SDI could have been limited to the laboratory for ten years and the ABM Treaty affirmed as requested by Gorbachev without any real damage to meaningful research on defense technology. By the end of 1986 most of the exotic, space-based weapons such as the X-ray laser, chemical lasers, and other directed-energy programs had moved backward rather than forward toward the actual design of a weapons system. SDI research increasingly focused on kinetic-energy weapons, interceptor missiles fired from space or on the ground to destroy incoming missiles.
As Congress proceeded to cut fiscal year 1987 funding for SDI to 3 percent growth, versus the administration's request for 5 percent, or $3.5 billion, Weinberger and conservatives pushed for deployment of SDI despite the fact that the program remained a research program with nothing adequately tested for deployment. Hard-liners feared that if Reagan failed to persuade Congress to move to deployment, SDI would never make it out of the laboratory and would eventually be cashed as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Gorbachev.
During a prolonged battle with Congress over SDI in 1987 that intersected with the Iran-Contra affair and its damage to Reagan's confidence and political standing, the president refused to back off. In a push for a reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty that would permit testing, the White House succeeded in uniting Democrats and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in support of the established meaning of the treaty. The Joint Chiefs sent SDI back to the laboratory by insisting that any weapon would have to go through the standard Defense Acquisitions Board where it would have to fulfill a series of requirements starting with a statement of what the weapon could accomplish. Since SDI officials presented an initial plan that consisted mainly of theoretical components of space-based battle stations and ground-based interceptors, defense specialists strung out the review through the year and by 1988 had sent SDI back to the laboratory.
Although Reagan refused to make any deal that would limit testing and deployment of SDI, Gorbachev and Soviet leaders moved to detach the issue from an agreement on INF and START. Soviet officials had extensive experience with an ABM system around Moscow and shared the skepticism of American scientists about the Star Wars lasers and exotic technologies. They also recognized that any space-based system would be very vulnerable to attack. Yet they worried that the potential of American science and technology, combined with the expenditure of billions, could lead to a technological breakthrough and a first-strike capability. As Frances Fitz Gerald suggests in Way Out There in the Blue, information from Washington about the status of SDI research and a recommendation from Andrei Sakharov, a leading Soviet scientist recently released from internal exile, influenced Gorbachev's decision to unlink SDI from an INF agreement and START.