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.

How SDS Works

What does the new system look like? By July, SDI officials had settled on its architecture, although it was not final (and many aspects are classified). The figures cited below for each system are taken from published reports and a plan proposed by the Sparta Corporation, one of the companies contracted to design SDS. This “first generation” defense includes

  • 3,000-5,000 space-based interceptors (SBIs), carried in hundreds of “garages” placed in orbit, for boost-phase intercept
  • 30 boost-phase surveillance and tracking satellites
  • 20-80 space-based surveillance and tracking satellites to track warheads during their midcourse flight
  • 2,000 ground-based rockets called ERIS (for exoatmospheric re-entry vehicle interception system) for late-midcourse intercept
  • 100 ground-based “pop-up” surveillance systems on missiles
  • a network of battle-management and command, control, and communications satellites to serve as the “brains” of the system

The SDI Organization intends during fiscal years 1988 and 1989 to spend 50 percent of its budget—or almost $2 billion in fiscal year 1988—demonstrating the technological validity of these Phase I weapons. Before leaving the Pentagon, Weinberger gave this system another push forward with two orders promulgated in November of last year. The first helped establish the system as a group of weapons heading for production: “Now that … Phase I has entered the acquisition process,” Weinberger said, “operational test and evaluation activities must begin immediately…. ” To make sure that unfavorable test results, concerns of his successor, or congressional actions did not slow down the frantic deployment schedule of SDS, Weinberger fired off a second order exempting SDI from “all DOD routine bureaucratic procedures.”

This Phase I system would not be a population defense. Its primary mission would be to protect U.S. strategic nuclear forces and other military assets. General Abrahamson assured the House Armed Services Committee that this type of system would still provide population defense, because “we are trying to find an effective way, first, to prevent war by complicating the Soviet attack plans, complicating them to such an extent that the uncertainty level will be high enough that they will not strike. So that is the most important thing. And by the way, then it is perfect, clearly perfect, if we can do that.”

But, of course, even SDI officials admit that SDS would not be perfect. After spending at least $100 billion and launching hundreds of satellites into orbit, we would still be only at the beginning. The SDI Organization envisions “generations” of weapons deployed in waves stretching well into the twenty-first century. The contractor study noted above, for example, anticipates that the first lasers or other directed-energy weapons would be deployed no earlier than 2010.

A Senate study estimated that if this system were rushed to deployment by the mid-1990s, it “would have an effectiveness against Soviet ballistic missile warheads of no more than 16%.” That is, 84 percent of the Soviet warheads would come through unscathed. The American Physical Society council warned, last April, that “even a very small percentage of nuclear weapons penetrating a defensive system would cause human suffering and death far beyond that ever before seen on this planet.”

The Senate investigators found agreement among SDI scientists that substantial increases in funding would be needed to overcome the tremendous technical obstacles and that fairly soon after deployment the Soviets could develop countermeasures to overcome the system. This was confirmed by the Defense Acquisition Board. If the next phase of SDI were not then ready to go up into space, one SDI scientist said, “you may well end up with a more destabilizing situation than before.”


Throughout the rapid growth of SDI very little candid information has been forthcoming from the SDI leadership to Congress, to responsible Department of Defense officials, and perhaps even to the President himself.

Last October documents became public charging that the physicist Edward Teller, one of the first to convince the President of the feasibility of SDI, and the SDI scientist Dr. Lowell Wood gave “overly optimistic” and “technically inaccurate” information regarding the x-ray laser to the nation’s highest policy-makers. The author of the charge is Roy Woodruff, a highly respected scientist who resigned in protest from his post as head of the weapons programs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratoly, in California.

Woodruff strongly supports SDI research but says that “it has to be responsibly portrayed to the nation’s senior policy-makers.” He adds that the “vision of a leakproof shield that makes nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete is not a practical reality.” Briefings from Teller and Wood may have led President Reagan and other high officials to believe that a wonder weapon—the x-ray laser—capable of obliterating hundreds of missiles in a single burst was close to becoming a reality. This misinformation may have greatly influenced Reagan’s negotiating position at the U.S.-Soviet summit in Iceland, as well as his position on redefining the ABM treaty, and it may be coloring current negotiations with the Soviets. But Woodruff and other scientists agree: the x-ray laser does not work now, and it will be five to ten years before we can even know if such a weapon is feasible.

