'Star Wars' and Reality

It gets harder each day for the President to keep the real world from intruding on his dream of a shield against Soviet missiles, and his dream from intruding on the real world. It could get worse.

Ronald Reagan seemed to promise the nation in March, 1983, that its scientists would figure out ways to raise a high-tech umbrella over the country so sturdy that nuclear weapons would bounce off it. He neglected to mention that it might take generations to do that, if it could be done at all, but millions of Americans took him at his word. The idea has immense popular appeal. Mutually assured destruction (MAD), the concept that for three decades has prevented either superpower from launching missiles at the other because of the horrible consequences of retaliation, is not something that sane people dwell on. A shield is worth thinking about and savoring.

The White House has set out to reinforce the appeal by worrying aloud about the dangers of not knowing at some time in the future where mobile Soviet missiles might be or how many the Soviets might have. There seems to be no new information about mobile missiles--only a new way of looking at old information. Just last year, for example, the Scowcroft Commission said that more mobile missiles on both sides would make the risk of nuclear war less, not more, likely.

In calling for what is now officially the Strategic Defense Initiative and unofficially the "Star Wars" program, the President's promise was posed as a question: "What if . . . we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?" Aside from "That would be wonderful," other answers come best in the form of other questions.

The first question is whether scientists believe that what the President wants can be done. Enough of them doubt it that even its supporters now often fall back to the argument that while the umbrella would leak, it could at least make the Soviets hesitate to try to ram missiles through it. They sound as though they would be satisfied if it never did more than protect silos from which American missiles could then counterattack.

Would such a limited defense system calm down the arms race or speed it up? You can build a strong case that it would make things worse. Historically, new defense concepts have only made engineers work around the clock to design better offenses, from medieval castle walls and catapults to 20th-Century missiles designed to zig-zag their way through defense systems. Without some change in strategy, limited defenses would only breed larger nuclear arsenals designed to penetrate the defenses--only making MAD MADder.

Why do people insist that Star Wars is improbable when less than a generation ago getting men to the moon seemed an outlandish notion to many?

Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist, has an answer: "The moon didn't fight back." The Soviets would, with enough new missiles to overwhelm Star Wars or with missiles similar to those that the United States is now testing that take evasive action as they plunge toward targets.

Can the country afford such a defense system, even if it can make one work? The White House budget calls for $3.7 billion next year and a total of $26 billion just for research. Estimates of construction costs range as high as $1 trillion, not counting overruns. The cost would be piled on top of a national debt now approaching $2 trillion.

What role does Star Wars have in arms-control talks that begin in earnest in Geneva next month? The White House keeps insisting that it was the threat of a U.S. missile defense that coaxed the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, presumably in hopes of bargaining Star Wars away. Thinking that way runs contrary to history and logic. Since the first arms-control talks in the 1950s, neither side has ever agreed to sell for scrap the weapons that it already had in return for a promise from the other not to build a weapon that it did not have. It seems more likely that U.S. missiles already in production, primarily the submarine-based D-5 missile, played a much more pivotal role than Star Wars, no matter what the Soviets say.

If that is the case, why pursue Star Wars? The President may be talking only about research when he says that his defense system is not negotiable, and it is true that no arms-control treaty has ever stopped research. But as long as there is a chance that he means more than research, the Soviets are not likely to agree to throw away weapons that they might need to crash through a defense system.

For one thing, softening his position would mean letting down Americans who took his dream to mean an air-tight missile defense, which even for a President as popular as Reagan would be a political disaster. But there is a contradiction. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko agreed in January to try to outlaw "weapons in space," to try to prevent opening a second front in the arms race.

The severest critics of the Strategic Defense Initiative have genuine sympathy for Reagan's dream. His job carries with it a powerful yearning for safety, because it carries with it regular briefings on the awesome power lurking in the silos of both superpowers and a black bag of instructions on how to use that power.

But the President must think again about his position before real arms talks begin next month. The dream will turn to a nightmare if it is allowed to block what may be the last best hope of agreement on both sides on ways to reduce the risk of war now, not at some time in the 21st Century.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World