earth from space. By
that time a wide range of Soviet political leaders, scientists, generals, and the
popular press had sounded off against the direct space-to-earth threat.37
( July 1992), available from; Eliot A. Cohen, A Revolution in
Warfare, Foreign Affairs 75, no. 2 (1996): 3754.
31. Maj. Gen. G. V. Batenin at UN disarmament meeting at Erice, Italy, 2526 April 1986,
quoted in memo (no author; probably Lowell Wood) to Teller, 5 May 1986 (Teller, 139/SDI
[Soviet comment]).
32. In 1985, Akhromeev declared that SDI systems are in fact strike weapons for strikes
against targets that belong to the probable opponent in all spheres, quoted in FitzGerald,
Soviet Military on SDI, 18081.
33. Sagdeev interview, 9 March 2006; Alexei Arbatov interview, 5 October 2006. On the
role of Chervovs department, see Savelyev and Detinov, The Big Five, 60, 185. Chervov
consistently sounded the theme in public of space-based weapons hitting targets on land,
at sea, in the air, and in space: see, for example, Chervov interview on Moscow Studio 9
television, 29 June 1985 ( JPRS-TAC-85-109), 3; interview in Otechestven Front, 4 October
1985 ( JPRS-TAC-85-042), 2; and interview on Moscow television, 3 February 1986 (Arms
Control Reporter, Outer Space II, chronology 1986).
34. Alexei Arbatov interview; on Gromykos following the Defense Ministry and KGB, see
Alexander Bessmertnykh in William C. Wohlforth, ed., Witnesses to the End of the Cold War
(Baltimore, 1996), 128.
35. Savelyev and Detinov, The Big Five, 16465.
36. Proposed Treaty on the Prohibition of the Use of Force in Outer Space and from
Space against the Earth, 19 August 1983.
37. Savelyev and Detinov, The Big Five, 17071. For a chronology of Soviet statements, see
Lynn Rusten to Panofsky, 12 March 1986 (Townes, accession 22,004, 10/NAS-CISAC).

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These statements were not just for public effect: a classied KGB brief on
space weapons included the possibility that SDI was a cover for attacking
ICBM launchers from space and that the space shuttle likewise was designed
to attack ground targets.38
More evidence for these fears came from reports on SDI by the Committee
of Soviet Scientists for Peace against the Nuclear Threat, a joint study group
drawn from foreign-policy, space, and nuclear institutes and chaired by space
scientist Sagdeev and defense analyst Andrei Kokoshin. An early draft report
from 1983 noted that a space-based system
could be designed not only for destroying strategic missiles of the other side
after their launch, but also as a direct weapon of attack, moreover precisely
for dealing a rst strike. This derives from the fact that a space BMD [ballistic
missile defense] system sufciently accurate and powerful enough to destroy
strategic offensive weapons in ight could also be employed for their destruction on the ground, for example, aircraft on airelds, ground-launched cruise
missiles, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their launch positions.
Moreover, . . . space BMD systems could also destroy other land and sea
targets such as C3 [command and control] centers and important economic
The published report the next year devoted one of its six chapters to spacebased weapons knocking out targets on the ground; it noted in particular the
nearly instantaneous transmission of beam weapons, which are especially
effective in a rst strike for blinding the enemys command centers and disrupting his means of communication.39 These reports, which were dismissed
by some on the U.S. side at the time as Soviet propaganda, from the Soviet
side were claimed to be unusually frank and sparked charges that they
revealed state secrets.40
38. N. P. Gribin, American Policy on the Militarisation of Space, 13 February 1985, in
Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations 19751985, ed. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky (London, 1991), 10715. Military use of the space shuttle
to bypass missile-launch warning systems, by deploying nuclear weapons from orbit or from
shallow dives into the atmosphere, was a persistent Soviet concern: see Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin
interview, 4 October 2006; Roald Sagdeev interview, 9 March 2006. Some Americans held the
same fear about Soviet shuttle designs: see James E. Oberg, The Elusive Soviet Space Plane,
Omni, September 1983, 12429, 143.
39. Committee of Soviet Scientists for Peace against the Nuclear Threat, Prospects for
the Creation of a U.S. Space Ballistic Missile Defence System and the Likely Impact on the
World Military Political Situation, 1983 (Bethe, 33/30), and The Large-Scale Anti-Missile
System and International Security, 2428.
40. Andrei A. Kokoshin, Soviet Strategic Thought, 191791 (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 183.
(Kokoshin was coauthor of the reports, and hence had an interest in not admitting to propagandizing.) On American views of the reports as propaganda, see CIA white paper, Soviet
Directed Energy WeaponsPerspectives on Strategic Defense, March 1985 (Digital National
Security Archive), and U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, The Soviet Propaganda
Campaign against the US Strategic Defense Initiative, 1986 (Teller, 139/SDI [Soviet

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 965

Space-strike fears percolated through the military and defense industry to the
top of the Soviet system. Gorbachev spelled them out in a letter to Reagan in
June 198541:
There is also another aspect of the program of strategic defense, which
remains as if in a shadow for the broad public. But not for responsible leaders
and military experts. They talk in Washington about the development of a
large-scale ABM system, but in fact a new strategic offensive weapon is being
developed to be deployed in space. And it is a weapon no less dangerous by
its capabilities than nuclear weapons. What difference does it make, what will
be used in a rst disarming strikeballistic missiles or lasers. If there is a
difference, it is that it will be possible to carry out the rst strike by the new
systems practically instantly.
A year later, at Reykjavik, Gorbachevs objections to SDI cited the potential
offensive use of SDI technologies.

