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Sword of Heat

Published: Monday, 29 June 2015 21:06
Written by Gerold Yonas, PhD and Jill Gibson
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In the early '80s, America and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear war. After twenty years of the so-called “arms race,” the Soviets had built up their nuclear weapon stockpile from 5,000 to 40,000, while at the same time, in the interest of detente; America had reduced its stockpile from 30,000 to 20,000. Meanwhile, many scientific and political leaders were searching for a high-tech solution to the threat of mutually assured destruction. Some, including President Ronald Reagan, believed the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI was the answer, but SDI Acting Deputy Director and Chief Scientist Gerold Yonas wasn’t so sure.Today, nearly thirty years after leaving his leadership role in the SDI program, Yonas is writing about his involvement in the creation and evolution of the Star Wars beam weapon program and the role it played in the Soviet Union’s demise. Yonas’s complex tale moves from the quest to develop science fiction-esque space weapons to the need to understand the political and economic factors that shaped decisions in the Soviet Union and the United States. From death rays to deception and disillusionment, Yonas traces the scientific developments, political posturing and psychological battles that led to the end of the Cold War. Yonas provides a unique, firsthand perspective on the scientific achievements and failures, the people, and the politics that shaped this time period and he explores how technological developments that started with Star Wars could become an integral part of ensuring peace today. His account follows.


© Copyright, Potomac Institute Press 

In 1982, the well-known Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson delivered a series of lectures about the threat of nuclear war. Dyson summed up the situation by stating, “We now possess weapons of mass destruction whose capacity for killing and torturing people surpasses all our imaginings. The Soviet government has weapons that are as bad or worse. We have been almost totally unsuccessful in halting the multiplication and proliferation of these weapons.”1 Dyson went on to persuasively advocate a negotiated move from nuclear weapons based retaliation toward increased reliance on defense-based deterrence. He suggested that a solution might lie in developing “a concept of weaponry which would allow us to protect our national interests without committing us to threaten the wholesale massacre of innocent people.”2

This quest for a futuristic weapon to achieve a military advantage was first described in science fiction. In The War of the Worlds, published in 1887, H.G. Wells wrote of the use of “death rays”– “An almost noiseless and blinding flash of light…This invisible, inevitable sword of heat.”3 In 1925, Russian novelist Alexei Tolstoi revived this notion of a beam weapon in his book The Garin Death Ray. Tolstoi captured the imagination of the Soviet military by describing “transmission that does not disperse… to cut through a railway bridge in a few seconds.” Tolstoi also characterized his laser-like weapon as “an invention that smells of higher politics” and noted “our enemies must not get it.”4 The Garin’s death ray was simply science fiction – at least at first.

The Soviet push to develop death rays grew from a series of actions and reactions that rapidly escalated and built the arms race. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik and America reacted by creating the first intercontinental ballistic missiles. In response, the Soviet military leaders turned to their scientific community to bring them a new and better way to protect Moscow from nuclear tipped ballistic missiles. N.G.Basov, who had received the Nobel Prize along with Prokorov and Townes for the invention of the laser, proposed a nuclear explosion to create a ten million joule laser pulse (with an energy equivalent to six sticks of dynamite). At that time the largest existing laser was just ten joule. Basov soon switched his concept to a more practical chemical explosive pumped iodine laser and achieved a one million joule (MJ) output. This demonstration launched the Soviet Union’s Terra 3 program and led to the creation of many rapidly built giant Soviet facilities, sparking great concern within the US defense community.

