Commentary Magazine

How SDI Is Being Undone From Within

A people without walls is a people without any choice.

Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, Chapter 11

Protection against enemy attack is not just a military necessity. It is a political imperative. Aristotle and many after him have recognized that a country may sometimes leave its borders undefended, trusting in the ability of its armed forces to deter, or defeat, the enemy in battle. But Aristotle also recognized that this is not only militarily risky but, above all, politically unhealthy. Peoples, especially democratic ones, who are asked to live out their lives on the edge of destruction either become excessively tempted into making preemptive attacks or, enervated by the tension, give themselves up to flights of fancy. So Aristotle, like other prudent politicians before and after him, counseled reliance on the best protection available. In Aristotle's time, that meant walls. He offered this counsel, remarkably enough, while noting that the technology available for breaching walls had just improved dramatically.

Popular opinion in the U.S. has always been on Aristotle's side. But for much of a generation, the opinion of those who exercise influence over American foreign and defense policies has been quite the contrary. Thus, unbeknownst for the most part to the American people, the U.S. has been thoroughly bereft of defenses against Soviet missiles and bombers. So long as our offensive forces were clearly superior to the Soviet Union's, few influential Americans worried about this. But when the Soviets became able to do more harm to the United States than the United States could do to the Soviet Union, and when the Soviet Union acquired the means to disarm many of our means of doing it harm, some influential Americans did begin worrying enough to reconsider our need for protection.

Indeed, as the 1970's ended, these Americans concluded that the Soviet Union had built such a commanding lead in strategic offensive forces that the only chance for the free world to avoid permanent Soviet military hegemony was to do what most people (mistakenly) believed was already being done: build strategic defenses.

This strategic awakening occurred just as changes in technology were providing unprecedented ways of destroying missiles and bombers in flight and on the ground. It occurred also at a time when no one in the mainstream of public opinion any longer denied that fifteen years of the arms-control process had left the American people not safer, but less safe. By the early 1980's, not even the most ardent advocates of arms control contended that the Soviet Union could be made to abide by future agreements more faithfully than it had done in the immediately preceding period, during which it had used the negotiating process as a screen for its drive to military superiority. By the early 1980's, then, strategic defense seemed to be not just a good way out of the American strategic predicament, but the only way.

Beginning in 1980, Senator Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo) and his congressional allies were able to structure a set of programs in the Defense Department which produced some of the key hardware that might be involved in space-based anti-missile defense. They publicized the promise of new space-defense technologies and betweeen 1980 and 1982 won several votes on the floor of the Senate actually to build space laser weapons. Hence, by the time Ronald Reagan announced a turn toward strategic defense in his speech of March 23, 1983, important components of anti-missile weapons, both ground-based and space-based, were already under development, and the idea had had a rather successful political test-marketing.

Yet while the turn toward a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was caused by recognition of the nation's strategic predicament, the White House and the Defense Department quickly defined SDI as research into technology that might or might not be useful after the year 2000—but surely not by any time on which we could immediately plan. In other words, they defined SDI as an open question. This effectively detoured discussion from the essential question: how shall we meet our urgent need for protection now?

Certainly, in any enterprise, one might always wish that there were more effective tools available. But the difference in human contests is always made by the materials on hand. In military matters, especially for a country like the U.S., which leaves to others the choice of when to make war, it is very dangerous indeed to wait for better weapons in the future while one's enemies build weapons in the present which they deem good enough. In fact, the Soviet Union is not only widening its lead in usable offensive missiles, but anti-missile devices are also already rolling off Soviet production lines, and the 1980's will see Soviet high-energy lasers in space. To count on the forbearance of a superior Soviet military while the U.S. plays Hamlet would be suicidal self-indulgence.

It is therefore important to examine how and why the U.S. government over the years has spurned the means at hand to develop antimissile defenses in favor of utopian arms-control initiatives and research into anti-missile systems defined always as beyond our grasp. As we proceed with such an examination, we will find that today's situation differs little from previous ones except for urgency, and that the deep-rooted U.S. commitment against defensive weapons can be reversed only by changing men, budgets, and organization.


The temptation to treat new weapons irrationally is perennial. We laugh too easily at the medieval politicians who saw crossbows and gunpowder as harbingers of the end, at their military commanders who either dismissed them or thought there could be no defense against them, and at their legal advisers who tried to outlaw them. In our own century, the airplane, then the nuclear bomb, and finally the ballistic missile have provoked similar reactions.

