The Rush to Deploy SDI

How the Administration is defying scientific opinion, bypassing internal Pentagon review procedures, stalling Congress, and pressuring the military in its effort to field a "first generation" space-based missile defense within a decade.

President Ronald Reagan has a historic opportunity to reduce the world's arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons significantly and to prevent the arms race from escalating into space. The deal that was almost struck at the 1986 superpower summit in Reykjavik is still within reach—a 50 percent reduction in offensive strategic weapons and an agreement to abide by the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) treaty for ten years. During last December's summit meeting in Washington the two superpowers agreed, in effect, to disagree on strategic defenses. The Soviets rejected U.S. proposals to allow "testing in space as required" and to allow deployment of space weapons. The United States, in turn, rejected Soviet proposals for strict adherence to the ABM treaty. The compromise—a carefully worded statement allowing each nation to proceed "as required" on development of space weapons within the ABM treaty—merely "kicked the can down the road," as Max Kampelman, the chief U.S. arms negotiator, observed.

While the President must certainly continue to be firm in negotiations with the Soviets, he should not be crippled by the mistaken belief that we now have, or soon could have, technology capable of protecting us from nuclear missiles. If existing technology could meet this noble goal, bargaining it away in return for reductions in offensive missiles might not be wise. But independent expert opinion is nearly unanimous: at least a decade of research is required before we can know if effective missile defenses are technologically even possible. The Soviet Union and the United States could maintain the ABM treaty limitations without impairing long-term research efforts. However, instead of a deliberate, prudent research program on the feasibility of shooting down incoming nuclear warheads, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has become a program for building and deploying a specific weapons system within the next decade.

As a conservative southern Democrat and a combat veteran of the Second World War, I have supported increased funding for our national defense, particularly for improving our conventional forces, throughout my forty years in the House of Representatives. In these times of tight budgets, however, I believe we should not shift precious defense dollars to programs with little real military value when urgent conventional defense needs are left unfunded.

SDI ceased to be an "Initiative" and became a "system" last September, when the Department of Defense gave the go-ahead for the rapid development of Phase I of a strategic defense system," or SDS. This is not the "peace shield" that President Reagan envisioned. At best, it will be capable of stopping a small percentage of nuclear warheads. SDS Phase I will rely not on the lasers and other beam weapons depicted in the cartoon images on television but on hundreds of satellites containing small interceptor rockets known as space-based interceptors.

A significant effort is being made by a small group of Administration officials and defense contractors to institutionalize the SDS, in order to assure that the program will proceed regardless of its scientific or strategic merit. The goal is to begin "bending metal"—converting defense dollars into job-based political support—and make SDS "Congress-proof." The political-industrial complex is applying pressure to achieve a position in which there will be no turning back from what proper research may well discover to be a trillion-dollar Maginot Line. The process has occurred so rapidly and so quietly that most members of Congress and most of the American people do not yet realize what has happened.

For example, last June the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, as the special Pentagon office in charge of SDI is known, and the Air Force Systems Command awarded contracts totaling nearly $1 billion to begin building prototype "Star Wars" weapons. Rockwell International, the nation's fourth largest defense contractor, won two contracts with a long-term value of $358 million, for planning, hardware development, and flight testing in the early 1990s of a space-based interceptor. Martin Marietta, the nation's eleventh largest defense contractor, received a $23 million contract, with options for an additional $126 million, for development and ground-testing projects in the space-based interceptor program. McDonnell Douglas, the third largest defense contractor, won a $481 million contract (later canceled) to build hardware for a key space experiment with a neutral-particle-beam weapon. These prime contracts include subcontracts for General Electric, LTV, TRW, and Boeing Aerospace.

And there is more to come. Last January, Martin Marietta grabbed a $500 million contract to design and operate a giant national complex to test SDI systems. A contractor will soon be selected to serve as the system engineer of SDS. The prize is a huge contract, worth $1.2 billion. This will be followed by further lucrative contracts for designing and, more profitably, building the thousands of weapons needed for the Phase I deployment, which the SDI Organization estimates will cost $75 billion to $150 billion. Wolfgang Demisch, a defense-market analyst, has said, "SDI is the future of the defense industry.... The traditional defense budget clearly isn't going to grow much in the near future. Every company is on notice that if they want to be a long-term player, they can't let SDI get away."

The art of turning concept into defense dollars is to redefine the requirement to fit the product. As it became clear that it will be impossible to protect the population of the United States against Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), at least in this century, the leadership of SDI restructured the program last year to redirect research from "exotic" technologies, such as lasers and other beam weapons, and toward development of more primitive rocket-powered weapons. The President's original "astrodome" vision is considered only the "ultimate" goal. The SDI Organization now says that "the phased deployment of the Strategic Defense System ... has been conceived as the most reasonable means to achieve the levels of defense contemplated by the President's 1983 direction."

The goal now is to "reduce Soviet confidence in the military utility of its ballistic missile force" and to "complicate Soviet attack plans." Specifically, "the deployment of the Phase I SDS will compel Soviet operational adjustments and compromises by reducing the confidence of Soviet planners in predicting the outcome of a ballistic missile attack." This is a long way from being able, as President Reagan promised a 1986 high school graduating class, "to put in space a shield that missiles could not penetrate—a shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from rain."

The shift from a "shield" to a complication in Soviet attack plans is crucial. But even proponents no longer speak of an impenetrable shield. SDI must now be judged against other systems that complicate attack plans, such as mobile ICBMs, cruise missiles, and our nearly invulnerable Trident submarines.

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