In 1977, General George Keegan, head of Air Force Intelligence, claimed the Soviets had created “a Particle Beam Weapon capable of destroying the entire US capabilities within one strike.”5 The CIA was so befuddled by such claims and the mysterious Soviet facilities that they turned to their Project Stargate to enlist the services of their remote viewers. One of them studied the “Possible Nuclear Test Site also known as PNUTS” in Semipalitensk, Kazakstan, and drew a picture of a giant multistory crane looming over an unexplained underground structure that only confused US intelligence more.6 While the Terra 3 program succeeded in garnering US attention, it ultimately failed. After spending more than a decade and countless wasted billions of rubles, Basov canceled the program, and explained, “Well we made sure that nobody can shoot down a ballistic missile by a laser beam.”7

But that was certainly not the end of the Soviet laser program. In 1980, Evgeny Velikhov, arguably one of the most creative and powerful engineers and scientists in the Soviet Union, claimed, “We managed to place a one million watt laser on an aircraft… knocked down a fast flying missile… Americans reached only one third of this power in a flying laboratory…We can do anything…all our troubles are found inside our heads.”8 The Soviets then set out to create a space based anti-satellite weapon. Yuri Kornilov, design head of Salyut Space Station, wrote about this Polyus payload for the Energia booster saying, “No excuses were acceptable…everything was run according to schedule demands….iron willed idea, iron willed oversight, iron willed time frames, and spare no expense.”9 The Soviets were developing a space-based weapons system in spite of ongoing negotiations to de-escalate the arms race.

Meanwhile a study by the White House Science Council10 had advised against the idea of using high power lasers for ballistic missile defense, but US President Ronald Reagan felt the idea was promising. Reagan issued a challenge in his controversial 1983 “Star Wars” speech, saying, “I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Reagan set the goal of finding a technological solution to end the nuclear arms race. The SDI program grew from his rhetorical question, “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?”

A key component of Reagan’s Star Wars proposal was his willingness to share American strategic defense technology with the Soviet Union – provided that the Soviet Union was willing to cooperate in the interest of achieving peace.11 This desire to share technology with our adversary represented the most controversial and progressive aspect of Reagan’s proposal. The Soviets, however, were in no mood to go along with this initiative. Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB and soon to be the leader of the Soviet Union, immediately responded, “This is a plot to militarize space…and attack from the skies…to disarm the Soviet Union in the face of the American nuclear threat… not just irresponsible, it is insane.”12

A few months later, Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger requested that James Fletcher, former head of NASA, put together a plan to realize Reagan’s vision. Fletcher appointed Harold Agnew, former head of Los Alamos National Lab as his deputy for a three-month study. Agnew asked me, as an expert in pulsed power systems and Vice President at Sandia National Labs, to head up the directed energy weapon (DEW) section of the study, with instructions to focus on long-term high-risk issues that Fletcher called “the long poles in the tent.” Charged with identifying funding needs and feasibility issues, I turned to Harold Agnew for advice. Agnew’s response was far from positive. ”The process could be really dangerous,” he warned me, predicting “there would be so many contractors trampling each other on the way to the sources of funding.” Shortly after that, Agnew walked away from the study and opposed the long-term focus on DEW, suggesting instead an emphasis on space based sensors and ground based interceptors.

At the end of the Fletcher Study, I concluded, “The ultimate effectiveness, complexity, and degree of technical risk in this system will depend not only on technology itself, but also on the extent to which the Soviet Union agrees to mutual defense arrangements and offense limitations… The outcome of this initiative of an evolutionary shift in our strategic direction will hinge on yet unresolved policy as well as technical issues.”13 The far more public statement issued from the White House stated, “By taking an optimistic view of newly emerging technologies, we concluded that a robust ballistic missile defense (BMD) system could be made to work eventually.” Weinberger told Fletcher, “rest assured the resultant report will indeed have a major impact on national security strategy…..for the benefit of mankind we are committed to seize the opportunity.”14 Weinberger said he supported the program as highest priority research and development in the Department of Defense. In spite of the support from Weinberger, General Brent Scowcroft issued a report on the future of nuclear deterrence, and totally discounted any defense.