Thus, before World War II, there developed the triple assumption that “the bomber will always get through,” that its natural target would be the mass of humanity in cities, and that its primary effect would be not to destroy military targets but to inflict punishment on populations. Consequently, Winston Churchill had to fight uphill battles in order to divert some resources away from bomber forces, seen as threats of indiscriminate destruction and therefore useful for deterring Germany, toward the interceptor aircraft necessary for defending Britain.

In spite of prewar assumptions, however, the experiences of the war itself left no doubt that indiscriminate destruction did not pay and that air defenses could be very effective. Air defense, for example, saved Britain and sealed the fate of the German army at Stalingrad. And with the advent of nuclear bombs, air defense came to seem even more important. Accordingly, between 1950 and 1960 the U.S. built and manned a huge defense system consisting of radars and interceptor aircraft and missiles—a system employing directly some 250,000 people and costing some 200 billion of today's dollars.

To say that this system was entirely effective is not to say that it was possible, by 1960, to guarantee that no Soviet bomber could have dropped a single bomb on an American city. The purpose of any defense is not to preclude irrational acts such as the sacrifice of an entire military force for the sake of destroying a single militarily meaningless objective. Rather, the purpose of any defensive system, whether against mounted knights or Napoleonic armies or nuclear weapons, is to make it very unlikely that an attacker can achieve any results that are worth the trouble. By this practical standard, the U.S. air-defense system succeeded completely. The Soviet Union provided double confirmation of this by ceasing large-scale production of bombers in the late 1950's. It resumed such production only in the 1970's, after the U.S. had totally dismantled its air-defense system. By 1980, if the Soviets wished to bomb the U.S., new bombers were not really needed. Cargo planes would do.

In contrast, by 1980, the Soviets' own air-defense system had long since put the United States out of the business of even considering high-altitude penetration of Soviet airspace. The old American B-52 bomber force had been reduced to launching long-range cruise missiles, and the new American bomber, the B-l, was designed to attempt penetration at treetop level, in the hope of gaining momentary advantage over the newest tower-mounted Soviet phased-array radar and its associated SA-10 missile.


All of which is to say that the U.S. knows, from having to work against them, how well air defenses can work. Why then does the U.S. have virtually none?

The reasons follow from the utopian sentiments which nuclear weapons have awakened among American intellectuals and politicians. In the military field, this utopian response came within weeks of Hiroshima in the form of Bernard Brodie's book, The Absolute Weapon. Although he never denied that prudent preparations for dealing with nuclear attack would significantly affect its results, Brodie assumed that nuclear weapons would be targeted primarily on cities, and that it would be impossible to avoid total destruction. Despite the many contradictions it contained and the many questions it left unanswered, little by little Brodie's thesis became the intellectual currency of American military leaders.

For the first fifteen years of the nuclear era American military supremacy was so great, and American military leaders faced so few momentous choices, that their verbal adherence to the tenets of The Absolute Weapon hardly mattered. America could deliver many bombs on the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union could hardly deliver any weapons on the U.S. For the U.S. the danger was theoretical.

All this changed when, circa 1960, the prospect arose that the Soviet Union could bypass our air defenses by lobbing ballistic missiles at us. Faced with this new vulnerability and relying on the new Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman missiles as well as on the new reconnaissance satellites which pinpointed Soviet missile bases, President Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, declared:

The United States has come to the conclusion that to the extent feasible, basic military strategy in a possible general war should be approached in much the same way that more conventional military operations are. That is to say, principal military objectives in the event of a nuclear war should be the destruction of the enemy's military forces, not his civilian population.

Of course at this time McNamara took no action to diminish U.S. air defenses or to interfere with the effort to develop defenses against missiles. The purpose of these, after all, was to limit damage to the United States.

Yet beginning in 1963, McNamara changed his mind, and also the shape of the U.S. military. Whether McNamara was impressed by his aides' commitment to the tenets of the “absolute weapon,” or frightened by the Cuban missile crisis, or desirous of cutting the strategic forces' share of the budget to fight the Vietnam war, his purpose ceased to be the limitation of damage in case of nuclear war. Instead it now became the avoidance of such a war through the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

Thus when, in late 1963, it became clear that the Soviet Union was going to emplace its new ballistic missiles in blast-resistant silos, the U.S. faced a decision: should we target them? The answer from McNamara's Pentagon was no. He later explained that our safety rested on our willingness to “destroy the attacker as a viable 20th-century nation,” and not from any “ability to partially limit damage to ourselves.”

Defining the appropriate level of destruction was a problem. Pentagon analysts sought the “flat of the curve,” that is, the number of Soviet cities hit, after which hitting another would cost more than the damage inflicted. Give or take a little, McNamara settled on a figure:

. . . I would judge that a capability on our part to destroy say one-fifth to one-fourth of her population, and one-half of her industrial capacity would serve as an effective deterrent. Such a level of destruction would certainly represent intolerable punishment for a 20th-century industrial nation.