american p e rsp e ct ive s: t h e l at ter -martinelli r eport

As Gorbachevs letter suggested, U.S. policymakers seemed not to recognize
the connection between SDI and new offensive weapons. Third-generation
designs certainly did not match Reagans goal of abolishing nuclear weapons.42
There were good technical reasons as well for neglecting space-to-earth
weapons, in particular the fact that the earths atmosphere blocks many wavelengths of radiation, including X-rays and much of the infrared spectrum. There
were also the severe practical difculties of getting these large devices, some
with extensive fuel supplies and very complex optics, into orbit; providing
enough such satellites to ensure ground coverage; and getting the beams
through the atmosphere and clouds down to the ground.
Nevertheless, some American reports perceived the possibilities, even
before Reagans speech in March 1983 announcing his plan for strategic
defense. A letter from Edward Teller to Reagan in 1982, which helped spark
Reagans interest in missile defense, included the potential of space-based
beam weapons to strike ground targets. As Teller put it, Used against possibly
very large areas of enemy territory from a region of space overhead, the
effects . . . are expected to quite comprehensively devastate both civilian and
military equipment.43 The same year a group of scientists at Argonne
National Laboratory described plans for third-generation weapons and added,
Each of these devices in the new generation is being promoted as a defensive
weapon, although all have the potential to support rst-strike, offensive
41. Gorbachev to Reagan (unofcial translation), 10 June 1985 (RR/SDI, 1/1985).
42. The Department of Energy seems to have appreciated the appearances of taking the
arms race to a new level, by seeking to classify the term third-generation nuclear weapon
itself: see Hecht, Beam Weapons, 132.
43. Teller to Reagan, 23 July 1982 (RR/SDI, 1/1982).

966 : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y

action.44 An interagency intelligence assessment of September 1983 likewise

noted that high energy lasers in orbit conceivably could . . . be used for
attacking unhardened targets on Earth.45 In early 1985 the issue trickled into
the pages of the popular press, with speculation about space-based lasers
engaging in instantaneous, selective assassination or starting res that would,
in the words of one SDI proponent, take an industrialized country back to an
18th-century level in 30 minutes.46
The fullest examination of offensive aspects appeared in 1985, in a report by
two analysts, Albert Latter and Ernest Martinelli, at RDA Logicon. The report
was rmly grounded in the strategic establishment: RDA was a southern California think tank, a spinoff from the RAND Corporations physics department,
and Latter was a long-time defense analyst who had coauthored a book with
Teller downplaying the dangers of radioactivity amid the test-ban debate and
had helped invent the concept of MIRVs (multiple independently targetable
reentry vehicles).47 Latter and Martinelli argued that beam weapons could not
achieve Reagans goal of replacing offense with defense. This surprising possibility, as they put it, results from the fact that the lasers can be employed in
a manner not contemplated by the SDI. Specically, they can be targeted against
the same entities they were designed to protect: the cities. Latter and Martinelli
proceeded to calculate the thermal energy delivered to a particular area on the
ground by a certain number of satellite-based lasers, taking into account such
factors as beam diffraction and atmospheric turbulence. Potential ignition
points for urban res included the clothing of individual human beings. They
worked out the numbers and concluded: Would the cities burn to the ground?
We think the answer is almost certainly yes. A Soviet laser system powerful
enough for missile defense can incinerate our cities without warning on a time
scale of minutes per city; minutes to hours for the whole country. To deter such
an attack, the U.S. could only threaten to retaliate. Far from shifting the basis
for national security from offense to defense, SDI might only replace nuclear
deterrence with beam-weapon deterrence.48

44. Concerned Argonne Scientists, Statement on National-Security Impact of Increased

Nuclear-Weapons Testing, 28 November 1982 (Bethe, 17/43).
45. Interagency Intelligence Assessment, Possible Soviet Response to the US Strategic
Defense Initiative, 12 September 1983, NIC M83-10017 (available from
46. Philip M. Boffey, Dark Side of Star Wars: System Could Also Attack, New York
Times, 7 March 1985. In this article, Teller dismissed the offensive potential of SDI systems. See
also Brad Knickerbocker, Star Wars Defense May Lead to Space-Based Offense, Christian
Science Monitor, 23 January 1985.
47. Albert Latter and Edward Teller, Our Nuclear Future (New York, 1958); Edward Teller,
Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 44345;
Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Stanford, CA, 1983), 36162.
48. Albert A. Latter and Ernest A. Martinelli, SDI: Defense or Retaliation? RDA
Logicon report, 28 May 1985 (Bethe, 20/300).

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 967

This was not a message the Reagan administration wanted to hear. The
report was unclassied and apparently circulated within the strategic community, but it generated no public response. In early 1986 an Air Force colonel
noted that in the national debate over SDI all consideration has focused on
defensive applications, yet the technology which permits SDI is equally
capable of supporting offensive weapons.49 The Latter-Martinelli report did
provoke a rebuttal from the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), which declared,
with qualiers, that the threat to the ground from space-based lasers is probably greatly overestimated.50 Latter and Martinelli stood their ground, backed
up by an analysis by Stanford physicist Harvey Lynch that found the DNA
study seriously awed.51 A subsequent review by the Congressional Research
Service cast some doubt on the potential for laser beams to hit earth from
space with lethal energy, but concluded that most or all of the weapon concepts that do prove feasible could in principle be used either offensively or
Other hawk-eyed observers in the United States perceived the importance of
the new weapons. The Executive Intelligence Review, a journal founded by Lyndon
LaRouche, Jr., dedicated an entire issue in 1988 to the fear that the Soviets were
pressing ahead with revolutionary electromagnetic weapons while the United
States sat idle. These commentators thus outanked the Reagan administration
on the right; while some in the Reagan administration would later argue that the
United States at the time was pushing the Soviets over the economic brink in a
high-tech arms race centered on SDI, the issues editor, amid talk of Soviet
directed-energy advances, bemoaned the contracting economic power of the
United States, signied by the slide into the Second Great Depression following
the nancial crash of Oct. 19, 1987that is, it was the United States, not the