In early 1984, Weinberger asked Air Force Lieutenant General James Abrahamson to head the newly formed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program. Abrahamson asked me to become his deputy and chief scientist and Sandia National Labs agreed to lend me for two years as Acting Deputy and Chief Scientist. My assignment focused increasingly on ground based interceptors and mid-course discrimination, but I remained convinced the key would be a negotiated agreement to reduce nuclear weapons. I proposed “a jointly managed missile launch detection system… to reduce instability…and set the stage for movement toward mutual acceptance of the transition to defense dominated deterrence.”15 I also advocated an arms control approach and a shift to a focus on defense based deterrent, not protection of population. At separate meetings with Vice President George Bush in 1985 and Secretary of State George Shultz in 1986, I emphasized that the program was a long-term research and development activity with no clear road to any defense system deployment.

Despite my skepticism, the SDI program continued to receive high-level support. Two SDI advisors who had been pioneers in the US ICBM program, General Schriever and Simon Ramo, told General Abrahamson: “SDI is technically and management-wise the most complex and difficult program ever undertaken by this country…perhaps by an order of magnitude…the most important for the survival of the free world.” The Soviets were also taking the SDI seriously. Alexander Yakovlev advised Gorbachev, “We needed a plan to crush SDI…a block of concrete would completely flatten it…so we offered nuclear disarmament by 2000.”16

When I arrived in Washington, DC in the spring of 1984, I found my SDI office in a dilapidated office building on H. Street with no air conditioning – and, even worse, no security. There were only a handful of people to run what was to become an enormously controversial and complex program. I eventually was assigned an office with General Abrahamson, in the Pentagon, but it took years to get decent offices for the staff. In my two years in the Pentagon I was involved in not just the creation of this multi-billion dollar program, but faced with the chaos and confusion of dealing with truckloads of contract seeking engineers, busloads of angry academic scientists, carloads of confused and prejudiced Congressional representatives, multitudes of reporters, gangs of protestors, and unlimited numbers of average citizens from all over the world who wanted to know what exactly we were trying to accomplish, by when, and at what cost? The answers were not forthcoming.

My brief time in the Pentagon was spent dealing with the constant criticism from some of the most prestigious members of the scientific community. I found myself in dozens of debates, including an argument carried out in print with face-to-face full color photographs with my former Cornell quantum mechanics professor and Nobel Laureate, Hans Bethe. Bethe openly attacked SDI in an article, saying, “The entire system could never be tested under circumstances that were remotely realistic…mutual deterrence is all we have.”17

In another publication, I went up against one of the leaders in the arms control community, Wolfgang Panofsky, who had authored my favorite college textbook on electricity and magnetism. In his article, Panofsky amused his audience with his wit: “Something fascinating about science, one gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such trifling investment of fact. SDI is so much political and strategic posturing on such limited technical and military potential.” Panofsky was absolutely correct that the political implications often dominated the reality of science and technology, but instead of considering the psychological implications of futuristic weapons research, he went on to ridicule the SDI, saying, “like a dog walking on his hind legs, it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”18

As I continued fighting off attacks and defending the research behind the SDI program, both the US and the Soviet leaders were gearing up for Reagan and Gorbachev’s October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. In preparation for the Reykjavik summit, Gorbachev’s advisers had told him that US defenses could eventually be “99% effective” and even “allow at most 0.1% of the attacking missiles to get through.” The Soviet military advisers informed Gorbachev, “The Soviet Union lags approximately 4-5 years behind the United States in research on creating the elements of a space based missile defense echelon.”19

Gorbachev also knew that his own military industrial complex was rushing forward to deploy their first space based laser weapon. The Soviet military instructions to Gorbachev just prior to Reykjavik were, “It is necessary to delay the US defense system to gain time to conduct analogous work in our own country and to develop counter measures against the US BMD…if the US does not test these weapons over the next ten years, that will allow us to decrease our lag behind them in creating the space based ABM defense.”20