His calculations about the Soviet Union did not take into account a very different value system from our own, and his calculations about the damage our weapons would cause were proved wrong in tests by the Boeing Corporation. But right or wrong, McNamara not only explicitly took up the “absolute weapon” rhetoric of the Eisenhower officials he had once criticized; he now acted in a way that was wholly consistent with the rhetoric. He made U.S. missiles incapable of striking Soviet missiles. He oriented American targeting toward populations. He phased out the U.S. air-defense system. And he worked to prevent an American anti-missile system from coming into being.

Yet no knowledgeable person in the 1960's denied that radars and missiles existed which could intercept incoming missiles. The very first radar “discrimination” of a warhead from other materials accompanying it had occurred in 1958. By 1962, when the Soviets had only 14 ICBM's, our Nike Zeus anti-missile system had intercepted a warhead. By the mid-1960's Robert McNamara was conceding in congressional testimony that the even newer Nike-X system could have effectively protected every urban area in the U.S. as well as our military bases. But as Harold Brown, then McNamara's Undersecretary for Research and Development (R & D), testified: “The decision on Nike X will not be made, or should not be made, merely on the basis of technical capability. That is, even though the system does what we say it will do, that does not mean necessarily that we should deploy the system.” (Why not? Because the Soviets could always explode nuclear warheads upwind of populated areas—for example in the Mojave desert—and spread radioactive dust.)

Thus when McNamara told the Congress in 1968 that “defense of our cities against a Soviet attack would be a futile waste of our resources,” he was expressing a judgment not about what could be done to defend against ballistic missiles but about what was worthwhile doing. This judgment, which the public mistook as a technical one, ultimately led American leaders to reject protection against ballistic missiles in favor of the ABM treaty of 1972 prohibiting such protection.


By 1979, however, even as President Carter was signing the SALT II treaty, no one could, or did, argue that the objectives for the sake of which the U.S. had seven years earlier signed SALT I and the ABM treaty had been achieved. Through SALT I, the “best and the brightest” of the American establishment thought they had persuaded the Soviets to refrain, in accordance with the theory of MAD, from any attempts to defend themselves by preparing to destroy our missiles on the ground, as well as in flight. Now, by 1979, it was obvious, even to the CIA and to Harold Brown, one of the architects of MAD and now Carter's Secretary of Defense, that the Soviets had never ceased making preparations for self-protection, at least through counterforce strikes—that is, preemptive attacks on American missiles.

The specter of “Minuteman vulnerability,” which has haunted the Pentagon from afar since the mid-60's, and which SALT I had supposedly exorcised, was thus now a reality. Little by little the Soviets had acquired the ability to take out our land-based missile force in a first strike. But what to do about it? The answer, in terms of MAD, lay either in making our own offensive forces more “survivable” or in preparing to “launch on warning.” “Launch on warning” was deemed too dangerous a policy (since it might mean the initiation of a nuclear war by accident). Therefore the MAD orientation necessarily led to an enormous effort to find a survivable basing mode for the Minuteman's proposed successor, the MX, a 200,000-pound missile, whose size precludes significant mobility.1

Even if a significant portion of President Carter's proposed 200 MX's could have been assured survival, the United States would still have found itself in a world far more ominous than that which the architects of SALT had foreseen in 1972. The models of “stable equality” so popular in those days did not envisage that the Soviet Union would have a near-monopoly of counterforce missiles, plus reserve nuclear forces far superior in number and dispersion and yield to those of the U.S.—forces that the U.S. could not hope to reduce meaningfully after having absorbed a first strike. No one contended that the 200 MX's proposed by President Carter would change this predicament significantly.

Nor, by 1979, could anyone be found who would argue in public (as Gerard Smith did in 1972) that the Soviets had agreed, in the new treaty, to solve our strategic problems for us. Although the Carter administration carefully avoided charging the Soviet Union with violations of SALT I, it had to admit that the Soviets had wholly circumvented its basic purpose. Moreover although SALT II's advocates maintained that the Soviets would not violate it, they could not explain why the Soviets would be more faithful to the new agreement than they had been to the old.

Hence, in 1979, the choice was between hoping against hope that through SALT II and the arms-control process a bad situation might not become much worse, and advocating that the United States match the Soviet Union in numbers of missiles. Few Americans outside the extremes of the political Left and Right felt comfortable with those alternatives. The first amounted to an indefinite surrender of military supremacy to the Soviet Union, while the second appeared to be a race in which the Soviets had already moved out of reach, with five open ICBM production lines as compared with none in the U.S.