49. Lt. Col. James R. Beale, Morality to Strategy: Perspectives on Offensive Weapons in
Space (Air War College, Maxwell AFB, March 1986), iii.
50. Marvin Atkins to Albert Latter, 7 August 1985, with attached Analysis of SDI:
Defense or Retaliation? (Garwin, CISAC 6).
51. Latter and Martinelli, Comments on DNA Critique of the RDA Report SDI
Defense or Retaliation? 1985 (Garwin, CISAC 6), and H. L. Lynch to le, 5 March 1986,
attached to W. K. H. Panofsky to R. Garwin, R. Muller, and C. Townes, 11 March 1986
(Garwin, CISAC 6). Lynch expanded his short critique into a detailed quantitative analysis of
possible offensive uses against air and ground targets: H. L. Lynch, Technical Evaluation of
Offensive Uses of SDI, working paper of the Center for International Security and Arms
Control, Stanford University, 1987 (Townes, accession 22,004, 10/NAS-CISAC). Lynch also
noted several strategic implications of offensive uses, such as the fact that exhausting laser fuel
on ground targets would leave the attacker open to a nuclear missile barrage.
52. Study Finds that SDI Could Be Offensive Threat to Soviets, Aviation Week and Space
Technology (30 November 1987): 23. Cf. Gregory H. Canavan, Military Uses of Space, Los
Alamos report LA-11344-MS, August 1988, which addressed but discounted the offensive
threat. Yet another study by an Argonne scientist extended the Latter-Martinelli scenario by
suggesting that laser-sparked res could have disastrous climatic effects akin to nuclear winter.
Caroline L. Herzenberg, Nuclear Winter and Strategic Defense Initiative, Physics and Society
15, no. 1 (1986): 25.

968 : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y

Soviet Union, that was losing the economic as well as the high-tech arms race in
This view highlights a contradiction in American justications for SDI, one
noted by Gorbachev in 1985.54 On the one hand, SDI advocates warned that the
Soviets were winning the arms race in directed-energy research; on the other,
they portrayed SDI as a new high-tech competition that the backward Soviets
could not win. Some CIA and Defense Department reports embraced both
views, stressing that the Soviets are now on a par with, or lead, the United
States in most of the directed energy weapons technologies while also citing the
economic pressures SDI might produce.55 If SDI was intended for high-tech
economic competition, however, why did Reagan offer to share SDI technology
with the Soviets?

a merican policy: t h e cisac re p o rt

The offensive potential of space-based weapons consistently appeared as a
revelation in these reports, many of which noted the apparent absence of the
issue from the policy debate. But the combination of American analyses and
persistent Soviet statements had in fact nally caught the attention of U.S.
policymakers. Gorbachevs preoccupation with space-strike weapons at the
Geneva summit in November 1985 made an impression on Secretary of State
George Shultz and, apparently, Reagan, who sent a note to Gorbachev after
the summit mentioning the Soviet concern that SDI could be a cover for
developing and placing offensive weapons in space. Shultz had received a
letter from former Secretary of State Dean Rusk before the summit pointing
out the Soviet fears, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle had
similarly advised that the State Department address the issue. Arms control
adviser Paul Nitze observed to Shultz that the Soviets concern is not entirely
misplaced, citing as an example U.S. studies of a system of high-density metal
rods about the size of telephone poles, the so-called rods from god, which
might be placed in orbit and then directedwith essentially no warning, and
with devastating kinetic energyagainst Soviet missile silos. Nitze concluded,
We need to get at it.56
53. Michael Liebig, ed., Electromagnetic-Effect Weapons: The Technology and Strategic Implications, Executive Intelligence Review special report (Wiesbaden, 1988); Liebig quote from
foreword, on 7.
54. An Interview with Gorbachev, Time, 9 September 1985, 22.
55. Interagency Intelligence Assessment (quote), Possible Soviet Response to the US
Strategic Defense Initiative, 12 September 1983, NIC M83-10017 (
starwars); CIA white paper, Soviet Directed Energy WeaponsPerspectives on Strategic
Defense, March 1985, National Security Archives. An analyst who helped draft the 1983
report has since written that the passage on economic pressures was inserted as boilerplate and
should have been removed, because none of the economic analysts would back it up. See Allen
Thomson, Drafting History, comments available from
56. Reagan to Gorbachev, 28 November 1985 (RR/SDI, 1/1985); George P. Shultz,
Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York, 1993), 689. On Reagans

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 969

To do so, however, the State Department needed to grasp the technical

possibilities. It was stymied in part by secrecy, as the Departments of Defense
and Energy kept it in the dark about classied nuclear and space programs. (In
one infamous brieng, the SDI director questioned whether Shultz had sufcient clearance to hear about certain programs.)57 Also unlike the Departments
of Defense and Energy, the State Department did not maintain its own network
of laboratories or scientic advisory committees, and thus lacked an in-house
source of expert analysis. It now sought to acquire such expertise. The U.S.
National Academy of Sciences in 1979 had created a standing Committee on
International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), which in 1981 began
meeting with a counterpart group from the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The
meetings provided a way to maintain contact with Soviet scientists when tense
relations were otherwise limiting contacts between the two countries.58 In late
1985 the State Department turned to CISAC as a way to get technical advice
into the formulation of foreign policy. A few weeks after the Geneva summit it
arranged a meeting between senior American arms control negotiators and
CISAC, spurred by the fact that four members of the Soviet Academy group
had been sitting at Gorbachevs knee during the summit meetings. Although
Nitze had consulted individual scientists on his own, the National Academy
scientists for their part perceived that the Academy has had no signicant input
to [the] State Department in national security, and the two sides agreed that
CISAC would begin providing regular briengs to the State Department.59
James Timbie from the State Department and Wolfgang Panofsky from
CISAC soon decided on a list of brieng topics. At the top of the list was the
offensive threat of SDI.60 CISAC scientists duly briefed State Department representatives on 24 March 1986. Most of the analysis was undertaken by Richard
Muller, a young Berkeley physicist who had contributed to the development of
adaptive optics, and Charles Townes, one of the inventors of the laser and a
long-time defense adviser, with substantial input from Richard Garwin, another
top defense science adviser. Their brieng ran through the various offensive
threats. They judged lasers an inefcient way to start res, contra the LatterMartinelli scenario, and also ineffective against missile silos, and they cited the

