The End of the Star Wars Era
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin
DoD News Briefing
Thursday, May 13, 1993 - 1:00 p.m.

Mr. Bob Hall, DASD (Public Affairs): Good afternoon.

Secretary Aspin is with us today for a few minutes to talk about SDIO. He'll have a short statement and he'll be available to take a few questions. Then we'll continue with the rest of the briefing. Mr. Secretary?

Secretary Aspin: Thank you.

Yesterday we marked a very, very important event in our national security history. That was the 50th Anniversary of the Pentagon. Today we are here to observe another point of passage, which is the end of the Star Wars era.

We are renaming and refocusing the Strategic Defense Initiative Office to reflect the Clinton Administration's changes in the priorities. From now on, the SDIO will be the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and it will not report directly to the Secretary of Defense.

These change are possible because of the end of a battle that has raged in Washington for a decade over the best way to avoid nuclear war. That battle was over whether we should build a massive defense against a missile attack from the Soviet Union, or whether we should press for arms reductions backed by traditional deterrence.

Like many Washington battles, that wasn't decided on the merits. It just went on so long that circumstances changed the terms of the debate. The fate of Star Wars was sealed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Star Wars decade began on March 23, 1983 when President Ronald Reagan announced he was launching a program to "render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." His strategic defense program was quickly dubbed Star Wars, after the popular movie at the time.

Ten years later, we find that we have a different need for a ballistic missile defense -- not the massive program of space-based weapons that Ronald Reagan envisioned. Saddam Hussein and the SCUD missiles showed us that we need a ballistic missile defense for our forces in the field. That threat is here and now. In the future, we may face hostile or irrational states that have both nuclear warheads and ballistic missile technology that could reach the United States. That thesis is why we have made theater ballistic missile defense our first priority to cope with the new dangers in the post-Cold War, post-Soviet world.

After theater missile defense, BMDO's priorities are going to be the national missile defense, which is the defense of the American people from ground-based systems. The third point of emphasis, a third priority, will be the follow-on technologies that offers some promise in both tactical and strategic defense.

These changes represent a shift away from a crash program for deployment of space-based weapons designed to meet a threat that has receded to the vanishing point -- the all-out surprise attack from the former Soviet Union.

We are changing the way the organization fits into OSD. Since its inception in 1984, SDIO has reported directly to the Secretary of Defense. The new arrangement has the BMD organization reporting to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, which is John Deutch. This shift reflects the fact that the program will be shifting from research to the development and acquisition of systems, and it will allow us to manage our work on ballistic missile defense in a way appropriate to its place in the overall defense program.

Thank you very much.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you still intend to spend $3.8 billion in the '94 program, or do you have some savings in that?

Aspin: No, the '94 program is as it was sent to Congress. Because it is focused in this new direction of heavy priority on theater missile defenses, number one; the second priority is national defense of the United States, missile defense of the United States; and third is the advanced technology. The $3.8 billion program in '94 still stands.

Q: What about spending trends for the out years?

Aspin: We'll have something more to say to that... We're working that problem in the light of the bottom-up review, but clearly it's a different focus here than was built into the Bush baseline, the Bush program.

Q: Mr. Secretary, how quickly do you figure to go from research into acquisition, and how quickly do you expect to have a defense?

Aspin: We have, as you saw with the Patriots, we have something you can make into a defense right now. We have currently four different theater missile systems that are at various points along the development process. We need to probably pare that down, but I think we may not want... I'm sure we do not want to pare that down until we have a better idea of where the strengths of them are. But the theater missile program is going ahead, and that will be the first effort that will show results. In fact, we do have something that works right now.

The second priority is the ballistic missile defense of the continental United States, and that's not against theater missile attack, but against intercontinental ballistic missile attack. That we haven't got yet, but then we don't have any of the people that we're talking about that have the capability to launch that kind of an attack yet. So we're continuing to develop that and it is our intention to fully develop that and make a deployment decision on that some time in the future.

Q: How quickly do you expect that you might have something besides the Patriot deployed for...

Aspin: There are several of them, and they are along the way in terms of various points in the capability, and I can't answer that question right off because I don't have those dates in my head.

Q: How much, if any, did the Star Wars program contribute to the theater missile defenses now underway, these forces that we're talking about?