Reagan went into the Reykjavik meeting ready to deal, but not prepared for Gorbachev’s bold initiatives. In fact, before that historic meeting, George Shultz told his assistants, “We should trade the sleeves of our vest.” 21 But Gorbachev was far from agreeable. During the negotiations, Gorbachev demanded, “The testing in space of all space components of missile defense is prohibited, except research and testing conducted in laboratories.” Reagan’s response was, “What the hell is the difference, in the lab or not, besides I can’t back down since I promised the American people I would not give up SDI. Do me a favor, Mikhail, since we get along so well, and then the two of us could bring peace to the world.” Gorbachev replied, “I am not against SDI, but if I agreed to testing and development outside the laboratories and testing in space, I could not return to Moscow. Your testing would allow you to create weapons and a large scale space defense system in ten years.”22 The meeting ended with the two world leaders feeling crushed and defeated. Nothing had been resolved.

Meanwhile, I had completed my two-year assignment to the Pentagon, but I was nowhere near finished with my involvement in SDI. In December of 1986, just a few months after I left Washington, I was invited to attend an SDI conference in Tutzing, Germany. I saw this meeting as an opportunity to close my assignment by “setting the record straight” and leaving a permanent record of what I understood at that time. Little did I know that many of my scientific colleagues attending the meeting were ready to take a particularly hostile stance against SDI. The participants were less interested in getting answers than in sharing their views of the past and future of the program. I usually took a less than serious approach to such public interactions but this audience had little tolerance for my humor.

The meeting took place in a German castle near Munich in a building that looked a bit like a set from one of those World War II depictions of a US command center. I could imagine General Patton standing at the front of the conference room giving orders. I later learned that General Eisenhower had in fact used the castle as his headquarters in command of the allied forces as the war drew to a close. The castle had been the centerpiece of the decisions involved in the destruction of Nazi Germany. At the time I did not know that we were involved in the soon to be destruction of the Soviet Union.

Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration, courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The castle had even a more notable history as the meeting organizer Klaus Gottstein explained in the opening session. Gottstein surmised that in the 8th century, the inhabitants of the castle were worried about the coming of doomsday, and the destruction of humanity in the 10th century. Gottstein explained to us that here 1200 years later we were still “worrying about the possibility of doomsday,” but he suggested optimistically that we were not just hoping, but pursuing SDI in order “to make peace more secure.”23 Despite Gottstein’s optimism, many of the Americans present at the meeting were seeking an end to the SDI program and they had arrived prepared to administer the program’s final deathblows.

The meeting included 33 carefully chosen participants who were encouraged to express their opinions openly concerning the murky social, political, economic and even technical issues of SDI. Most of the participants were German scholars and defense professionals, but the attendance included a handful of carefully chosen scientists and academics. I knew all of the Americans since I had been engaged often in debates and discussions with them, and knew they would be opposed to my opinions.

I saw this meeting as an opportunity to tell my story and deal with the most difficult of all audiences I had ever faced. I gave the opening presentation with a detailed and fairly complete view of the myriad of technical issues that had to be resolved. Many of these had been identified in the summer of 1983 study chaired by James Fletcher. We had only just started on the program in the spring of ’84, and in less than two years of real organized activity, there had been little real resolution of the key issues. I had no illusion that my audience would tolerate my lack of reported results. In fact, they were not at all forgiving.

The atmosphere was initially very informal and friendly with suggested audience participation, but it did not take more than a few minutes into my talk for Richard Garwin, probably the most knowledgeable strategic offense/defense expert in the world, to interrupt me and say. “Enough about questions, but what are the answers?”24 He knew from my opening remarks that I viewed SDI as a long term broadly-based research program, but he would not accept that we didn’t know the answers already due to the administration’s many claims. I argued that we would have to spend several tens of billions of dollars and at least ten years to answer the important questions but Garwin disagreed.

