Evan Vucci / AP
Earlier this year, President Trump presented an ambitious plan for American missile defense. "Our goal is simple," Trump said during a speech in January. "To ensure that we can detect and destroy all missiles launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anywhere."
To achieve that goal, the new defense budget proposed by the administration requires hundreds of millions of dollars to study the use of lasers and particle beams in space. "It's new technology," the president said.
Except it isn't.
The defenses outlined by Trump look almost exactly like a ten-year-old program known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. That plan was drafted by President Ronald Reagan in a 1983 speech. The Reagan program, called "Star Wars", imagined an impenetrable shield with orbit around lasers and particle beams to zap the then Soviet rockets before they could hit their targets.
"It's remarkable how similar all these things are, I'm actually not sure it's surprising," said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Acton says rocket shields are limited by the rules of physics. "Ultimately, missile defense is a very, very difficult problem, and there are a very limited number of ways to solve that problem."
It is virtually impossible to create a national rocket shield without building it into space – it is only by taking the ultimate height that a target as large as the US can defend.
Unfortunately, trying to operate in space creates many problems. Technology that is already difficult to operate on the ground must tolerate scorching heat, freezing cold and cosmic radiation. And if something goes wrong, it cannot be solved.
Despite tens of billions, Reagan & # 39; s Star Wars program has never produced a shield. But some say it's worth reconsidering.
"It would be negligent on our part not to go back and look at these technologies," says Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Things have changed since the 1980s: Lasers are much smaller and much more powerful; satellites that once had to be as big as a school bus can be shrunk into a shoe box.
"And we can reduce start-up costs, which was one of the biggest cost sources," says Heinrichs.
Small satellites in combination with new and cheap commercial rockets can make a space-based defense program more affordable, she notes.
The Trump administration seems to be aiming to revisit some of the Star Wars era technology. The President's 2020 budget plan requires $ 116 million to develop targeted energy weapons for missile defense and $ 34 million more for particle beams. It also requires $ 132 million for advanced sensors, which are essential for any space-based defense. It remains to be seen whether Democrats in Parliament will go along with the financing proposal.
Critics say it is unlikely that a new Star Wars program will be too much. Laura Grego, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, admits that progress has been made, but says there is not enough of it. Take particle bundles – targeted streams of atoms that are designed to bake a target. Here on earth, the equipment needed to generate a powerful jet can be miles long and use as much electricity as a small city. No one has found a way to reduce that technology to satellite format. In 1989, a prototype was briefly introduced into space on a suborbital flight. It weighed 2,500 pounds and produced a tiny jet that lasted only a few minutes.
"I don't know why they think this is practical again," says Grego.
And there is another problem that no amount of technology can solve: a space-based system constantly revolves around the earth in its orbit.
"A single weapon is never where it should be to work properly, so you need a zodiac sign," says Grego. "It will be really very fast, really fast."
A 2012 study by the US National Academy of Sciences said that a space-based defense system would cost many hundreds of satellites and possibly cost $ 300 billion.
That figure is also disputed by some who think that space-based defenses deserve a second look. Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it is based on the only technology that could be ready in the near future: space-based interceptor rockets. Lasers would have longer series and need fewer satellites, he emphasizes.
"If we can get this right from space, I think we should think about it," says Karako.
But for Grego, the renewed focus on technology ignores the way in which Reagan ultimately reduced the nuclear danger – not through lasers and beams, but through a series of arms control treaties that limited the numbers and types of nuclear weapons that the US and the Soviet Union would may possess.
"It wasn't because we were great at missile defense," she says. "It was just the hard work of treaties and negotiations."