Equally serious, a key recommendation from the Defense Department’s Defense Science Board was removed before the report was given to the Defense Acquisition Board as part of the basis for its deliberations on SDI last summer. Reportedly under pressure from senior Pentagon officials, the science-advisory-panel chairman removed sharp criticism of the SDI plan. The uncensored report noted that “there is presently no way of confidently assessing” the system’s price or its effectiveness. The science panel recommended delaying approval for “the next year or two” while SDI officials filled in “gaps in system design and key technologies.” The acquisition board never got this recommendation, and the plan was approved.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff also have serious doubts about SDI, but these are muted in the face of White House pressure. For example, the SDS deployment plan was unable to proceed unless, like all other weapons programs, it won agreement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it met a legitimate military requirement. Reportedly, SDI officials requested a statement of the military’s need for SDS, but the Joint Chiefs said they required only a research program. Finally, a few days before the Defense Acquisition Board review began and despite military concern that SDI will absorb billions of dollars that should go to other, more pressing conventional-weapons programs, the Joint Chiefs returned a military requirement for the protection of our nation’s strategic military assets.

That was enough—barely—to fulfill the procedural requirements of the acquisition process, and SDS was officially blessed.

Unanswered Questions

SDI officials have given Congress a shifting story about SDI over the years, despite repeatedly imposed requirements for specific reports. Few members find the SDI reports useful, yet we are asked to authorize billions of dollars annually on the basis of them. Before rushing into deployment of SDS or any phase of SDI, we need to have the following questions answered:

How would a potential enemy respond if SDI were carried out to procurement and deployment? What increase may be anticipated in the number or quality of enemy offensive weapons, which would be intended to penetrate the defensive shield?

What can be expected from an enemy in the deployment of weapons not endangered by SDI, such as cruise missiles and low-trajectory submarine-launched missiles?

How vulnerable is SDI to a potential enemy’s anti-satellite weapons?

What are the cost estimates for the research program for SDI?

A requirement that these questions be answered was enacted into law by Congress in 1985. The questions were addressed to the Department of Defense, which has yet to answer them substantially, although the statute required it to do so two years ago.

The answer to the first question is obvious: the enemy would increase the number of its warheads and missiles. Two decades ago then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that the United States would counter any Soviet anti-ballistic-missile system by greatly expanding the number of U.S. warheads. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger has said, “Remember the 1960s, and Secretary McNamara’s reaction to the Soviet ABM system. Are the Soviets likely to be any less ‘offensive-conservative’ than we were then? How likely is it that in the event of an American deployment of substantial strategic defense, the Soviets would agree to a constraint on offensive capabilities?” As for how large an increase the Soviets can make in their ICBM force, the Library of Congress estimates that staying within current or currently envisioned production rates, the Soviets could add between 5,000 and 22,000 warheads to their current ICBM force of 6,440 warheads by the year 2000.

Proponents of early deployment argue the contrary: that defenses will be inexpensive and effective enough that it will become easier to trade away existing offensive weapons and less attractive to build additional ones. If the cost of offensive weapons is greater than the cost of defenses, they say, then the U.S. deployment of defenses might force the Soviet Union to give up its offensive capability.

Unfortunately, most studies indicate just the opposite. The cost-exchange ratio of even highly effective defenses still favors the offense. As we shall discuss, the technologies planned for Phase I deployment can be overcome quite cheaply. Even if future technological breakthroughs favor the defense, a superpower believing that its fundamental security is threatened by the adversary’s defense will likely be willing to pay any amount to defeat it.

Sayre Stevens, a former high official of the CIA, concludes, “The Soviets will do what they have done in the past: spend money and allocate scarce resources to the extent that they are required by the military demands they find facing them. Thus, a vision of the world of 2000-2010 emerges in which both the United States and the Soviet Union are actively engaged in the significant upgrading of both offensive and defensive weapons systems.”

What else will the Soviets do? They will most likely take other actions designed to overcome any SDI system at all three phases: boost, midcourse, and terminal.