impression from Geneva, see also Jack Matlock comments in Wohlforth, ed., 2122. Soviet
scientists and military analysts had apparently not learned about the rods from god proposal:
Evgeni Velikhov interview, 3 October 2006; Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin interview, 4 October 2006.
57. This incident is described in Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 49192; Wohlforth, Witnesses, 57; Dobrynin, In Condence, 561.
58. Marvin Goldberger to Academicians M. A. Markov and E. M. Primakov, 23 August
1980, and Thomas Malone to Charles Townes, 2 December 1980 (Townes, accession 22,004,
59. W. K. H. Panofsky to les, 20 December 1985, and notes on Academy council brieng,
23 February 1986 (Garwin, CISAC 6). A small initial meeting on 18 September 1985 was
followed by a larger meeting on 19 December.
60. CISAC meeting, summary minutes, 20 January 1986, and Timbie to Panofsky, 10
February 1986 (Garwin, CISAC 6).

970 : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y

various obstacles to lasers, including atmospheric shielding effects, cloud cover,

and civil defense measures. More likely threats were to soft targets such as
aircraft (either in ight or on the ground) or submarines in port. Perhaps the
most potent use was for lasers to cause blindness over very large swaths of
territory, either in civilians or soldiers; this discussion troubled two referees of
the pre-circulated brieng, one of whom noted that this emotional issue could
provoke political repercussions if made public.61 The report did note the speed
of a laser attack, and also briey described third-generation nuclear weapons and
the possibility of dropping nuclear bombs from orbit with almost no warning.62
The briengs general conclusion: space-strike weapons were technically
feasible, but were much less effective strategically than nuclear weapons. Their
strategic interest rested only in providing a way to strike additional soft targets
amid a nuclear war, or to expand military options in a non-nuclear war. Hence,
although Shultz had proposed that the United States negotiate restrictions on
space-strike weapons while preserving the basic SDI program, the CISAC
physicists saw no reason to pursue such a distinction: U.S. representatives could
credibly maintain that the SDI does not contain program emphasis nor intent
for offensive uses.63
The CISAC study thus produced no change in policy, and on the contrary
perhaps only reinforced the American position. Six months after the CISAC
brieng, at Reykjavik, Gorbachev stressed the offensive threat of SDI technologies. Reagan noted Gorbachevs concern that space-based weapons could be
used to destroy targets on the ground, but his response followed the line
proposed by CISAC and seconded by pre-summit policy papers: he assured
Gorbachev that this is not the purpose of SDI. . . . There are no weapons that
are more reliable, more effective and faster than ballistic missiles.64
The United States, in short, recognized that SDI technologies could in fact
be used offensively, but saw little value in it. This position, however, assumed
that the Soviets would reach the same conclusion. The CISAC physicists had
stressed the importance of making clear the difference between what is technically feasible and what makes sense, and the conclusion of their brieng
acknowledged that their recommended position raises intent vs. capability

61. Reviewers comments attached to Porter Coggeshall to Lynn Rusten, 17 March 1986
(Garwin, CISAC 6).
62. Offensive Uses of SDI Components and Systems, CISAC brieng to State Department, revised draft 4 April 1986 (Garwin, CISAC 6; also in Townes, accession 22,004, 11/NASCISAC). The CISAC brieng also discussed kinetic-energy weapons; the briefers were no
doubt aware of rods from god, but they focused only on devices studied under SDI, which
were generally too small to get through the atmosphere.
63. Offensive Uses of SDI Components; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 689.
64. Reagan response at Reykjavik afternoon session (from Russian transcript), 11 October
1986, and The Presidents Trip to Reykjavik, issues checklist for Secretary of State Shultz,
7 October 1986 (Digital National Security Archive, available from

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 971

issues.65 But what makes no sense in one context may appear sensible in
another, and at least some Soviet observers chose to judge American capability
as equivalent to intent. Gorbachev made the point in his June 1985 letter to
Reagan: In matters affecting the heart of national security, neither side can or
will rely on assurances of good intentions. Any weapon system is evaluated by its
capabilities, but not by public statements regarding its mission. Later that year,
Reagans letter to Gorbachev after Geneva recognized that these are matters
which cannot be taken on faith, but continued: However, the truth is that the
United States has no intention of using its strategic defense program to gain any
advantage.66 The Soviet position at Reykjavik shows that they indeed refused to
take American declarations on faith.

