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.

How SDI Works

The main mission of SDI is to stop Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. An ICBM has four main phases in its flight. In the boost phase, which lasts a few minutes, the ICBM's rocket boosters propel the missile above the earth's atmosphere. In the post-boost and midcourse phases, which together last some twenty to thirty minutes, the multiple nuclear warheads of each missile are released and travel through outer space toward their separate targets. The most modern Soviet ICBMs could release ten or more warheads along with "decoys" to fool enemy defensive weaponry. In the terminal, or re-entry, phase, which lasts less than a minute, the warheads decelerate as they re-enter the earth's atmosphere, and finally they reach their targets and detonate.

The case for Star Wars begins logically: The best time to destroy a Soviet ICBM is in the boost phase. The ICBM itself has a large, fiery rocket plume, making it easy to see, and it carries large amounts of highly explosive fuel, making it potentially easy to destroy. What's more, a single U.S. shot could destroy ten Soviet bombs.

Unfortunately, the boost phase lasts a brief three to five minutes. To destroy Soviet ICBMs so quickly, the SDI Organization plans to have weapons already in space, on satellites, when the Soviet attack begins. These satellites must carry weaponry, that can aim, fire, and hit the target within a few minutes. Lieutenant General James Abrahamson, the head of the SDI Organization, told Congress last summer that the system would have only forty to a hundred seconds to decide to react after the Soviets launched their ICBMs. He maintained, nonetheless, that his research so far indicated that such a "decision timeline is feasible" and would still allow for human control over the process.

In a series of setbacks, technology after technology has been considered for this demanding mission and rejected by SDI scientists. The most significant setback concerns chemical lasers, which shoot intense beams of light traveling 186,000 miles per second. These were the most mature of all the directed-energy technologies being considered, but scientists no longer think they are promising in the near term. Nonetheless, the SDI Organization may yet propose these lasers for early deployment. Other impressive high-technology systems that once received much publicity include neutral-particle beams and the nuclear-pumped x-ray laser. However, a panel of the American Physical Society, in the most definitive study yet done on directed-energy weapons, examined all the relevant classified information and concluded unanimously:

We estimate that even in the best of circumstances, a decade or more of intensive research would be required to provide the technical knowledge needed for an informed decision about the potential effectiveness and survivability of directed energy weapon systems. In addition, the important issues of overall system integration and effectiveness depend critically upon information that, to our knowledge, does not yet exist.

The prime remaining candidate possibly available in this century for boost-phase defense is space-based chemical rockets, along the lines of the fleet of 432 rocket-launching satellites orbiting the earth proposed by the group High Frontier. However, that system was repeatedly rejected by Administration experts. In a September, 1981, memo Herbert Reynolds, then the Department of Defense's deputy director for intelligence and space policy, called the concept "one vu-graph deep" and concluded that the need to rely on "hair-trigger" computer-based reaction time "alone might be enough to reject the concept, even if the system could do the job as advertised." In 1982 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger criticized the scheme after a thorough Department of Defense review concluded, "It is the unanimous opinion of the Air Force technical community that the High Frontier proposals are unrealistic regarding state of technology, cost and schedule." The President's Commission on Strategic Forces, known as the Scowcroft Commission, reported in April of 1983 that "applications of current technology offer no real promise of being able to defend the United States against massive nuclear attack in this century." The U.S. Air Force studied and abandoned a system of this type in the 1960s, in a project nicknamed BAMBI (for ballistic-missile boost interceptor), which called for rockets strikingly similar to those planned for the SDI system. Nonetheless, the SDI Organization has decided to work toward deploying the High Frontier defense early in the next decade.

Officially there has not yet been a decision to deploy the system. But Secretary of Defense Weinberger said in March of last year, "The basic decision that we want to deploy has been made long ago." When the SDI officials reported to Congress last year on these interceptor rockets—then known as space-based kinetic-kill vehicles, or SBKKVs—they focused on a "series of achievements in excess of what was expected" which proved that "a SBKKV system can be built" and that the "technical feasibility of a near term SBKKV [has been] established."

Congress wanted no part of that scheme, which would violate the ABM treaty. Last year both the House and the Senate voted to cut back the budget increase for SDI requested by the Administration and to require adherence to the traditional interpretation of the ABM treaty—thereby restricting Star Wars tests. Further, the House rejected an accelerated development and deployment schedule designed to make SDI operational by 1993, by an overwhelming vote (302-121). In last year's continuing resolution Congress barred any funds for the full-scale development and deployment of any space-based interceptor system during 1988.

But SDI officials forged ahead. The dispersal of $1 billion in contracts was timed nicely to precede the July meeting of the Department of Defense's Acquisition Board, at which the SDI program underwent its first formal Pentagon review. After intense debate, including charges that crucial information damaging to SDI was being withheld from the board, six key SDI projects were granted Milestone I approval. This meant that the program could move from concept research and development to hardware demonstration and concept "validation." Thanks to strong support from the White House and from Weinberger, the program's proponents were able to dodge hard questions as to how SDI should be shaped, how it should proceed, and how strategic defense should fit into the overall U.S. military force structure. This political pressure enabled SDI to circumvent the basic deliberative processes of the defense board.

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