Aspin: It was different development and a different kind of focus. Clearly there were some technologies that were relevant in both cases, but in fact the theater missile defenses that we have now, whatever shape they're in, were developed pretty much separate from the SDIO work, which was, as you know, focused very heavily on the astrodome kind of approach of dealing with our defenses, and was focused very heavily against the major threat to the continental United States and to the country which was the big launching of all these weapons from the Soviet Union.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you see a future in the intermediate term for space-based missile defense systems which some veteran advocates say is still the most effective way even to deal with medium range missiles?

Aspin: I think we need to follow it... We don't need to answer that question yet but we need to follow the technology and do the research and development to see how well it can be done and how much it's going to cost.

Q: Does this mean you've given up on former President Reagan's dream of a system that would render nuclear missiles obsolete?

Aspin: Impotent and obsolete. I think that the world has changed and that what we're doing is that that need is no longer there. The vision that Ronald Reagan had was a vision to protect the security of the United States of America by establishing a defensive system. He proposed that as an alternative to what was then the system, which was deterrence -- a balance of terror. The thing that protected the United States without Star Wars was the notion that if you attack me, I'm going to attack you, and it's going to be suicidal and we're both going to get killed, so don't do it.

Ronald Reagan and a number of people in the right wing of the political spectrum were very unhappy with that prospect. What they proposed, then, and Daniel Gramm and the others that were proposing this said what we need to do is develop defenses and establish a defense of the United States which could shoot down incoming missiles and would not be a... We would not have to depend on the balance of terror which with one slight mistake the whole thing can blow up.

The difficulty with it was, as we proceeded with it, was first of all, there are a lot of physics and scientific and technical and engineering questions about what you could do. It's one thing to shoot down individual weapons. It's another to deal with a whole mass of what kind of counter-measures you might have, so there's a whole technical question about capabilities. The second issue was whether, in fact, you really wanted to do that and whether, in fact, that kind of a thing might not be destabilizing from an arms control point of view because it would probably be better as mopping up against a second strike attack than against a first strike attack. So the debate raged. You had a debate in this country for six, seven, eight years, raged about the nature of the defense of the United States. Do you protect the defense of the United States through a balance of terror plus some arms control to try and reduce the destabilizing weapons at the margin, or do you do it through trying to build the defense of the United States, and how do you mesh those two. As I say, it's a classic Washington case. Nobody won the argument. The situation on the ground changed and the argument became moot. When the Soviet Union went away and the whole business, we're suddenly now in the business of arms reductions of a kind that are so massive that we can look forward to the possibility of being able to do away with this concern altogether.

But there still is, the point that's made is there still is a nuclear threat. It's a different kind of nuclear threat. It's a different people that the nuclear threat comes from. It's a nuclear threat of a half a dozen, or fewer, nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorist state. That is the threat now, and that's a different kind of thing. In that context, I think most people see defenses as having a useful role to play. That's what we're doing is we're refocusing the whole program here, and the organization of the way we deal with defenses towards the new threat and away from the old threat -- not because anybody won the argument about the old threat, but the old threat went away.

Q: This begs to the followup question of how much money and resources did we devote to the Star Wars program and what, if anything, do we have to show for it after ten years?

Aspin: I would say that you're going to get a big debate about whether, in fact, the Star Wars program didn't help bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think it probably had something to do with it. The Soviet Union was aware of the tremendous advances that the United States military was making. Not just in Star Wars, but in the technology generally. And what they saw was that they could not compete. Not that they couldn't compete because they didn't have the resources. They had a system that would squeeze out whatever resources they needed. But what they had was, they did not have an economic base to compete. They just did not have an economic base in their country that could produce the kind of high tech weapons and systems and spinoffs that are necessary -- for Star Wars, for precision-guided munitions, for any of these kind of things. What they saw was a situation in which they were just, there was just a gradual erosion of power. I think that is what was behind, at least in part, the fundamental shift that the Gorbachev generation decided to try and bring about in the Soviet Union.

Q: But did the American people get their money's worth out of the program?

Aspin: I think we learned a lot, that we can pull something from the experience that we had and apply it. I think if it helped to bring about the kind of changes that we had in the Soviet Union, I think the answer is yes.

The real question that you're asking here, I think, we are not in the position to be able to tell. At some point, and this is going to be the interesting point, at some point when the archives open up and we see what it was that was going on in the Soviet Union and in the Politburo, and what it is that caused them to want to make these kinds of changes, what is it that impressed them to make the changes, then I think you'll be able to answer these questions.

