A Brief History
On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed the development and deployment of what he called The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would become known as “Star Wars” and would cost around one trillion dollars! Unfortunately, the commendable idea of making the US invulnerable to attack by Soviet ballistic missiles had 2 major problems, besides the economy ruining cost. The first problem was that if it could work, the so called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) theory that kept either side from nuking the other because such an exchange would result in everybody gets blasted, a no-win scenario which would become obsolete if one side could launch a surprise attack without fear of retaliation. The second major problem is there would be no realistic way for a perfect umbrella of anti-missile defenses to actually work beyond blocking maybe 75% of incoming warheads, meaning we would still be nuked into the stone age. Plus, the Soviets would certainly employ all sorts of ingenious countermeasures to defeat our defenses anyway. It seems we never run out of ways to waste money, and the Cold War was a grand stage for that!
10. The 600 Ship Navy.
President Reagan insisted that the US needed a “600 Ship Navy” with no explanation of why. We certainly had the most capable navy in the world by far, although the Soviets had a few more ships, those ships were far less effective. Reagan even brought back 4 battleships which looked really nifty, but were quite expensive to operate. The large fleet of American super-aircraft carriers was more than all the rest of the world’s navies combined, and no other navy had even a single carrier as capable as an American aircraft carrier. At the time, the Soviets did not have even one conventional aircraft carrier.
9. “Atomic Annie”
A large artillery piece designed to shoot a nuclear warhead similar in power to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs almost 20 miles. The 280 mm bore cannon weighed in at 83 tons, or about double what tanks of the 1950’s weighed. If actually used in combat, the heavy weight of the system would grossly hamper its mobility as few bridges could bear its weight, and the 20 mile maximum range is not maximum enough to prevent the men firing it from getting radiated, especially if the wind was blowing back toward them. Additionally, it was a sure bet that the Soviets would keep careful track of where the cannons (known officially as the M65) were and target them first thing in the event of hostilities. Finally, the thought of using tactical nuclear weapons in a densely populated area such as Europe is abhorrent.
8. B-36 Peacemaker.
A giant bomber with a design that started in 1941 with the idea of bombing an expected Nazi controlled Europe from bases in the eastern US, the original optimistic goal was a bomber that could carry 100,000 pounds of bombs for 10,000 miles. Of course, since fighter planes could not fly that far, it would have to fight its way in and out on its own, a totally unrealistic proposition as proven by the bombing campaigns of World War II. Although the top speed of just over 400 mph does not seem bad, the realistic cruising speed was a more sedate 230 mph, making it easy prey for piston engine fighters let alone jet fighters! As the B-29 proved, even the state of the art bomber was no match for fighters as the B-29 was relegated to night bombing over Japan and was torn to pieces by MiG-15 fighters over Korea. The B-36 was not made to be refueled in the air and was not only the largest airplane of its day, it was also the most expensive. With a very short operational life of 10 years (1949 to 1959) the B-36 was basically already obsolete when it was first fielded. The all jet swept wing B-47 was on duty by 1951 making the B-36 a terrible waste of money and resources. Oh, and to get a sense of just what a nightmare it must have been to fly this thing, look at the B-36 Cockpit Gauge Maze!
7. B-2 Spirit.
At over $44 billion for only 21 bombers the unit price is totally without any sort of comparison to any other aircraft. Another one of the incredibly expensive nuclear delivery systems designed to do what much cheaper missiles and other aircraft could already do, the B-2 stealth bomber was used to drop non-nuclear ordnance first in the Kosovo War in 1999, next in the War in Afghanistan in 2001, and elsewhere over the following two decades.