In addition, some of the most scrupulous analysts of intelligence noted that the Soviet Union was building the huge radars necessary for a nationwide anti-missile system; perfecting both the interceptors and the small radars such a system would require; developing a state-of-the-art air-defense missile system (we now know it as the SA-12), each unit of which could defend against at least a small number of American warheads; and acquiring the elements of space-based laser systems. The Soviets, it seemed, might be on the way to doing to the ABM treaty what they had done to SALT I. How could the U.S. live with a Soviet Union possessed of a superior counterforce sword and a budding monopoly of anti-missile shields?

The obvious way out of this political and strategic predicament was to devalue the Soviets' huge lead in ballistic missiles, as well as the sacrifices that a generation of Russians had made to build them, by devising defenses against them. This reasoning led several Senators, and several strategic thinkers as well, to go looking for the necessary technology. It was not, in other words, the appearance of new technology that renewed interest in defense. Rather, a heightened realization of danger, combined with a lack of viable alternatives, led to a closer examination of the technology available for defense.


That technology, in a nutshell, allowed the following:

Large, ground-based radars could see tiny warheads and decoys thousands of miles away, and their computers could perform enough calculations to distinguish substantially between the two. They could also track the warheads, divide the track files into “bundles” according to destination, and transmit the bundles to the appropriate engagement radars. Detection and discrimination could also be done by electro-optical devices, either on satellites, or probes shot into space, or on high-flying aircraft. The information, similarly divided, could be sent to engagement radars.2

Already in the late 70's, technology developed for the U.S. space-based intelligence collectors was usable to attack missile boosters soon after they left the atmosphere. Electro-optical devices, extensions of ones in use for missile warning, could see, in detail, the missiles' unmistakable, undecoyable, plumes. The techniques developed to take pictures from space could be adapted to determine where plumes and missiles meet. The mirrors from their telescopes, or larger ones like them properly coated, could focus laser light on the boosters. The computers aboard these intelligence marvels were more than equal to the task of choosing the most convenient target for each defensive satellite to engage, and for keeping every defensive satellite apprised of what every other one was doing. By the end of the 70's, also, it was clear that a 10-megawatt chemical laser could be built.

It was also clear that technology would continue to progress and in the future might provide not just other kinds of lasers and particle-beam devices for boost-phase defense, but more accurate and reliable ground-based interceptors, earlier and even more perfect discrimination, and more foolproof battle management. Finally, a very great, but conceivable, extrapolation of present sensors and data-processing would allow a sophisticated attack on “clouds” of warheads and decoys in mid-course.

It is essential to reiterate, however, that interest in strategic defense arose in the late 1970's not because of any millennial hope that technology just over the horizon would prevent any Soviet missile from reaching the U.S. Rather, it arose because there was no other way out of our strategic predicament, and because the technology then in hand, if used, would have radically decreased the military and political usefulness of Soviet missiles while providing substantial protection to the American people.


While the popularity of strategic defense was rising in the press and in the Congress, that of the Reagan military build-up, announced with great fanfare in October 1981, was falling. Since that build-up was not conceived either to match or counter Soviet capabilities, and certainly not to protect Americans if war ever came, its advocates never managed to make a great case for it. A year later President Reagan bought time by appointing a commission to study the problem.

On February 11, 1983, during a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Reagan heard the grim news that the strategic gap would continue to widen, and that political support for new missile programs in the country was fast disappearing. Reportedly expressing reasons both political and strategic, Reagan ordered that his next speech on strategic affairs contain a turn to the obvious way out: strategic defense.

As usual, he was not specific. Few who were not in the room knew about the decision. The paragraphs on the subject were drafted in great secrecy by the staff of the National Security Council (NSC). The first draft was a rather specific commitment to build strategic defenses on the ground and in space, “such as” lasers and particle beams. Two days before the speech, these paragraphs were circulated to a wider audience within the military, the Defense Department, and the White House. The overwhelming reaction was negative. Misgivings were expressed about the effects on the Europeans and on arms control, and about the scientific obstacles that lay in the way. As a result, though the original draft's rhetoric was not toned down, the commitment was fuzzed into a call for the best minds in the country to think about a task whose accomplishment was left for an indefinite someday—not at all like John Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's.

