Keeping the Technological Edge: Britain and the Strategic Defense Initiative

We will discuss Aaron Bateman's article, "Keeping the Technological Edge: Britain and the Strategic Defense Initiative."

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Speaker: Aaron Bateman, PhD Candidate, Department of History of Science and Technology, Johns Hopkins University

Respondent: Dr. Daniel Salisbury, Research Fellow, Centre for Science and Security Studies, Department of War Studies, King's College London


In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan called upon American scientists to develop a capability that would render the threat of strategic nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” This led to the establishment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a concept for a multi-layered missile defense system with interceptors on land, at sea, and in space. Although SDI represented a radical re-orientation of U.S. national security policy, no U.S. allies were consulted prior to the president’s 1983 speech. Most troubling to U.S. allies was Reagan’s nuclear abolitionist rhetoric associated with SDI. This program arrived at an especially sensitive time for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had to contend with growing anti-nuclear sentiments in Britain and across Europe. Despite her concerns about Reagan’s desire to use SDI to secure a nuclear-free world, in 1985 Britain became the first country to formally participate in SDI research and development. Recently declassified British documents challenge the narrative that Thatcher was largely hostile to SDI. In addition to her desire to not upset Anglo-American intelligence and nuclear cooperation, the prime minister believed that SDI would produce a technological revolution with profound implications for both U.K. defense and economic competitiveness. She furthermore concluded that SDI could upset the Soviet strategic calculus. Consequently, Thatcher believed that Britain had to secure privileged access to SDI technologies to keep its technological edge.

Speaker bio:

Aaron Bateman is a PhD candidate in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation explores the origins and evolution of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative and its consequences both for American-Soviet strategic arms negotiations and for transatlantic security. Prior to his doctoral studies he served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with assignments at the National Security Agency and the Pentagon. His research has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Diplomacy and Statecraft, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Science and Diplomacy, War on the Rocks, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (among others). Beginning in the fall of 2021 he will be a Guggenheim predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

Respondent bio:

Dr Daniel Salisbury is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) within the Department of War Studies. He is currently undertaking a three-year research project on arms embargos as part of a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. Daniel is also a Non-Resident Associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center. He previously held positions at the Belfer Center, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, CSSS and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Daniel is the author of Secrecy, Public Relations and the British Nuclear Debate: How the UK Government Learned to Talk about the Bomb, 1970-1983, published by Routledge as part of the Cold War History Series in March 2020. He is also the author or co-author of 10 journal articles and the co-editor of two books on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and UN Security Council resolution 1540.

Daniel has acted as a Subject Matter Expert at over 30 nuclear security and export control capacity building workshops in over 10 countries around the world since 2012. He holds a PhD in War Studies, MA in Science and Security and BA in War Studies from KCL. He sits on the editorial board of the Strategic Trade Review and became an Associate of King’s College London (AKC) in 2010.

Published Apr. 19, 2021 4:44 PM - Last modified May 5, 2021 2:07 PM