the sakh arov g am bit

Four months after Reykjavik, the Soviets apparently changed their minds
about SDI. That, at least, is the conclusion of Frances FitzGerald as well as
Matthew Evangelista, each of whom has noted that Gorbachev in early 1987
decided to decouple SDI from talks on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces
(INF) after insisting for years on their linkage.67 Later that year, when Reagan
declared at the Washington Summit that the United States intended to deploy
SDI, Gorbachev replied, Mr. President, you do what you think you have to
do. . . . And if in the end you think that you have a system that you want to
deploy, go ahead and deploy it. Who am I to tell you what to do? I think youre
wasting money. I dont think it will work. But if thats what you want to do, go
This view raises a second key question: did the Soviets indeed retreat from
their early vehement reaction? Existing accounts focus on the role of physicist
Andrei Sakharov, who had been banished to internal exile in early 1980 for his
political activism. Sakharov became a high-prole human rights cause, and after
years of pressure, punctuated by Sakharovs hunger strikes, Gorbachev agreed to
release him from exile in December 1986. In February 1987, Sakharov stood up
at a disarmament forum in Moscow, with Gorbachev in attendance, and criticized both SDI and Soviet insistence on linking it to strategic arms cuts.69
Sakharov spoke not only with the moral force of one who had suffered much for
his political commitment, but also as a weapons scientist whose theoretical
breakthroughs on the hydrogen bomb had enabled the Soviet strategic buildup
65. Draft summary minutes, CISAC meeting 23 February 1986 (Garwin, CISAC 6), and
Offensive Uses of SDI Components and Systems.
66. Gorbachev to Reagan (unofcial translation), 10 June 1985, and Reagan to Gorbachev,
28 November 1985 (RR/SDI, 1/1985).
67. FitzGerald, Way Out There in the Blue; Evangelista, Unarmed Forces. Hendrik
Hertzberg, Laser Show, New Yorker, 15 May 2000, follows FitzGerald in this argument.
68. In FitzGerald, Way Out There in the Blue, 436.
69. Andrei Sakharov, Moscow and Beyond: 1986 to 1989 (New York, 1991), 2124; Evangelista, Unarmed Forces, 32829; FitzGerald, Way Out There in the Blue, 40911.

972 : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y

and earned him three Hero of Socialist Labor awards. The so-called Sakharov
gambit in this telling led to the subsequent decision by Gorbachev a few weeks
later to abandon his xation with SDI, and to delink the INF negotiations
from it.70
Gorbachev may have been impressionablebut could one physicist really
impel such a radical shift in national policy?71 If so, we might have something
of a symmetry with the U.S. case, where an aging nuclear physicist with state
decorations for weapons work got the ear of the national leader and persuaded
him to a fundamental change in strategic course.72 But Sakharov, unlike Edward
Teller, was only weeks returned from seven years in exile when he made the case
against SDI, and had been out of the nuclear weapons business since 1968,
although he did thereby carry substantial moral force.
Sakharov did not get the Soviets to quit SDI cold turkey. The focus on
Sakharov and the INF negotiations ignores a preoccupation with SDI that lasted
at least two more years. The test of the X-ray laser in late 1987 provides one
indicator of their continued xation. The Polyus satellite debacle that same year
is another. Also known as Skif-DM, Polyus was a testbed for a space-based laser
weapon: the Astrozika design bureau provided the laser, the Salyut bureau the
satellite, and Energia a new launch vehicle. The 80 ton, 37 meter long spacecraft
was so big it did not t in the rocket nose cone, and had to be strapped to the side
of the rocket. Laser experts protested that the proposed laser system was useless
militarily, but Baklanov pushed the project as a sort of political stunt, to demonstrate that the Soviets could orbit a laser satellite before the United States. At
the last minute, Gorbachev, apparently recognizing that a space laser demonstration would establish dangerous precedents and undermine his own diplomatic efforts to ban space weapons, intervened to forbid actual testing of the
system in orbit. In any event he need not have worried. A faulty guidance sensor
placed the spacecraft backward when it red its engines for orbit insertion, and
it promptly plunged into the South Pacic.73
70. Frank von Hippel, Recollections of Sakharov, in Andrei Sakharov: Facets of a Life
(Gif-sur-Yvette, 1991), 32533. SDI backers in the United States turned it around: Sakharovs
willingness to criticize SDI won his release from exile. Daniel Graham, SDI Frees Sakharov,
High Frontiers Newswatch (Bethe, 20/53).
71. On Gorbachevs malleability, see John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History
(New York, 2005), 230; more caustically, Valery Boldin, Ten Years that Shook the World: The
Gorbachev Era as Witnessed by His Chief of Staff, trans. Evelyn Rossiter (New York, 1994),
especially 7677.
72. Sakharov would later note that his early outlook on nuclear weapons was closer to
Teller than to those urging restraint; see Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb, 319.
73. Karpenko, ABM and Space Defense; Zarubin interview; Sagdeev interview; S. P.
Korolev Space Corporation (Energia), Ot Pervogo Sputnika do EnergiiCurana i Mira
[From rst satellite to EnergiaBuran and Mir] (Kaliningrad, 1994), 17, 11011. See also Ed
Grondine, Polyus, in Encyclopedia Astronautica ( The United
States was conspicuously silent about possible attempts to examine the Polyus wreckage on the
South Pacic seaoor. A new article on Polyus states that the laser was left off the rst launch,
which instead was to test just the attitude control and aiming systems, but that Gorbachev and
the Politburo then ruled out even these system tests. Konstantin Lantratov, The Star Wars