The job of defining what the President had said fell to the only people at the higher levels of the White House and the NSC who were acquainted with research and development: the science adviser, George Keyworth, and the deputy National Security Adviser, Robert McFarlane. Keyworth and his staff had argued strongly in Washington against strategic defense. Then, the Sunday after the President's speech, McFarlane said on national television that it had represented a commitment to nothing but research, and that nothing would happen to the U.S. strategic posture in the foreseeable future as a result of it. (Senator Wallop immediately wrote the President to complain about McFarlane's remark, and was assured that McFarlane had not meant what he said.) At the Department of Defense, the task fell to Robert Cooper, the Deputy Undersecretary and director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who had striven to reduce pressure from Congress for strategic defense, and had shifted DARPA's work away from weaponry and toward “pure” or “generic” high technology.

Together the White House and Defense Department appointed two committees. By far the more important was headed by James Fletcher, former (and future) director of NASA. The members were carefully chosen to represent the interests of the national laboratories, and of the several parts of the U.S. government involved in R & D. The Fletcher panel's charter directed it to disregard how currently available technology might be made into anti-missile devices, and to consider only advanced technology that would be effective against a “responsive threat” in the long term.

Defining the “responsive threat” is, in the lingo, a “reiterative process.” In practice it means that no sooner are technologists able to meet one set of impossible criteria than managers are free to imagine the next set. It also means that one should conceive only of systems with a near-absolute certainty of success. None of this is peculiar to strategic defense. This is how Bradley Fighting Vehicles and $7,000 coffee pots are designed.

In short, the Fletcher panel was mandated to conceive only of systems able to defeat the best imaginable countermeasures.

Perhaps the best example of how the “responsive threat” affected strategic defense was the Fletcher panel's operative assumption that the Soviet missiles to be defeated would be resistant to 100,000 joules/cm2 of radiant energy—over one thousand times reality! Although no one could justify such a figure with any data, that figure “drove”—and continues to “drive”—the calculations on which SDI is based.

The Fletcher panel also stipulated that each layer of the defensive system should be able to destroy at least 90 percent of the targets coming its way (in the worst of circumstances) so that the system would achieve an overall effectiveness of 99.75 percent against the simultaneous launch of all Soviet missiles—not, again, the real Soviet missiles but rather missiles a thousand times “harder” than real ones. There was no room in this directive for the notion that one should worry first about militarily rational threats.


The report of the Defensive Technologies Study Team (DTST), as the Fletcher panel was called, reflected both its membership and its guidance. A carefully brokered report, it protected the programs of all the parties involved, promised steady increases in research funds available to all, set no deadlines against which anyone's performance might be judged, and foreshadowed no programs that might seriously divert major funds from any existing part of the government. Indeed, by putting off consideration of what to do after preliminary research until the time of future Presidents and future Congresses, it magisterially took from the President for whom it was written the authority ever to do anything about the subject again.

The report's substance was characterized by the recommendation that currently usable technology be laid aside while the most difficult parts of an overall system were developed—namely, the sensors and data-processing required for intercepting missiles in mid-course. These would involve formidable technical challenges because the Fletcher panel defined the task of mid-course sensing and data-processing as the imaging and analysis of every missile, decoy, and piece of debris by space-based radars, infra-red, and laser sensors—all collected and compared in a central processor. The flipside of this recommendation was that no part of the overall system be built before all parts were ready to be built.

Regarding battle management, the report recommended birth-to-death track files for every booster, missile, decoy, and piece of debris identified and transferred through all layers of the system. It also banished nuclear weapons from any role in strategic defense, and devoted serious consideration to mining the moon and inventing “anti-matter beams.”

The report, in short, was a caricature of the latter-day American approach to military R & D—the most direct antithesis imaginable of the principle that you should do the best you can with what you've got. Not only did the Fletcher panel say precisely nothing about how the United States might actually defend itself in the foreseeable future; this question did not rate even the smallest mention in its report.

During the late summer of 1983, complaints about the Fletcher panel's “far-out” report received a sympathetic hearing from the National Security Adviser, William Clark. He then ordered a new study, under NSC auspices, to integrate the Fletcher panel's findings with those of another panel under Fred Hoffman, of R & D Associates, Los Angeles. This group had been chosen largely by the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy to examine the policy implications of the President's speech. Although not allowed to touch the vital subject of systems engineering, it focused on the real world, and on what even limited defenses could do for the country. By the time the new, somewhat more present-oriented report reached Clark's desk in October 1983, however, he had been replaced as National Security Adviser by McFarlane, who shared in the consensus that SDI should be soft-pedaled.


