How ‘Star Wars’ Shaped the U.S. Military

From Reagan’s missile-defense system to General Schwarzkopf’s ‘Jedi Knights’ and laser cannons, America’s armed forces have taken quite a few cues from Star Wars.

12.28.15 5:10 AM ET

Now that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars original trilogy remix The Force Awakens has been unleashed, transforming a new generation of cinemagoers into Nick Winters at The Powder Room, fanboys have begun to dissect its myriad inspirations. We know, for instance, that like George Lucas’s initial journey to a galaxy far, far away, with its stormtroopers, Werhmacht-esque Imperial officers, and Triumph of the Will ending, the evil First Order of Abrams’s film was heavily influenced by the Nazis. So it’s a bit ironic then that Adam Driver, the actor who plays Awakens’ volumized villain Kylo Ren, is a former U.S. Marine. Nevertheless, the link between Star Wars and America’s Armed Forces extends much further than that.

While the Star Wars movies have invaded every corner of popular culture, they also had an indelible impact on the U.S. military. This October, we learned that Lockheed Martin had flown 60 test flights outfitting jets with a tactical laser turret able to fire Tactical High-Energy Lasers (THELs) 360 degrees, taking out targets from all directions. It’s called the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) turret, and if it sounds at all familiar, it’s because it brings to mind the AG-2G quad laser cannon on the Millennium Falcon—you know, the one Finn operated. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is predicting that a working laser weapon will be on a U.S. warplane by 2020. Scientists are also exploring whether these ABC turrets may also be able to create a 360-degree laser shield, in the form of a bubble, around a U.S. plane.

The precursor to the Tactical-High Energy Laser was the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), which was a deuterium fluoride laser first tested by the U.S. Air Force in 1985. Initial tests were promising, with the laser taking out a Titan missile, but later efforts proved problematic. MIRACL was funded by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIC), an agency set up by the U.S. Department of Defense to manage the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Established on Jan. 6, 1984, one year after Return of the Jedi hit theaters, SDI was the brainchild of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It allocated billions of dollars toward the research and development of a missile defense system meant to protect America from a potential attack by Soviet intercontinental ballistic nuclear weapons. Reagan’s Democratic foes weren’t sold on the idea, and blasted it in the press. A Washington Post article on SDI by Lou Cannon published on March 24, 1983, quoted Ted Kennedy accusing the Reagan administration of “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.” Then the New York Post ran with it, carrying a big ol’ banner headline that read, “STAR WARS PLAN TO ZAP RED NUKES.” And thus, SDI was nicknamed “Star Wars.”

Reagan’s Star Wars program was so ubiquitous that it even inspired a 1987 Sega arcade game called, yes, SDI. And interestingly enough, George Lucas and his Lucasfilm sued the Committee for a Strong Peaceful America, an anti-SDI group that repeatedly branded the program “Star Wars” in attack ads, for trademark infringement. “Plaintiff fears that associating STAR WARS with this political controversy will injure the valuable goodwill it has achieved by developing a mark associated with imaginary battles among fantastic creatures in distant worlds,” read the suit. “Inevitably, the political debate identifies STAR WARS in some minds with devastation and death from uncontrollable nuclear escalation. Plaintiff urges this could detract from the public’s present association of STAR WARS with humor and fantasy.” (Lucas lost.)

If that weren’t enough, on Jan. 18, 1991, for the first time in history, an SDI missile destroyed a ballistic missile during combat. An Iraqi Scud missile was headed for a U.S. air base in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, when the U.S. deployed a Patriot air defense missile, which successfully nullified the threat. “Seconds later, a 17-foot Patriot missile sped 17,000 feet into the sky, caught the Scud as it arced its way earthward and, in a shower of sparks, detonated on impact,” wrote the Los Angeles Times at the time, adding, “The age of ‘Star Wars’ had arrived.”

One of the major reasons that the Gulf War—often nicknamed the 100-Hour War, since a cease-fire was declared a mere 100 hours into the U.S. ground campaign—was arguably the swiftest military victory in our nation’s history was because of a group of five ace tacticians dubbed the “Jedi Knights.” The nickname “Jedi Knight” is given to graduates of the School of Advanced Military Studies at the Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas—an arduous one-year extension program for a select few top-of-the-class students emphasizing critical thinking and “maneuver warfare” over attrition warfare. U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf formed a team of five “Jedi Knights” to help him break down the Iraqi forces.

“The U.S. strategy for the Persian Gulf ground war, which brought victory in 100 hours with amazingly few allied casualties, was largely the work of a small, little-known group of Army officers who call themselves the Jedi Knights,” read the Herald-Journal on March 17, 1991.

Several historians and military experts have since credited the Jedi Knights’ “maneuver warfare” approach as a leading factor of the Gulf War victory. “All the major elements were there,” read the Herald-Journal, “the feinted assault up the middle, the simultaneous sweep of armored forces way to the Iraqi army’s westward flank, the multiple thrusts that surrounded the Iraqis from all sides, hurling them into confusion and disarray, which made the final envelopment and destruction of the strongest Iraqi tank divisions remarkably easy.”

As far as New Age thinking goes, the most bizarre link between Star Wars and the military came courtesy of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Channon, a Vietnam vet who, after spending time with a group of hippies in California, wrote a 125-page operations manual for a First Earth Battalion consisting of “Jedi warriors.” As chronicled in the best-selling book The Men Who Stare at Goats, Lt. Col. Channon’s army of supersoldiers could, among other out-there abilities: predict the future, become invisible, pass through walls, and kill people just by staring at them.

Not quite what George Lucas had intended.