Garwin’s interruption was just the first salvo of what would be a determined onslaught from the American defense experts. I felt the Germans wanted to be more open and even sympathetic to my views maybe out of courtesy to a guest, but the Americans showed little kindness to the person that they treated as a rank amateur or even a slightly unprepared scoundrel. I was faced with blistering comments from some of the most highly respected arms control experts.

Robert Cooper, a recent head of the DARPA, who had been engaged for many years in strategic defense technology, did not hide his contempt for what he described as the low technical capabilities of the Department of Defense. Cooper even implied that I was an example of the DoD’s lack of knowledge.25 He made it clear that there was nothing new in missile defense science and technology to back up the Reagan vision to “protect all of the people all of the time.”26 Cooper opened the gates for Jack Ruina, another former head of DARPA, who then went on the attack. “Gerry won’t like this, but Star Wars has seen its last good days, and I would not buy stock in the SDI program now. We don’t always believe in what Presidents have said in the past, and after all, this is political rhetoric.”27

Garwin listened for a while and I began to think he was going to drop the personal attacks and defend me when he said, “Of course SDI has some good things going.” I sighed with relief but then he went on to say, “Even the Mafia has some good things they do… and when the SDI is put into receivership under the bankruptcy lawyer, there will be an official appointed to look at the good programs...”28 I wondered if he might want to be that official?

George Rathjens, a distinguished MIT professor and a former deputy head of DARPA added, “SDI is going nowhere, and we should not support it any longer...the responsible thing is to kill it as gracefully as we can.”29 I argued for a continuation of the program that would lead to an arms control agreement that allowed for a continuation of a treaty compliant technology program. I suggested that we consider other forms of retaliation that would be less time urgent and thus avoid instabilities in a rapidly evolving crisis. I advised that we move away from missiles delivering multiple warheads and toward an agreement that would be based on a public understanding of the problems of continuing the present approach. I concluded that rather than continue the meaningless discussion of a perfect defense, we focus on a more stable form of deterrence. I argued, “The public will accept the impossibility of eternal life, but would be willing to invest in research to prolong life.”30

My point of view was one of strengthening deterrence, rather than getting rid of it and jointly managing a transition with the Soviets to greater reliance on defense and reduced investments in strategic missiles. I suggested, “Societies will change if we can survive until sometime in the next century, where we may look upon this reliance on a vast quantity of nuclear weapons as being a temporary chapter in the history of mankind.”31 In the end, the conference participants only wanted to talk about the futility of the technology. I didn’t disagree with the futility of the technology but technology is only useful within the political context. Like Freeman Dyson, I was seeking a live and let live, win-win solution to ending the arms race. But my American colleagues were not listening.32

The conference in Tutzing ended with the SDI detractors muttering that the United States should stop wasting money and the Germans still wondering how it was possible that the Soviets could be so worried about such a “worthless” program. Little did we know at the time that the Soviets had taken the US SDI program very seriously and their investment in the arms race had helped drive the country to economic ruin.33

Just a few years later, the Soviet Union imploded, the cold war ended without a single shot being fired, and Gorbachev was removed from power. Even with no persuasive technical results during my Pentagon assignment, the Star Wars program had achieved one of Reagan’s goals by contributing to the Soviet Union’s demise. In many ways, the entire story reads like something from science fiction. Perhaps that’s not a coincidence. Long before he became president, up and coming actor Ronald Reagan starred in the 1940 Warner Brothers movie, Murder in the Air. Reagan played a Secret Service agent who stops a foreign spy from stealing the plans for a new defensive weapon. This fictional weapon is able to destroy any attacking missile and will, according to one of the film’s characters, “make America invincible in war and therefore be the greatest force for peace ever invented.” Sound familiar?