The upshot of all this is that since May 1984—and still to this day—SDI has taken the form of a label applied to a number of preexisting programs of the Defense Department that bear an arguable relationship to strategic defense. The five program elements are as follows, in order of the amount of money and attention being devoted to them:

First is Surveillance, Acquisition, Tracking, and Kill Assessment (SATK). This is “chartered to explore the technologies [emphasis added] needed to detect, identify, locate, and track ballistic missiles or their components during the boost, mid-course, and terminal phases of their trajectories.” The second program element, Directed Energy, covers the longstanding program in chemical lasers in industry, as well as particle beams, x-ray lasers, and Free Electron Lasers (FEL's) in the national laboratories; the emphasis on ground-based Excimers and FEL's is new, having come with SDI. The third, Kinetic Energy Weapons, covers research on “smart bullets that could be fired from the ground or space.” The fourth, Systems Concepts and Battle Management, consists primarily of studies on paper about “how positive [emphasis added] command and control might be structured for a defensive system,” and also about what a defensive system might consist of. The fifth, Survivability, Lethality, and Key Technologies, covers programs, many new, to explore, largely on paper, but with some experiments, longstanding questions about how key offensive and defensive components could be made resistant to various kinds of attack.

A glance at the organization makes two points evident. First, no part of it has the task, or even the opportunity, to design and develop any weapons system or any part thereof. Such things would require integration of work in all five program elements. Each of the dozen-to-hundreds of parts of each program element necessarily proceeds without a goal, either in the form of a product to which its work would contribute, or of a date by which it must be ready in order to be part of something. Severally and jointly, the parts do not necessarily have any connection with the reality of weaponry.

Indeed, the managers of SDI have gone out of their way to remove such connection to anti-missile weaponry as had earlier existed in the programs, and to make sure that none enters in. For example, the original design of the Army's Airborne Optical Adjunct (AOA), a kind of electro-optical device that controls a battle against warheads as an AWACS controls a battle against fighter planes, was ready to fly in 1986. But it had its performance requirements raised, thus necessitating more research. The SDI office also ordered that the AOA's key electro-optical component be split into two parts, and that work proceed wholly apart on the low-power laser device which the AOA uses to find the range of each warhead. Among the reasons for this, and dozens of other similar orders, is the judgment of the SDI office, in cooperation with the Pentagon's and the State Department's lawyers, that to do otherwise could be construed as a violation of the ABM treaty.

So it is that the specter of the ABM treaty and the organization of the SDI program have served to enforce on SDI the “research forever” approach that had been embodied in the guidance to the Fletcher panel.

The second evident point is that as it is structured SDI is indeed, as advertised, “an assessment of technologies and systems that might provide a defense against ballistic missiles . . .,” designed to last until the early 1990's when a decision on whether to enter systems development could be made by a future President and a future Congress. It is a set of studies to find out whether certain kinds of anti-missile weapons are feasible and worthwhile according to a set of fantastic criteria.

Thus SDI is, in effect, a decision to postpone until the 1990's any serious consideration of what, if anything, the United States shall do to prevent Soviet missiles, once launched, from landing in the U.S.

This makes little sense. Why investigate whether defenses against ballistic missiles are feasible? Some means are obviously quite feasible. In fact, they are in hand. Others are not in hand, and may never be. Space-based kinetic kill vehicles, possibly using Phoenix or Maverick terminal guidance, are too well-known to be worth testing in a highly abstract mode. It makes sense to build prototypes of operational weapons based on that technology, and then to decide whether or not to mass-produce them. Space-based chemical lasers are in the same position; so is the Airborne Optical Adjunct. The Aegis Radar can provide a basis for an American version of the SA-12. That too is a useful device. The technology to support certain approaches to battle management is also available, while the technology to support birth-to-death, centralized battle management is certainly not available. But why should one wish it to be?

Whether or not any or all of these devices ought to be built is not a technical but a prudential decision, to be made on military and, above all, on political grounds. Unfortunately, the premise of SDI in 1986 is that no military or political choice will be available until the mid-1990's. That, of course, is true with regard to some devices and approaches. But the bureaucracy works mightily to give the impression that it is true of all devices and of all reasonable approaches to ballistic-missile defense.

Nor will the decision, now put off to the 1990's, be any more technical in character then than it is today. Without doubt, in the early 90's, notions of the “responsive threat” will have evolved at least as much as the technology in U.S. hands to meet that threat. No doubt, too, we will then be able to conceive of even superior technology that might be in our hands ten years hence.


In sum, whether or not technology is acceptable depends on our definition of the threat, and on our perception of the necessity of dealing with it.3 For example, the Soviet Union decided in favor of counterforce missiles long before it could build SS-18's and SS-24's. It decided that our Nike-X was a feasible and worthwhile thing before it could build anything like it, and just as Americans, having built it, were deciding it was an unfeasible instrument of defense.