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 973

Continuity in the Soviet response stemmed from the internal political forces
driving it, which did not just evaporate with Sakharovs reappearance, and also
from their fear of offensive space weapons, which Sakharov did not address.
Gorbachev up through early 1986 was trying to appease the national security
apparatus, whose support he inherited from his mentor Yuri Andropov; and
when the 27th Party Congress chose a new Central Committee with only a
slender pro-reform majority, Gorbachev still had to build coalitions issue by
issue. Hence Gorbachevs preparations for Reykjavik at rst included no
demands on SDI, but the Soviet military and defense industry insisted on
restricting SDI as a condition for cuts in nuclear weapons. Only after Gorbachev
cleared out the Defense Ministry in 1987 and then reshaped the Politburo in
September 1988 could he operate with a freer hand. Meanwhile, Eduard Shevardnadze had replaced Gromyko as foreign minister in 1985 and was similarly
consolidating his inuence, and gradually reducing the inuence of people like
Baklanov and Chervov.74
As for delinking itself, the Soviets had appeared to be wavering on INF
linkage even before Reykjavik, where they briey agreed to delink before
retreating. And the reason for delinking may have been less the Soviet attitude
toward SDI and more their perceptions of the importance of the INF Treaty,
which the Soviets sought as a way to keep ghting the political battle for
Europe.75 If space weapons did gure in delinkage, it was not because Soviets
overcame their fears, but perhaps more because they recognized the practical
difculties in dening terms for negotiation. What, exactly, is a space weapon?
How do you distinguish between a military communications satellite and a
space-based weapon platform? Is a ballistic missile, which travels through space,
a space weapon? What about fractional orbit bombardment systems, which were
designed to send warheads on a partial orbit to attack the United States from the
south? Or the Moscow missile defense system, whose long-range nuclear interceptors would hit their targets in space? Did the Soviets really wish to renounce
all these systems?76
Whatever the cause, the focus on INF delinking has obscured the continued
Soviet criticism of SDI, including their insistence on coupling the SDI issue
to the START negotiations (Strategic Arms Reductions Talks). Only in 1989,
before a meeting of foreign ministers in Wyoming, did the Soviets decisively
that Never Happened: The True Story of the Soviet Unions Polyus (Skif-DM) Space-Based
Laser Battle Stations, Quest: The History of Spaceight Quarterly 14, no. 1 (2007): 514, and 14,
no. 2 (2007), 518.
74. Thomas W. Simons, Jr., The End of the Cold War? (New York, 1990), 6869, 80;
Dobrynin, In Condence, 62026; Bessmertnykh in Wohlforth, Witnesses, 168; on Shevardnadze,
see Alexei Arbatov interview, 5 October 2006. The Defense Ministry housecleaning followed
the landing of a small plane near Red Square by a young West German named Mathias Rust.
75. Simons, End of the Cold War?, 147; Yakovlev memo, To the Analysis of the Fact of the
Visit of Prominent American Leaders to the USSR, circa December 1986 (Digital National
Security Archive).
76. Alexei Arbatov interview.

974 : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y

retreat on SDI. And even then Shevardnadze acted without approval from the
so-called Big Five agency heads who usually determined Soviet arms control
positions, and who included the defense minister and heads of the MilitaryIndustrial Commission (VPK) and KGBand these three agencies were
primary drivers of the Soviet response to SDI.77 Several Soviet policymakers and
negotiators have insisted that they were consistent in their vehement opposition
to SDI up to and beyond 1989. General Nikolai Detinov, for example, claimed
that the Soviet position on SDI, far from evolving over time, was the only eld
in arms control negotiations where the Soviet Union stood until the end on
its original position.78 A report by a red team for the SDI organization itself
conrmed this view from the U.S. side: despite some reduction in the intensity
of their criticism starting in 1986, through 1988 the Soviets appeared to be
unanimous in their public opposition.79
Hence Gorbachev, at the Moscow Summit in May 1988, argued against SDI
on the grounds that it opened the way to the development of space-based
weapons that could hit targets on the earth.80 The eventual Soviet decoupling
of SDI from START a year later coincided with cuts in the American commitment to SDI, but also with a recognition in the United States that directedenergy weapons were far from realization. The latter development led to a shift
in the SDI program itself from beam weapons to so-called Brilliant Pebbles,
small rocket interceptors which posed no offensive space-to-earth threat.
The existing focus on Sakharov and INF delinkage has neglected important
continuities in the Soviet position on SDI and the internal politics that drove
them. The Sakharov story is dramatic and compelling, with the aged, charismatic moral gure returning from exile to remove the scales from Soviet eyes.
As FitzGerald put it, In mythology it is the pure of heart who slay the dragons,
and so it was that in the Soviet Union Sakharov dispelled the fear of SDI.81 But
this story is, indeed, mythology. The Soviets tempered their opposition to SDI,
but they did not abandon it, and this continuity derived in part from their fear
of new offensive weapons.

c onclusion
The history described here adds a new dimension to the picture of SDI.
Some Soviets saw no difference between the offensive and defensive potential of
SDI technologies: new beam weapons posed an offensive threat to the Soviet
77. Savelyev and Detinov, The Big Five, 159. On the role of the Defense Ministry, VPK,
and KGB, see Velikhov interview.
78. Savelyev and Detinov, The Big Five, 181. This view is supported by Nikolai Sokov,
Russian Strategic Modernization: The Past and Future (Lanham, MD, 2000), 47, who sees most
Soviet concessions on SDI starting in 1989.
79. Current Soviet Views of Ballistic Missile Defense: A Strategic Red Team Item of
Interest, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization report ( January 1991), iv.
80. Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (New York, 1995), 455.
81. FitzGerald, Way Out There in the Blue, 411.

