Robust Research, Not Deployment, of SDI

Sidney D. Drell is a physicist and deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Recent exchanges between Washington and Moscow have given cause for optimism that we may make progress in radically reducing the number of intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

But before we can find similar cause for optimism in reducing the vast U.S. and Soviet arsenals of strategic offensive weapons for intercontinental range, three serious issues that are raised by President Reagan's commitment to strategic defense will have to be solved:

--What program of strategic defenses should the United States pursue to meet our important national-security needs and goals?

--Should the United States follow the urgings of Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and others and press ahead toward early deployment of a partial strategic defense system that includes space-based interceptors?

--What should be the future of the anti-ballistic-missile treaty that was ratified in 1972 and is in force today?

I believe that there are clear answers to all three questions.

First, a robust and balanced program of research and technology in strategic defense and countermeasures would meet U.S. security needs by protecting us against technological surprise, by deterring a possible Soviet breakout from the ABM treaty and by minimizing the effects of such a breakout. It would also respond to the President's request to determine whether it is possible to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."

This program should be carried out strictly in accord with the traditional interpretation of the 1972 ABM treaty. It is my technical judgment that, for the coming decade, a requirement to comply fully with the ABM treaty will pose no harmful technical burden on this program. The gap between today's technology and the requirements of an effective defensive system is so great that it is too early for any program in strategic defense to consider technology demonstrations of types that could interfere with the treaty. A funding level of $3 billion per year would be substantially more than adequate to support a strong Strategic Defense Initiative that avoids technically premature and such costly demonstrations, regardless of their public-relations value.

Second, a decision to begin early deployment of a partial strategic defense system cannot be justified technically, and would not serve U.S. security interests. We must still surmount major technical obstacles before we can consider systems testing, let alone deployment.

To cite one example, the critical first layer of a nationwide defense must destroy the enemy's salvo of attacking missiles during their "boost phase," within minutes after they are launched and before they can deploy their many thousands of multiple warheads and their potentially hundreds of thousands of decoys. The only technology now available to accomplish that defensive mission must rely on space-based chemical rockets guided by heat-seeking sensors known as "smart rocks."

One at a time they have been successful in recent demonstrations against single targets that were planned and therefore known to the experimenters in advance. However, tens of thousands of them would have to be orbited by the United States on many hundreds of satellites in order to counter the current Soviet missile threat, and the required numbers could increase rapidly if the Soviets introduce countermeasures. With the available technology for sensors and guidance, such weapons would require that the United States launch many millions of pounds into space in order to deploy the satellite fleet that must carry them. And, once in space, the satellites would be extremely vulnerable to direct attack as they circle the Earth like ducks in a shooting gallery.

A politically motivated requirement to drive toward early deployment of such an ineffective system will harmfully distort the U.S. program in strategic defense.

Third, the ABM treaty has provided the basis for U.S.-Soviet efforts to achieve stability, seek reductions in nuclear arms and avoid war. Though progress in achieving reductions in nuclear arms has been disappointing since the treaty was ratified, we certainly should continue to enforce it unless technical and political developments make it possible to supersede it by a superior peace-preserving regime. What is needed is an effort to strengthen the treaty, in consultation with the Soviet Union, by resolving outstanding issues of compliance and by clarifying its application to new technologies in strategic defense.

In particular, we need to relate the ABM treaty provisions to the new physical principles for strategic defense that include space-based battle stations, directed-energy beams and sensors utilizing lasers, optics and particle beams for threat acquisition, tracing and hand-off. On a case-by-case basis we need to define a middle ground between an overly restrictive interpretation that would confine research to the laboratory only and an overly permissive one of unrestrained testing, including in space, of the new physical principles.

The Administration's so-called "broad interpretation" of the ABM treaty is not in the strategic interests of the United States. The treaty contains provisions that were designed liberally to allow the signatory nations to pursue research and technology in strategic defenses while at the same time preventing preparations for the rapid development of a nationwide defense after a breakout from the treaty. It is in our interests to maintain these restraints on the extensive Soviet program in strategic defense. For the coming decade they are also appropriate for our own SDI program.

An agreement to abide by the provisions of the ABM treaty will provide a strong impetus to negotiations aimed at deep cuts in the offensive strategic arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union.

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