The Americans who, in the late 1970's, perceived the imminence of overwhelming and usable Soviet military superiority and wanted to build strategic defensive weapons as the only way to negate it, judged the available technologies acceptable, according to criteria very different from those of the Fletcher panel. Their judgments regarding the feasibility of strategic defenses are not any more or less technically worthy than those of the Fletcher panel and the SDI's management. Reputable people work from precisely the same technical data base. There are vast differences in the facts that each side chooses to emphasize, but disagreements on facts and figures themselves are rare. The differences lie in strategic and political perspectives.

The fact is that, for a variety of reasons, neither the White House nor the Pentagon is particularly eager to build strategic defenses. That is why SDI, as currently structured, does absolutely nothing for the foreseeable future to alter a military balance rapidly shifting against the U.S. But neither the White House nor the Pentagon appears to be surprised by this. Hence we have the interesting spectacle of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger referring to SDI as “the very core” of U.S. defense policy while maintaining sincerely that SDI is a research program meant only to answer an open question. This incongruence, along with the political posturing which invariably characterizes Congress's treatment of non-serious programs, accounts for the reception of SDI on Capitol Hill.

A good illustration was the hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 8, 1984. It began with a codeword-level review of Soviet developments in strategic defense, which the CIA's Lawrence Gershwin summed up in open session as: “The Soviets are ten years ahead of us in this field.” Undersecretary Richard DeLauer and Robert Cooper then explained SDI as a $26-billion research program that would last until the early 90's, which might possibly be followed by a development program running into the late 90's, which, if successful, might yield initial, limited deployments around the year 2000.

Liberals and conservatives unanimously thought this silly. Perhaps, so reasoned the Senators who spoke up, there really is some protection to be gained, and the Soviets really are ten years ahead. In that case, the reasoning went, we should be building similar things quickly. As the program stands, ten years hence we will be twenty years behind. Perhaps, however, there really is not much protection to be gained, or any gain would be highly uncertain. If so, the Soviets are wasting their money on strategic defense, and are ten years ahead in a wild goose chase. In that case, why spend $26 billion on a lottery ticket that will yield only another lottery ticket?

At about the same time, Congressman Les Aspin (D-Wis), later chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was telling a large private audience in Washington that, if the administration were to present a plan actually to build weapons to protect the American people, there would be a political realignment in the House and the plan would pass. He concluded, however, that so long as SDI remained an R & D program, Congress would not feel public pressure on its behalf and would continue to cut it.

Indeed, the fate of SDI in Congress is effectively decided by bargaining between people like Senator John Warner (R-Va) who, on the Pentagon's behalf, works to protect the future of current accounts, and ideological opponents like Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark). The administration for its part has opposed amendments to reserve any portion of the funds authorized for SDI actually to build defensive weapons. As a result, Congress's authorization for SDI for FY 86 is $2.7 billion. Note that the programs now labeled SDI, before they received SDI's alterations and labels, were scheduled to amount to a total of $2.8 billion in FY 86. Even by this measure, then, SDI is falling short.

In June 1985, Secretary Weinberger reportedly asked the SDI office to prepare for him an account—not a judgment, but an account—of what the U.S. could do immediately to destroy ballistic missiles if it were to build defensive systems based on technology currently available. This is precisely the right question to ask. It is the question to which the Defense Department should have addressed itself after the President's speech, if not before. In fact, it is the question with which Senator Wallop began in 1978. On the basis of the answers, politically responsible people can make politically responsible judgments about what is and what is not worth doing.

Yet on the many occasions where policymakers ask such questions the bureaucracy habitually loads the answers with assumptions that can be factored out only by a reading far more careful than any but the most dogged policymakers are likely to give to them. Nevertheless, as the 80's and the Reagan administration head toward their close, even people at the top are beginning to perceive how silly and how repetitive of past mistakes it is for the U.S. to confine SDI to research while knowing we have no alternative to strategic defense.


The education of high American officials in reality is occurring at the price of time—years whose fruit, once the enemy has picked it, no human power can restore. Yet the education is far from complete. The same President who speaks moving words about protecting the American people also speaks with obvious conviction about the need to “restore the integrity of the ABM treaty.” Never mind that the essence of the ABM treaty is that the more vulnerable we are, the better off the world is. Never mind that no responsible official has ever proposed any means of enforcing an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union, and that the Soviets have no reason whatever to heed the wishes of a nation that has allowed its agreements to be violated for a decade.