Was it something we were doing? Was it something they saw that they were not doing right? Was it some combination? In other words, I think we, at this point, cannot answer the question you're asking. Some day the Politburo records will be opened, and we'll be able to answer the question about what is it that really caused this dramatic change in direction in the Soviet Union? Then once that direction changed, the system kind of worked along and then the reforms kind of outspun the people who were doing the reforms, and the whole process began to move clearly in a way that was quicker than the original authors had intended.

Q: What impact will this have on the companies who put their fortunes in the SDI program or on the scientists who have been employed by the SDI program for all these years?

Aspin: We would hope to have some of them, a good number of them, involved in the BMD program that we have initiated here. Understand, I think there is a... The case right now for defense is very, very strong. We do need defense in this current climate. It's just different from the astrodome that we started out looking for in 1983.

Q: The Soviet Union is gone, of course, but without a space-based defense, aren't you back to a balance of terror vis-a-vis renegade...

Aspin: No, we don't know whether a balance of terror will work with renegade states. That's why you need defense. Defense is not based upon balance of power. Defenses means you can protect yourself by shooting down an incoming missile as you did when you used Patriots to shoot down SCUDs that were fired at Israel and at Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. That does not depend upon a balance of terror. The problem with the current world in which we live and the current kind of nuclear-capable states that are on the threshold of getting nuclear weapons here, the bad guys of the terrorist states who might get nuclear weapons, if Saddam Hussein gets nuclear weapons or if Iran gets nuclear weapons or if North Korea gets nuclear weapons, we're talking about countries that we're not sure the old policy of deterrence worked with these people.

Q: They can't be intimidated by....

Aspin: Well, they might be, but you can't count on it. The thing that you knew about with the Russians... Russia [the Soviet Union] was an evil empire, and the Russians [Soviets] were a bunch of thugs, but the Russians were not crazy. It's not quite so clear with some of the people that are likely, that may get nuclear weapons along the way.

Q: Will you honor or amend existing ABM treaties? Some of the CIS states have said they're ready to sign up for it. Is the U.S. ready to make that commitment?

Aspin: This is all part of the negotiations that are ongoing. If we have a missile defense of the United States that goes beyond the current limit of one site, we're going to have to get an amendment to the ABM treaty, so there is clearly... It's got nothing to do with the theater missiles. What we're doing now is developing theater missile defenses and that's fine, we don't have any problem with the ABM Treaty. If we go to the next stage, which is to protect the continental United States against ballistic missile attacks from a terrorist state, and to do that well, I think will require some changes in the ABM Treaty. But we would do that working with Russia and with the other nuclear states to make sure that it's consistent with what they want to do, too.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what are you going to do about leadership of the new office? Are you going to pick somebody... A man, woman, child...

Aspin: Stay tuned, Otto. Stay tuned.

Q: How would you assess the United States' current ability to defend itself against terrorist missile attacks?

Aspin: The continental United States?

Q: The continental United States.

Aspin: Not good. But then again, there isn't anybody out there that's got that kind of capability. The best guess, the CIA looks at this issue and says that somewhere possibly in the ten year period there would be a country that could develop the combination of both having a nuclear weapon and having the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver that weapon against the United States. We need to watch that very carefully. That gives us roughly that period of time to develop a defensive system to work out any agreements in the ABM system that we may need, any changes in the ABM system that we may need.

Q: We watched Star Wars for ten years and never really got to a point where we had a program. Are you confident that a program can be developed to meet this future threat?

Aspin: I think, yes. There will be a defensive system that can be developed that will meet the threat from... A ground-based defense of the continental United States. I have confidence that that will be developed. There is also research into more exotic space-based defenses, and a lot of that needs more work to determine whether it's any good.

Q: In the bottom-up review...are you recommending the cancellation of any systems, any weapons?

Aspin: In this area? You mean in...

Q: any of the current systems being developed or being looked at, are you going to eliminate anything?

Aspin: Not this year. We want to develop some more technology and to develop both of them. We may end up deciding to go with one or several, a fewer number than are on the table now, but we need to do more research to decide which is a better one.

Mr. Hall: Thank you, sir.

Mr. Hall: We'll take a brief filing break and return at 1:40 p.m.

Mr. Hall: Let me just mention one thing here. It was raised with me by someone the question or the issue, did the Secretary mean the people of Russia when he was talking about thugs, and the self-evident answer is no, he did not. He was talking about the government of the former Soviet Union, "the evil empire," as he called it.

Press: Thank you.