Today, I still wonder if high power lasers will always be little more than the HG Wells’ vision of a “sword of heat.” With increasing proliferation of long range missiles and nuclear weapons, maybe the technical breakthroughs and new political thinking will create new opportunities for a credible missile defense. Scientific developments now appear to be making a true Star Wars program possible. In 2002, DARPA formulated a project that stated “tens of kilowatts output power and capability to scale to greater than hundreds of kilowatts output power and beyond will be demonstrated through coherent combining of the output power from multiple single-mode fiber lasers.”34 Having seen so many claims of future high laser developments, I have to admit to some skepticism; however, recently, Lockheed Martin announced, “Fiber optic lasers are revolutionizing directed energy systems…30 Kilowatt, single mode laser prototype…burned through an engine manifold in a matter of seconds from more than a mile away.”35 An effective Star Wars missile defense program could be right around the corner. Maybe Churchill was right, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”

These are just a few of the highlights of my direct involvement with SDI. With the passage of nearly thirty years, we have seen dramatic offensive and defensive technology advances. Today, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the widespread availability of long-range ballistic missiles, and the steady advances in defense technologies have changed the situation. Given these developments coupled with the demise of the Soviet Union and the passage of time, perhaps my former detractors and those who disparaged the idea of a long-term SDI research program would now see the program in a different light. Perhaps not. While Reagan’s “Evil Empire” may be gone, the true need for strategic defense technology may be more necessary now than ever. My experience with the SDI taught me that there are many complex lessons concerning the interplay of science, technology, politics, research, management, diplomacy, and science policy. I plan to continue to explore my recollections and their ramifications in future writings, as I track the past, present and future of the real “sword of heat.”



1. Freeman Dyson,“Bombs and Poetry” [The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Brasenose College, Oxford University. May 5, 12, 19, 1982].

2. Freeman Dyson, Weapons and Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

3. H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds (London: Chapman and Hall, 1898).

4. Alexi Tolstoi, The Garin Death Ray (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955).

5. Robert Hotz, “Beam Weapon Threat,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 2 (May 1977): 11.

6. Harold E. Puthoff, CIA-Initiated Remote Viewing at SRI,” The Intelligencer 12, no. 1 (Summer 2001): 60. 

7. P.V. Zarubin, “History of High Energy Lasers and Laser Based Systems”, 2004). 

8.  Evgeny P. Velikhov, ed. Shanti Blees, trans. Andrei Chakhovskoi, Strawberries from Chernobyl (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).

9. Konstantin Lantratov, trans. Asif Siddiqi, The ‘Star Wars’ Which Never Happened,” Quest Magazine 14, no 1 (2007).

10. Wiliam Golden, Science and Technology Advice to President, Congress, and Judiciary (Transaction Publishers, 1993), p. 257.

11. Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and his Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (New York: Transaction Publishers, 2005).

12. Benjamin B. Fisher,  A Cold War Conundrum, The 1983 Soviet Cold War Scare. (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 1997).

13. Gerald Yonas, The Strategic Defense Initiative, Deadalus, Spring 1985: 73-9014.

14. Unpublished notes by the author

15. Gerald Yonas, The Sinai Concept, unpublished Pentagon memo, 1984.

16. Sidney Drell and George Shultz, Implications of the Reykjavik Summit on its Twentieth Anniversary (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2007).

17Hans Bethe, “Can Star Wars Make Us Safe, No,” Science Digest, Sept. 1985.

18. W. Panofsky, The Strategic Defense Initiative, Perceptions and Reality, Physics Today, June, 1985.

19Drell and Shultz.

20. Ibid.

21. George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph (New York: Scribner’s, 1993).

22. US State Department Memorandum of Conversations, Oct. 11, 12, 1986. Reykjavik.

23. Klaus Gottstein, SDI and Stability, The Role of Assumptions and Perceptions (Baden-Baden, Germany: Nomos, 1988).

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. V.M. Zubok, A Failed Empire (Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 2007).

34. Durvasula, N.  Fiber lasers.  DARPATech 2002 talk.

35. Lockheed Martin, “Turning Up The Heat,” March 3, 2015.