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 975

Union, whatever use they might have in defending the United States. Although
space-strike weapons were not the only factor behind the Soviet response, they
added particular twists and stiffened Soviet opposition. This issue helps bridge
the logical gap in the Soviet position, between their obsession with SDI, which
even they realized was a diplomatic liability, and their simultaneous claims that
SDI would not work. The Soviets were not just getting worked up about a
defensive shield that they could likely circumvent. Rather, they also suspected a
new offensive threat from beam weapons, including third-generation nuclear
devices. This aspect of SDI has escaped attention in part because the literature
is almost exclusively written from the American perspective.82 Compounding the
neglect has been the fact that existing histories have focused on the high politics
of SDI and also rely too heavily on memoirs instead of archival research, thus
imposing an overly coherent post facto view of events. Looking at the Soviet side
and at the work of American defense scientists reveals the role played by possible
offensive weapons.
Although space-based weapons were still in the research phaseand technical experts in both countries argued over how far they remained from
realizationthe prospect of them alone was sufcient to shape the Soviet
response. Some leading Soviet scientists, because of their own research, doubted
the offensive threat, but other views and interests prevailed. In particular, the
Soviet space agency and parts of the military played up the SDI threat, but in
doing so scared political leaders into bargaining away valuable Soviet military
assets in order to get rid of SDI.
One might think to use SDI as a sort of X-ray image of the body politic,
distinguishing the hard bones of expert scientic advice from the eshier interests that also composed foreign policy. But the bones are not so hard; different
experts disagreed on the technological possibilities for SDI, and the policies of
both the United States and Soviet Union depended on whether the views of
believers or skeptics found a forumwhether it was Teller selling Reagan on the
possibility of a defensive shield, TsNIIMash hotheads spinning space-strike
scenarios, or Latter and Martinelli coldly calculating that lasers could burn cities
to the ground. The history of SDI highlights the need to examine the intersection of scientic expertise and foreign policy, to trace the detailed pathways
by which technical judgments enteredor failed to enterthe policymaking
process. Such an approach must look not only to high policy levels but also to
the laboratories, think tanks, and advisory committees within particular agencies
and ministriesto places like RDA, the Defense Nuclear Agency, and CISAC,
or to TsNIIMash, Astrozika, and Arzamas. Although these institutions had
their own interests, such as Energias desire to build large space platforms, they

82. Exceptions include von Bencke, International Identity Crises, and Pavel Podvig,
Ballistic Missile Defense as a Factor in Strategic Relations between USSR/Russia and the
USA, 19452003 (Ph.D. diss. [in Russian], Institute of World Economy and International
Relations, Moscow, 2004).

976 : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y

often escape simple generalization; even those most closely associated with SDI,
such as Livermore, displayed a range of technical judgments among their staff,
and technological assessmentsand perceptions of the national interestcould
trump bureaucratic agendas.
SDI spurred both the United States and Soviet Union to increase the participation of scientists in the foreign-policy process, in each case damping more
alarmist views. Secrecy compounded the problem on both sides, as diplomats
often did not know about highly classied nuclear and space programs. On the
Soviet side, the Defense Ministry and each of the several defense-industry
ministries usually had a Scientic-Technical Council (NTS, in the Russian
acronym), but the Foreign Ministry did not. Shevardnadze recognized that the
lack of in-house technical advice put the Foreign Ministry at a disadvantage not
only in negotiations with the United States but also in internal policy debates
on issues such as space weapons, where the military enjoyed a monopoly on
information. Shevardnadze duly created an NTS for the Foreign Ministry with
experts from the Academy of Sciences, which allowed him to begin countering
the technical arguments on SDI. This gradual process was likely more important
than the more visible Sakharov gambit for the eventual shift in the Soviet
A similar integration of scientic expertise and foreign policy, and perception
that such integration was previously lacking, appears for the United States in the
State Departments use of CISAC, which discounted the Latter-Martinelliand
Sovietview of the space-strike threat. The subsequent history revealed the
tensions in this relationship: the National Academy was intended as a source of
independent expertise, and as the State Department increasingly called on
CISACfor denition of technical activities allowed by the ABM Treaty, and for
a post-Reykjavik study of deep cuts in strategic weaponsthe scientists grew wary
of losing their independence and becoming a job shop for State or, worse,
captive to administration policy. The relationship meanwhile exposed State to
criticism about the diplomatic inuence of politically unaccountable scientists.84
The history of SDI seems to reveal a failure of empathy on both sides.
Americans failed to comprehend Soviet suspicion of space-to-earth weapons,
whereas the Soviets did not believe American sincerity about a strictly defensive
posture. Although some American analysts did recognize offensive uses, the
CISAC study in the end largely dismissed SDI technologies as ineffective when
compared to nuclear weapons and hence not worth accommodating in negotiations. But as the CISAC scientists admitted, this position amounted to a distinction between capability and intent: yes, the capability for offensive strikes
83. Savelyev and Detinov, The Big Five; Alexei Arbatov interview. On the NTS system in
the ministries, see also Holloway, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race, 14243; and Peter
Almquist, Red Forge: Soviet Military Industry since 1965 (New York, 1990), chs. 1, 4.
84. CISAC, draft summary minutes, 16 December 1986, 1213 March 1987, and 910
September 1987 (Townes, accession 22,273, 26/NAS-CISAC). Warren Strobel, FBI Agrees to
Investigate Nitze Role with Scientists, Washington Times, 24 November 1987.

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 977

existed, but because nuclear weapons were more effective the United States
would never exercise this capability. The Soviets did not follow this distinction.
Their response reected their defense industrys bureaucratic politics, their
strategic doctrine, and their historical experience of surprise attack; hence their
suspicion of new weapons that compressed warning times to milliseconds.
The CISAC report did not account for such factors. It thus revealed the
limits to expert scientic advice: although scientists could have a damping effect
on alarmist foreign policies, they may also understandably focus on technical
factors, and also assume that others will reach the same rational conclusions.
They may thus neglect the political, historical, and cultural valences that can
lead to different conclusions for those in different contexts.85 Such factors indeed
shaped the Soviet response to SDI.
The disconnect on offensive aspects of SDI is important to Cold War diplomatic history. Soviet suspicion of space-strike weapons contributed to their
insistence on linking SDI to arms negotiations. Geneva or, especially, Reykjavik
might otherwise have produced much different outcomes, including radical
reductions in nuclear arms, which would have greatly affected the endgame of
the Cold Warnot to mention such current issues as the security of former
Soviet nuclear weapons or continued alerting of strategic arsenals. More generally, SDIs role in the end of the Cold War is a story of unintended consequences. SDI, and strategic weapons in general, were just a fraction of Soviet
defense spending, and the Soviets were pursuing asymmetric countermeasures,
but SDI clearly occupied an outsized role in their thinking.86 Instead of claiming
that SDI hastened the end of the Cold War, by forcing the Soviets to confront
their deciencies, one might rather say that it distracted them from the fundamental challengesmaintaining external and internal empires amid economic
decline, oil price shocks, Afghanistan, and so onthat would eventually cause
the collapse of the Soviet system. The space-strike issue, and SDI in general, not
only strengthened the institutional and political hand of hawkish elements (it
may not be coincidence that Baklanov, whose ministry propagated space-strike
schemes, helped lead the 1991 coup); they also diverted liberals and hawks alike
from other pressing issues, and continued to do so to 1989 and beyond.87 That
is, SDIs role in the demise of the Soviet Union was more as a diversion
(although that was not the American intention) than as a frontal challenge
to Soviet capabilities, and the space-strike aspectlikewise unintended
intensied the diversions effect.