But suppose for a moment that one could, magically, “restore the integrity of the ABM treaty,” which bars the protection of populations. Which of these two wholly contradictory approaches, self-protection or vulnerability, would the President urge the American people to embrace? It is difficult to believe that the President or his advisers have ever come to grips with the question.

In practice, their equivocation has proved once again that it is impossible for anyone, no matter how able, to embrace two contradictory propositions simultaneously without discrediting both. Moreover, even if one were abstractly to choose a pristine ABM treaty over defenses, how could one justify that choice in the light of the Soviet Union's growing ability to protect itself by counter-force strikes that are not restricted by any treaty and that continue to grow? The ABM treaty's very negotiators stated, also with apparent conviction, that the treaty would have to be renounced unless limitations were placed on offensive weapons to prevent the advent of counterforce missile arsenals. But such an arsenal is now with us—or, rather, with the Soviets. Every month in which American officials indulge in contradictions that they dare not resolve, every month in which they abdicate to technicians the responsibility for deciding when to build defenses, every month these technicians become, by default, policymakers, our predicament deepens.

Nor can America's political leaders rely on the U.S. intelligence community to tell them when the time is right to build defensive weapons. Intelligence has done its job—not as quickly or as neatly as it could have done, but well enough to notice the Soviet Union's counterforce arsenal, the Soviet Union's commitment to strategic defense, and the Soviet Union's production of several key components of such a defense. It is unreasonable to expect more than this.

Current technical intelligence systems were conceived primarily to monitor activities connected with long-range missile forces. Despite their many shortcomings, the systems did a passable job until the advent of mobile missiles. Unfortunately, most components of defensive systems are also readily mobile; moreover, they are built wholly under roofs.

Thus, while the term “deployment” was meaningful as a benchmark for Soviet capabilities and, to a lesser degree, intentions with regard to offensive missiles from 1959 to about 1982, applying that term to defensive forces fosters misunderstanding. U.S. intelligence analysts who look for evidence of Soviet defensive deployments as an index on the basis of which to warn policymakers look for the wrong thing, both because what they look for is hard to see, and because the concept is not very meaningful. “Production” is a much better criterion, but no serious student of U.S. capabilities would argue that our intelligence can be expected today to come up with meaningful figures on the production even of offensive weapons, let alone defensive ones—except by windfall.

As for the quality of defensive weapons, it is almost entirely beyond the ability of current technical intelligence to calibrate. Yet much of the argument within the U.S. government about whether the Soviets would be emboldened by their defensive weapons turns upon our judgment of those weapons' quality. Nor can we expect intelligence to tell us anything about how Soviet planners factor into their calculations any given level of defensive proficiency. Intelligence gives what it can.

Unlike intelligence analysts, however, policymakers receive the pay, perquisites, and deference of their offices precisely because they are expected to make up for uncertainty with judgment, and to do so in time.


In July 1985 Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been President Carter's National Security Adviser, published an article in the New Republic arguing that our strategic predicament demands that we now build—not conduct research into, but build—strategic defenses at least capable of thwarting a Soviet counterforce strike. Clearly, it is impossible to consider the substance of our strategic predicament and arrive at any other conclusion.

The counsel of common sense has also come from a place we have been led not to expect it: Europe, for the sake of which, we often hear, we should limit SDI to research. Writing in the Winter 1986 issue of Strategic Review, Germany's Minister of Defense, Manfred Woerner, says that while SDI is all very well and his country looks forward to helping make decisions about the far-off future, many hundreds of Soviet ballistic missiles are aimed at his country now. These Soviet missiles are becoming more accurate and more usable. Hence his country needs and will develop antimissile forces.

As for our own security, Senator Pete Wilson (R-Cal) has correctly observed that it has already been jeopardized by over three years of inaction since the President's speech, while the Soviet threat has continued to grow. Worse, nothing now authorized by Congress, or even proposed by the administration, will keep the gap between Soviet and American strategic capabilities from widening. Nor will anything change until we resolve to do what we can, with what we have—now.


1 The MX is a product of arms control. Restrictions on the number of launchers led the U.S. to pack much capability into each missile, making the MX mobile only on the nation's railroads.

2 These, nowadays, can be made small enough to be transportable. Interceptor missiles can now carry much better computers, and therefore are likely to get close enough to their targets not to need nuclear warheads. By lifting an electro-optical probe and a group of miniature homing vehicles far into space in the path of an attack, ground-based defenses can even reach warheads in mid-course.

3 A physician once thus answered a patient's question about how soon after his heart attack he could resume sexual activity: “When the desire overcomes the fear of death.”

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