The fast-burn booster has broad utility for countering an interim SDI system. A fast-burn booster is an ICBM booster with an enlarged rocket nozzle and fuel modified to burn at an increased rate. The result is a reduced boost time of 100 to 150 seconds, or even less, as compared with the normal boost time of 180 to 300 seconds. Boost-phase interception by space-based interceptors then becomes virtually impossible, since most of the fast-burn boosters will release the payloads of decoys and warheads before SBIs can reach them. The fast-burn booster is old technology. Far more stringent requirements were met by the rocket motors in the U.S. Sprint ABM interceptors of the 1960s. The Soviets are already moving to faster-burning boosters in their newest ICBMs, the SS-24 and the SS-25. Stephen Rockwood, the former director of SDI research at Los Alamos National Laboratory, agrees that fast-burn boosters put “chemical rockets out of business fairly quickly.” Louis Marquet, the former SDI deputy director for technology, has admitted that “fast-burn boosters … could rise up and deploy their vehicles before the kinetic-energy interceptors could reach them.” The former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown asserts unequivocally, “Fast-burning boosters would effectively negate such a defense system [space-based interceptors].”

The boost phases of the new Soviet SS-24 and SS-25 last about 180 seconds. A recent study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory indicates that an SDI system composed of a few thousand interceptors would be no more than about 20 percent effective against the Soviet threat that is now projected for the mid-1990s. This pessimistic conclusion is achieved in spite of three optimistic assumptions: that the interceptors would be launched within twenty to thirty seconds of a Soviet attack, that each interceptor would have a 90 percent probability of destroying its target, and that the Soviets would not have modified their missiles or taken any countermeasures in response to the deployment of U.S. space weapons.

Boost-phase defense has a more serious flaw, one shared by all space-based systems. In the words of Edward Teller, “I believe we should not deploy weapons in space…. To put objects into space is expensive. To destroy space-objects is relatively easy.”

Even if the technology of the SDI system is capable of overcoming the proliferation of warheads and fast-burn boosters, the satellites the system needs for target identification and battle management, and also the “garages,” will be vulnerable to a variety of anti-satellite systems. The enemy would not have to attack all the satellites but only those, such as the battle-management stations, that were critical to the operation of the system. Spies might provide the information that would enable the enemy to pinpoint the system’s weak points, or might sabotage the computer programs necessary for the system to function. Just last October federal agents uncovered a plot by three men in California to sell Moscow supercomputer technology applicable to Star Wars systems.

According to a Soviet general as he was quoted by Tass, the likely Soviet responses to SDI would include the “destruction of SDI components such as orbiting battle stations and space-based battle-management systems as the most effective way of weakening the entire missile defense dramatically. ”

In the low earth orbits, 200 to 800 miles up, necessary to carry out boost-phase intercept (forgetting for the moment the problem of fast-burn boosters), the SDI system’s components will be vulnerable to a wide variety of current and future anti-satellite weapons. Unless there is an arms-control treaty banning the development of anti-satellite weapons by either side, the Soviets “could have prototype space-based anti-satellite laser weapons by the early 1990s,” according to Robert Gates, the deputy director of the CIA—the same time at which proponents of the SDI system predict initial deployment. Some officials, including General John Piotrowski, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, believe that the Soviets already have ground-based lasers powerful enough to destroy existing unhardened, low-orbiting U.S. satellites and to damage those higher up. Of course, SDI systems themselves have an inherent anti-satellite capability. “It continues to appear that everything that works well as a defense also works somewhat better as a defense suppressor,” Harold Brown says.

Scientists at one of the nation’s primary nuclear-weapons laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories, have been studying the question of satellites’ vulnerability and have concluded that space-based defenses can never be made “survivable.” Curtis Hines, a departmental manager for systems analysis at Sandia, has said, “I think boost-phase [defense] may be out of the question.” Robert Cooper, the former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Reagan Administration, told the House Armed Services Committee last spring that there are “substantial problems” with making space-based defenses survivable and that “one has great difficulty in convincing oneself” that it could be done. He didn’t see survivability measures on the horizon, he testified, that could justify early deployment.

This leaves the midcourse and terminal phases as potential times to stop Soviet ICBMs. In these phases the United States will have to shoot down Soviet nuclear warheads after they have separated from the rest of the ICBM. Yet these warheads are only a few feet long, travel four miles per second, have no easily identifiable fiery plume, and are protected by a heat shield capable of withstanding re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. They are not easy targets.

In addition, the Soviets could deploy hundreds of thousands of decoys along with the tens of thousands of warheads. The decoys would probably consist of cheap aluminized Mylar balloons. The warheads themselves could be encased in the same balloons, so that warheads and decoys would look exactly the same. The decoys can be carried in much larger numbers on ICBMs, because they are much lighter than actual nuclear warheads. In the vacuum of outer space, heavy warheads and light decoys would travel at the same speed.