85. Cf. Richard Pipes, Team B: The Reality behind the Myth, Commentary 82, no. 4
(1986): 2540, in defense of the hawkish Team B intelligence study of 1976, criticizing the
positivism and universalism of science advisers as the source of U.S. reliance on deterrence.
Pipes admitted exceptions to his rule, notably Sakharov and Teller.
86. Pavel Podvig, Did Star Wars End the Cold War? (unpublished manuscript).
87. On SDI strengthening Soviet hawks and undermining reformers, see Georgi Arbatov,
The System: An Insiders Life in Soviet Politics (New York, 1992), 321; Pavel Palazchenko in
Wohlforth, Witnesses, 59; Alexei Arbatov interview; see also Dobrynin, In Condence, 544.

978 : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y

If the United States were indeed serious about stressing defense, it might
have done more to placate Soviet fears. One way would have been to shift the
focus from the ABM Treaty, which generated much debate over broad versus
narrow interpretations, to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In particular, the
United States might have claried a clause in the Outer Space Treaty banning
nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction in space.88
This begged the question of what constituted a WMD, and in particular
whether beam weapons qualied. The Soviets before SDI had raised the possibility of particle beams being WMD, and had drafted a proposal to ban their use
against biological targets. The United States did not engage the proposal, and at
the time took the view of beam weapons as surgical when compared to nuclear
weapons: Most PB [particle beam] weapons, as currently conceived, would not
be classied as MDW [WMD] since they are by nature point weapons.89
For the United States to recognize SDIs offensive possibilities, however,
completely ran against Reagans expressed desire to halt the arms race. This
suggests another unintended consequence of SDI: in trying to turn nuclear
strategy from offense to defense, SDI took a new class of weapons and linked
them exclusively to defensive usesbut only to American eyes. (It may not be
coincidence that Edward Teller in 1992 began speaking again, after a ten-year
interlude and the Cold Wars end, of offensive space weapons.)90 As a result,
there was little discussion of the fact that some new technologies, such as
electromagnetic weapons, might render the United States military more vulnerable, because of its greater dependence on solid-state electronics.91
The issue remains relevant. Missile defense is still under development, with
space-based platforms again in the picture, and U.S. Space Command is pursuing space-based strike weapons as a new means of global engagement. Many
of these weapons derive from SDI research programs.92 Other countries, notably
China, have recently joined Russia in asking the United Nations to ban all
space-based weapons.93 Meanwhile, some American defense analysts have
88. Outer Space Treaty, 1967.
89. U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Fiscal Year 1983 Arms Control Impact
Statement, 324.
90. Teller to Gen. George L. Butler, 10 January 1992 (Teller, box 435), describing a
nonnuclear approach for delivering potentially highly effective but non-nuclear strategic
striking power with many of the characteristics of ICBMs and SLBMsthis is variously known
as Advanced Strategic Strike Systems and Fire from Heaven.
91. Hans Bethe, handwritten notes on our SDI research, n.d. (circa 1985) (Bethe, 20/18);
Janet Raloff, EMP: A Sleeping Electronic Dragon, Science News, 9 May 1991, 300302; Janet
Raloff, EMP Defensive Strategies, Science News, 16 May 1991, 31415.
92. U.S. Space Command, Vision for 2020 (available from;
Robert Preston et al., Space Weapons, Earth Wars, RAND Corporation report MR-1209
( June 2002); Bruce M. DuBlois et al., Space Weapons: Crossing the U.S. Rubicon, International Security 29, no. 2 (2004): 5084. See also Doug Beason, The E-Bomb: How Americas New
Directed-Energy Weapons Will Change the Way Future Wars Will Be Fought (Cambridge, MA, 2005).
93. Russia, China Want Guarantees against Weapons Deployment in Space, ITARTASS, 28 June 2002 (FBIS-SOV-2002-0628); Frances Williams, China Calls for Ban on
Weaponisation of Space, Financial Times, 8 June 2001.

Space-Strike Weapons and the Soviet Response to SDI : 979

warned that deploying space weapons would expose other crucial space assets,
such as reconnaissance and communications satellites, to attack. China played
on such fears in testing an antisatellite missile in January 2007 and in several
reported tests of a ground-based laser against American satellites.94 The difference today, besides the strategic context, seems to be that the offensive possibilities are explicit (and indeed are one of the main attractions) and potential
American vulnerabilities recognized.95 What has not changed is the need for
strategists and diplomats to grapple with all the implications of science and
technologyand for scientic experts to ponder the effects of culture, politics,
and history.

94. Bryan Bender, Space Weapons Seen as Possibility, Boston Globe, 19 May 2005; Peter
Spiegel and James Gerstenzang, Chinese Missile Strikes Satellite, Los Angeles Times, 19
January 2007.
95. Lowell Wood testimony to U.S. Congress, House Committee on National Security,
Military Research and Development Subcommittee, 16 July 1997 (available from http://; William R. Graham et al., Report of the Commission to Assess
the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, 2004 (available from For an example of the recent recognition of offensive uses in the foreign-policy literature, see Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (New York, 2002), 303.