Only Test of SDI Morality Will Be Its Consequences

<i> Joseph S. Nye Jr. is the director of the Harvard University Center for Science and International Affairs and the author of "Nuclear Ethics" (The Free Press, 1986)</i>

President Reagan and others in his Administration like to justify their push to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative as a “moral imperative.”

If SDI promised a technical solution to the moral dilemmas of nuclear deterrence, it would be foolish to delay it or to pinch pennies. However, the language of morality has been bandied about loosely and inappropriately by both sides in the so-called “Star Wars” debate. It is a good example of stunted moral reasoning in the discussion of nuclear issues.

In his March, 1983, speech calling for the creation of SDI, the President suggested that strategic defense might provide an exit from the dilemmas of nuclear deterrence. The goal of the initiative was to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” Escaping from deterrence requires a leak-proof defense not only against ballistic missiles but also against bombers, cruise missiles and weapons smuggled into our cities. Such a perfect defense seems unlikely.

Few scientists or defense officials believe in perfect defense. Those who doubt its technological feasibility have urged that the Strategic Defense Initiative organization in the Pentagon concentrate on the lesser task of defending our weapons rather than our cities. This rationale enhances rather than replaces deterrence. That in turn is very different from the President’s original speech. In a sense the public is being sold a product that does not match the packaging. An elementary concern for truth in advertising should lead us to distinguish “SDI 1" (the March, 1983, brand) and “SDI 2" (the partial defense being developed).


This “SDI 2" is no more a moral imperative than are alternative ways of enhancing deterrence. While a case can be made and debated for such defense, it must surmount the obstacles of feasibility and cost in terms of competing strategies and claims on resources. It is not moral simply because of good intentions.

Ambassador Paul H. Nitze has set forth three criteria that must be met if “SDI 2" is to be technically feasible:

--It must work. This means more than fancy weapons. It means an enormously complicated system that must work without ever being tested under the stress of nuclear war.

--It must be cost-effective. If it is much cheaper for the Soviets to add offensive missiles than for us to add defenses, we will merely provoke an increase in the offense without being more secure.


--It must be relatively invulnerable. If it is easy to destroy or foil SDI by surprise attack, it will be a tempting target that will create instability in times of crisis.

Feasibility is more than merely a matter of technology. It also has a political dimension. Even if the complex defense technology can meet these technical criteria, can we get from here to there without going through a transition period in which the nuclear predicaments of both sides would be made worse? Will improving defenses stimulate an enormous increase in offensive weapons as the other side tries to prove that it still can’t overcome the defenses? If it looks as though we are about to perfect a defensive system that would really disarm the Soviets’ deterrent, would they take more risks in a short-run crisis than they otherwise would not normally attempt? Can these problems be solved by offering to share the same key technology that also provides the base for our improvement of the conventional-force balance in Europe?

These questions do not mean that there should not be a significant long-term research program on strategic defense. Quite the contrary. The prospect of enhancing deterrence, and perhaps in the long term of being able to save a large number of lives, justifies some research effort. But the morality of such an initiative will depend on the consequences, not the motives. It may be, as the President says, “better to defend than to avenge,” but only if the consequences of trying do not increase the risk of nuclear conflict in the meantime. Those consequences are likely to be determined not by our intentions but by the technology chosen (how will it affect crisis stability?) and the political state of U.S.-Soviet relations (will the introduction of defenses be in a cooperative or an antagonistic setting?).

Forty-six senators, nine of them Republicans, have signed a statement that “the SDI program is being rushed to a premature development decision in the early 1990s in order to meet an unrealistic schedule . . . . Budget growth in the SDI has outpaced the progress of technology and, more importantly, has begun to impinge on other military research and development.”


If treating the SDI as a moral imperative leads to wasted resources, missed opportunities in offensive nuclear-arms control and neglect of the political dimensions of the long-term dilemma of deterrence, then the consequences are far from moral.