If the United States is to have a chance of destroying Soviet warheads as they travel through outer space, the real warheads must be distinguishable from the decoys—there is neither time nor weaponry enough to shoot them all down. Yet recent studies by Pentagon scientists have yielded very pessimistic results. Radar cannot distinguish warheads from even the simplest decoys, and, as General Abrahamson testified to Congress, “passive discrimination [infrared or optical sensing] is not quite sufficient” to pick out the warheads from a cloud of decoys.

Following this major setback, the SDI Organization pursued a new concept—“interactive discrimination,” using neutral-particle beams. This is why the SDI Organization gave McDonnell- Douglas the $481 million contract to build a prototype beam. Unfortunately, even this new concept is unlikely to be very successful in quickly separating the warheads from a cloud of decoys, according to testimony by Robert Cooper and a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (And the SDI Organization recently canceled the contract.)

With the prospects for boost-phase and midcourse-phase intercept only marginal—using existing or near-term technology—we are left with the prospect of stopping more than 30,000 warheads when they are above the United States, only minutes from their targets. However, the Soviets may have taken steps—as we have—to thwart terminal defenses.

In March of 1987 Lawrence Woodruff, the deputy undersecretary of defense for strategic and theater nuclear forces, described the contest between the offense and the defense to the House Armed Services Committee this way:

The Soviets have been developing their Moscow [ABM] defenses for over ten years at a cost of billions of dollars. For much less expense we believe we can still penetrate these defenses with a small number of Minuteman missiles equipped with highly effective chaff and decoys. And if the Soviets should deploy more advanced or proliferated defenses, we have new penetration aids as counters under development…. We are developing a new maneuvering re-entry vehicle that could evade interceptor missiles….

Woodruff is correct, and the implications of his statement for the President’s astrodome vision are, to say the least, sobering: if the Soviets can’t even defend one city, think how hard it would be to defend a nation.

The most effective way for the United States to guard against a sudden treaty-violating Soviet deployment of anti-ballistic-missile systems would be to increase our research efforts on decoys and improved penetrating warheads. These can defeat any known or anticipated Soviet land-based ABM system. Change the word “Soviet” in that sentence to “American,” and you begin to see how relatively easily the offense can overwhelm the defense in nuclear warfare.

As if the hardware problems were not serious enough, most experts believe that the computer software to manage the entire battle would be even more difficult to develop. (See Jonathan Jacky, “The ‘Star Wars’ Defense Won’t Compute,” June, 1985, Atlantic.) It would be much more complicated than the software that runs the space shuttle, and yet it could never be tested in a realistic nuclear-attack scenario; it would have to work the first time it was used. A recent report by the General Accounting Office has severely criticized the SDI Organization’s “inadequate direction and planning” of the crucial battle-management program. After a year-long study, the GAO said, “The problems, if not corrected, could reduce [the SDI Organization’s] ability to provide the needed information for an informed systems development decision planned for the early 1990s. ” Yet one of the directives that Weinberger dashed off before leaving the Department of Defense actually calls for reduced oversight of the SDI Organization by the Secretary of Defense.

The bottom line is not very encouraging. Louis Marquet, SDI’s former deputy director for technology, admits that a near-term deployment of interceptors is “not going to have a lot of capability against a determined first strike…. ultimately, given a dedicated Soviet effort at countermeasures, it will run out of steam.” The answer, he says, would be to improve the system by adding more and better orbiting battle stations and other weapons at additional expense.

Finally, Phase I or any later phase of SDI will have little potential for stopping any nuclear weapons other than ICBMs, with their high ballistic trajectory. As a nation that has very limited air-defense capabilities, we should recognize the relative ease with which our defenses can be penetrated by low-trajectory submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Soviet bombers, and air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles. According to the Library of Congress, by the end of the century the Soviet Union could triple its inventory of submarine-launched-ballistic-missile warheads from 3,400 to 13,000 and vastly increase its bomber-warhead inventory, from 800 to 7,500. The Soviets are already reported to be building a new type of submarine-launched cruise missile, the SS-NX-24, which could defeat SDI by penetrating U.S. airspace at a low altitude.

The conclusion is inescapable: There is no convincing evidence that the result of premature deployment would likely be anything other than a defense-offense-defense cycle weighted in the offense’s favor. Because of technical limitations inherent to the proposed SDS, the result of deploying it would likely be to send the arms race spiraling in time and space.

