It is common knowledge that in 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to defend the United States from long range nuclear ballistic missiles.
It didn’t take very long for the general public to start referring to the initiative as “Star Wars”, since it presented a scenario where weapons would be placed into orbit around Earth for the sole purpose of defending areas on Earth from a nuclear attack.
Under Clinton, the effort became the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in 1993, and then in 2002 it became the Missile Defense Agency.
Throughout the program, there were a number of proposed methods to defend against incoming ballistic missiles. Those included the most realistic proposal – the ground-based Extended Range Interceptor missiles. But there were also more ambitious solutions proposed, such as nuclear powered satellite lasers to shoot down multiple warheads simultaneously (X-ray lasers), chemical lasers using deuterium fluoride, and even an electrically powered “rail-gun” that could fire high-velocity projectiles at the guidance system of a nuclear missile.
One 1991 document from the Department of Defense described Project Altair – the effort to develop Directed Energy (DE) weapons to “deny an attacker his objectives even in intense ballistic missile attacks.”
Directed Energy Technologies
The two “most promising” technologies listed in the document for use in directed energy weapons included the neutral particle beams, and space-based lasers (both chemical and electron types).
Project Altair was specifically the name of the experiment that would “address the feasibility of target acquisition, precision tracking, and beam pointing for Directed Energy Weapon systems.”
The goal was to develop the best methods that could be used to acquire nuclear missile targets in flight, track those targets, and then utilize tracking data to point a weapon of choice at that missile.
It’s actually impressive how engineers and scientists at the time attempted to compensate for lack of technology by utilizing the information that was available to determine the actual position of the nuclear missile’s hardbody while it was in flight.
The proposed method for doing this involved using the Passive Intermediate Tracking (PIT) sensor to track targets by tracking the booster plumes of missiles in flight. The method involved using known algorithms related to the plume to estimate the location of the hardbody of the actual missile.
Another proposed test for ballistic missile tracking was the use of illuminating the target with a laser to track and target the missile. Using the speed of light in their calculations, engineers could then determine the “point-ahead angle” to pinpoint the location of the target by the time the laser beam makes it back to the Directed Energy system.
Final Results of Project Altair
It would be interesting to read the results of such an ambitious experiment. However, the experiment was never going to become reality.
After sinking about $16 million on developing the designs and plans for the Project Altair experiments, the Project was cancelled.
According to Globalsecurity.org, the project was replaced with a much less ambitious project to accomplish many of the same goals, using high altitude balloons.
While the Project Altair experiment was estimated to cost roughly $330 million, the new scaled-down balloon experiments were estimated to cost only about $76 million.
Fast forward a decade to 2002, when President Bush issued the orders for a missile defense system to be in place by 2004. The agency that was once the Strategic Defense Initiative, and then the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, was finally named the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
As of 2007, the MDA reported that a fully functional missile defense system is still under development, but that it is far enough along that it could be used at any time.
By 2009, President Obama based the European missile defense system – started under the Bush administration – on the latest available SM-3 Interceptors. The system is focused on defending Europe against any missiles – short and long range – launched from the Middle East.
Today, it is a highly-effective anti-missile system that has its roots in the original Star Wars program first launched by President Reagan so many years ago.