6. B-1 Lancer.
This beautiful and graceful looking jet bomber was intended to take over from the B-52 as the backbone of the US bomber force, but President Carter cancelled purchase of it when it was apparent that the expensive jet had serious deficiencies. That did not stop President Reagan, who almost immediately ordered procurement of this weapon at 3 times the price ($288,000.000 each) that it was when Carter cancelled it. In the first Gulf War in 1991, the US relied on the B-52 and let the B-1 sit that one out. What a waste! Today (2020), we still have about 75 B-52’s in service, with a fleet of about 60 B-1’s. To make matters worse, the B-1 has been long relieved of its intended nuclear bombing duties and is operated as a conventional bomber.
5. MiG 25 Foxbat.
The Soviets were not immune to wasting money and effort, and the MiG 25 is a good example of that. Built to fly at mach 3.2, a more realistic limit was mach 2.8 because at the higher speed the engines would be ruined. Extremely un-maneuverable for a fighter/interceptor, the Foxbat was designed to shoot down US supersonic B-58 Hustler bombers and the planned B-70, something the Foxbat never had to do. The Foxbat was the second fastest and second highest flying warplane while it served (in both cases to the SR-71 Blackbird) and almost 1200 were built. The solution to a problem that did not exist, the Soviets wasted a lot of time, money and effort on this airplane.
4. Soviet and American Tanks.
The Soviets fielded over 50,000 tanks during the Cold War, to about 12,000 by the US (circa 1980). It seems both sides were going to fight World War II over again and wanted to be sure to have enough tanks. What they were not thinking about, was the incredibly lethal array of tank killing weapons that had been developed that effectively made mass tank attacks a suicidal proposition. Cluster bombs and anti-tank missiles of all sizes, helicopters and jets specifically made to attack tanks made tank survival tenuous at best, and let us not forget nuclear weapons! At least the US got to use some tanks during the two Gulf Wars, while the Soviets’ main use of theirs in Afghanistan was the wrong weapon in the wrong place at the wrong time.
3. Strategic Defense Initiative.
As discussed in the introduction, the SDI was a good idea only if we planned on starting a nuclear war because if we did not have it, neither side would start such a war. Although it never was practical and was never fielded, that did not stop us from spending billions on investigating the feasibility of different approaches to an anti-missile defense. We ended up later focusing our efforts on tactical (shorter range) missile defense systems, somewhat more useful.
2. The MX Missile.
As if blowing the Soviet Empire up several times over with the thousands of warheads we already had on bombers, cruise missiles, submarine launched missiles, and our land based ICBM’s (Minuteman and Titan) was not enough! No, we needed a newer, bigger missile (meaning much more expensive). The proposal was to build a whole new network of underground silos with underground railways to shuttle the huge missiles back and forth to make it harder for the Soviets to target them. The alternative was called “Dense Pack” where the silos would be clustered close enough together that incoming nuclear bombs would blow up other incoming nuclear bombs but could not destroy more than one silo at a time. If the preceding concept sounds stupid, it is because it is stupid! Determined to waste money no matter what, we got the MX missiles and just put them in old silos and called them Peacekeeper. They were retired in 2005.
1. The Viet Nam War.
Depending on whose statistics you believe, this war cost the US over 58,000 dead and over 300,000 wounded. Additionally, somewhere between a million and 2 million Vietnamese were killed with uncounted civilian and military people maimed. The cost for the US was not just in money and people, but also in the loss of respect and prestige throughout the world and in the deep wounds left by the debate about the war and the conduct of the war. The Kent State massacre, the mistreatment of our returning veterans, the PTSD and drug problems brought back from Viet Nam; the list is longer than we have room for (not to mention the related Cambodia and Laos misadventures). And of course, the icing on the cake, we lost the war and today Viet Nam is one of just a few communist countries left in the world.
Question for students (and subscribers): Tell us what you think were the worst wastes of Cold War dollars in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Gusterson, Hugh. Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. University of California Press, 1996.
Yenne, Bill. Secret Weapons of the Cold War: From the H-Bomb to SDI. Berkeley Books, 2005.
The featured image in this article, an artist’s concept of a ground/space-based hybrid laser weapon, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.
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