Dr. Robert Sproull, a member of the SDI Advisory Committee, warned Congress that the SDI Organization “tries to keep the discussion on technical details.” He said, “They go straight from the President’s vision to specifics of engineering. They avoid the questions of survivability and cost.”

There is some evidence for this charge. The Defense Authorization Acts for fiscal years 1986 and 1987 required the Defense Department to submit estimates of the cost for research, development, and procurement of anticipated SDI systems to Congress along with the 1989 budget request. In March of last year General Abrahamson explained, “We did not submit a report with the FY 1988-89 budget request because the information necessary to prepare an accurate, comprehensive report is simply not available.”

Yet the previous January, SDI’s deputy director for technology, Louis Marquet, had said that it would cost “on the order of $100 billion” merely to reach the starting line for production of an early-deployment system. In June, General Abrahamson submitted detailed cost estimates to the Defense Acquisition Board. And several independent cost estimates have been prepared, including a study by the Senate which suggests that it could cost as much as $1 trillion simply to launch an SDI system into space, not including the cost of the satellites themselves. If scientists and senators can calculate possible costs with considerably fewer resources than the SDI office has, and top Department of Defense officials can come before Congress and testify with dead certainty that comprehensive strategic defenses are feasible and can be deployed within a given time frame, then these officials should be forthcoming with detailed estimates of how much the deployment will cost the taxpayer.

Crash Program

In light of the substantial technical, military, and economic problems confronting SDI, to say nothing of the nearly universal skepticism from the nation’s scientific community, it may be asked, How can President Reagan support so dubious a program? Further, how can it have advanced so far, consuming $13 billion over the past five years, and now be rushing toward deployment?

The President is a man of tremendous communication abilities, and his efforts are aided by the simplicity of his goal and the exquisite perfection he anticipates. His closest advisers on SDI have been figures like Edward Teller. A famous scientist but a man who has obviously spoken inaccurately about the problems confronting SDI, Teller is highly motivated by his desire to assure the realization of his dream. In addition to the personal, political, and ideological forces driving SDI, there has sprung up a group of defense contractors whose officers and stockholders could greatly benefit from the majestic proportions of the envisioned project. There is also a bizarre combination of idealists seeking an easy way to rid the world of war and hawks who never saw a weapon they didn’t like or a war they wouldn’t want to fight. Finally, there is the growing SDI bureaucracy, which now consists of 225 full-time and 300 part-time employees, in addition to thousands of scientists and engineers working on more than 3,000 SDI contracts across the country. Together these people and these forces have advanced a juggernaut of such technical complexity and with such strong presidential support as to be capable of intimidating any sensible majority. It is time to step back from the brink and restore reason to this program.

There is no pressing national-security interest that compels a crash program to deploy SDI. The Scowcroft Commission officially closed the so-called window of vulnerability in 1983, when it determined that the chance of a successful Soviet first strike was very remote. If the purpose of SDI is now to “strengthen deterrence by denying the Soviets any confidence in a successful first strike,” as Weinberger said last August, we are already spending over $35 billion annually on other strategic-forces programs to do just that.

The two thirds of our ballistic-missile submarine fleet normally kept at sea, the one third of our bomber force normally kept on strip-alert, and the tremendous uncertainties involved in attacking our ICBM forces supply credible deterrence that will be sufficient for the rest of the century. Improvements that are under way on all legs of the U.S. strategic triad and on the U.S. command-and-control system should increase our confidence: new motors, warheads, and penetration aids for the Minuteman; fifty MX missiles; possibly Midgetman mobile missiles; Ohio-class nuclear submarines; Trident II sea-launched ballistic missiles; ground-, sea-, and air-launched cruise missiles, advanced “stealth” cruise missiles; and the deployment of 100 B-1 bombers, with Stealth bombers to follow. The U.S. troops and their families stationed in Europe serve as a credible link between the United States and the defense of NATO. There is no firm evidence that a limited ballistic-missile defense to “complicate Soviet attack plans” is anything other than unnecessary.

Further, recent experience demonstrates that there are grave dangers in crash programs. The House Armed Services Committee last year investigated the B-1 bomber and the MX missile—two key strategic programs that were pushed through by this Administration without adequate thought or testing.

As it turns out, we will have 100 B-1s that cannot penetrate Soviet airspace because, among other defects, when their advanced electronic systems are switched on, the defensive systems interfere with the offensive systems, and both act as a giant beacon guiding enemy missiles to the planes. It will cost at least $6 billion to fix the planes, over and above the $28 billion already spent. Meanwhile, the MX is still not survivable and, worse, its high-technology guidance units do not work as promised. At least twelve of the thirty deployed MXs cannot be fired for lack of these units, and the rest can’t be counted on to hit their targets, because of shoddy workmanship. A Northrop Corporation engineer who worked on the guidance equipment testified that it is “most assuredly defective.” As a result, he said, “these missiles stand as much chance of hitting their targets in the Soviet Union as landing right here in Washington.” Basic tests are still being conducted on the B-1 and the MX, years after the first weapons were delivered.

These programs were pushed through Congress by a skillful distribution of defense contracts. Rockwell Corporation, for example, farmed out work on the B-1 to some 5,200 subcontractors, until there was a contract in almost every congressional district. The same was true for the MX. If SDI can reach that level of spending, it may be impossible to stop. We do not need another crash program fueled by contractors’ hunger for profits and bureaucrats’ concern about their careers. In January of last year Allan Mense, then the SDI program’s acting chief scientist, said, “If we don’t come up with something specific, people are not going to let us play in the sandbox for ten years.” But there is strong support in Congress and among the American people for a sound basic-research program.

What should we do? First, we should commit to a careful, long-term research program on ballistic-missile defense—not the program as it is now structured but one that would allow us vigorously to explore advanced technologies to see if someday we can achieve the President’s vision of an impenetrable shield, as unlikely as that may be. Since the Soviets have an SDI Program themselves, the better part of wisdom is for us to maintain our lead in strategic-defense technologies and avoid the possibility of their developing something really effective while we are left lagging behind. Expert testimony to Congress, including that of Sproull, Cooper, and the physicist Peter Zimmerman, indicates that a robust research program can be carried out for about $3 billion a year. (The Administration wants to spend more than $5 billion in 1989.)

Second, we should explore the possibility of deploying a defense similar to the one the Soviet Union now has around Moscow, which might protect us against an accidental ICBM launch. The ERIS program, which is part of SDS, could possibly serve this function. Lockheed Corporation is lobbying hard to accelerate the ERIS schedule for a 1990s deployment regardless of the fate of the rest of SDI. Lockheed estimates that the total cost would be about $5 billion for a system of 100 ground-launched interceptors and radars, which might be in compliance with the existing ABM treaty. If feasible, ERIS would be an expensive insurance policy, but we should investigate this option. It may be a reasonable hedge against an accidental Soviet launch of a single ICBM headed for New York or Washington, and it could give us hands-on experience with ballistic-missile defense. The widely mentioned notion that such a system could defend the United States against terrorist attack seems dubious, given how unlikely it is that terrorists would use a ballistic missile; they are much more likely to deliver their bombs in a suitcase or on a fishing trawler. These are hardly the only conceivable alternative delivery systems. A witness before the Senate Armed Services Committee recently noted that “the Soviets could just put nuclear weapons inside bales of marijuana, since they know we can’t prevent that from entering the country. ”

Third, we should use the SDI program as leverage to negotiate a treaty with the Soviets under which both countries would eschew space weapons and further agree to substantial and fair reductions in offensive weapons. This may prove to be the most valuable contribution of the SDI program. Such a treaty would be mutually beneficial, verifiable, and enforceable. The benefits are obvious, and we have the means to verify an agreement through existing spy satellites and the new willingness of the Soviets to allow on-site inspections. We should test the Soviets on their stated offer to arrange inspections of all satellites before launch. Such inspections could ensure that space weapons were not placed in orbit surreptitiously. We could enforce such a treaty by including a provision that allowed the inspection of satellites suspected of violating the ban. The inspection could perhaps be accomplished with the space shuttle.

Independent experts, retired and active-duty military spokesmen, members of Congress, and congressional staff have raised questions indicating that serious technical, legal, and military issues pertaining to SDI remain unresolved. As the Army Chief of Staff, General John A. Wickham, Jr., told Congress early last year, “We are all in agreement that we don’t know enough to make a deployment decision.”

Defending our population from incoming missiles is an admirable goal. But in trying to achieve that goal we must not let the political-industrial complex produce weapons that not only are ineffective but also increase the chance for ever more lethal offensive escalations.