The powerful image of Patriot missiles streaking skyward to intercept Scuds in the Persian Gulf War has created a broad new enthusiasm for a "Star Wars" missile defense system to protect the United States against a limited missile attack.
Acting with adept timing, the Pentagon has unveiled in recent weeks a proposal for a "refocused" strategic defense initiative (SDI). At $41 billion, the scaled-down missile shield would cost a fraction of an earlier $146-billion proposal, but still rank as the costliest defense program of the 1990s.
Before launching into the new effort, some experts are attempting to take stock of the program's troubled history. Since "Star Wars" was unveiled in 1983, the effort has devoured $24 billion, mostly on exotic programs long since abandoned or sent into technological oblivion.
The Pentagon spent hundreds of millions on esoteric technologies such as energy beams, orbiting nuclear power plants, giant space-borne mirrors and other fanciful elements of an "Astrodome-type" defense system. While the military was forging ahead, fundamental questions about the overall "architecture" of the system went unanswered.
Henry Cooper, director of the Defense Department's SDI organization, insists that the days of such grandiosity are over and that the Gulf War demonstrated that a defense system can defeat a limited ballistic missile attack by a Third World power.
"We are talking about something that's affordable, not a trillion-dollar system," Cooper said. "We believe that we can sustain public support and most notably I think there is a chance for executive and congressional consensus on this program."
The Patriot, Cooper argues, demonstrates the value of even high-cost defensive systems.
"People pay more money for a bulletproof vest than they pay for a bullet. We're deploying the Patriot, which costs much more on a per-shot basis for each Scud that we killed. Much more."
Many experts continue to express deep doubts about the underlying rationale of a "Star Wars" system to defend against a Third World attack. They assert that the same technical shortcomings that have hobbled the program from its inception still exist and that the Pentagon has not demonstrated that it can manage the program any better now than it has in the past.
The program "has been a tragedy," said Eberhardt Rechtin, former president of Aerospace Corp., the Air Force's engineering brain trust for space technology in El Segundo. "Until there is somebody assigned the job of being an architect for the system, until you sort out what you want to do and what you can do, a lot of time and money will be wasted."
The Pentagon believes it has identified a clear purpose in its refocused SDI program, which it has designated Global Protection Against Limited Strikes, or G-PALS. The system would protect against a limited or accidental attack by up to 200 missiles or warheads against all 50 states, as well as provide worldwide protection to U.S. allies.
The G-PALS plan still relies on a layered defense, including the controversial basing of weapons in space. The plan would deploy 1,000 orbiting interceptor missiles, called Brilliant Pebbles, costing up to $3 million each with launch costs. The "pebbles" would attempt to knock out ballistic missiles during their ascent phase before the warheads separate from decoys. Total cost of this portion is $10 billion.
The second layer of defense would be either one or two ground-based missile systems, deploying 750 missiles. The ground-based portion of the system would cost $22 billion.
The ground-based system would rely on 50 surveillance and tracking satellites, called Brilliant Eyes. It would also include ground-based radars and expendable probes that would be launched during an attack.
This system is designed to provide, at a cost of $32 billion (in 1988 dollars), leakproof protection for the United States from an attack of 200 missiles. An additional $9 billion is planned for so-called "theater" defensive systems that would improve on the Patriot by intercepting attacking missiles at higher altitudes.
The total system is far less encompassing than the "Star Wars" shield envisioned during the mid-1980s, which would have protected against an all-out attack by the Soviet Union with thousands of nuclear missiles and warheads.
When President Ronald Reagan initiated the "Star Wars" plan in 1983, he said: "I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace; to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."
The proclamation appealed to those weapons builders who long anguished over the morality of building offensive rather than defense weapons, but the program quickly degenerated into a bureaucratic budget battle that sent the program lurching from one technology to another.
"I felt early on that the advertising and hype was out of kilter with what was understood about the technology," said Stanford University physicist Sidney Drell. "The whole thing got out of control in a push to put an 'Astrodome' over the nation when we didn't have the slightest idea of what would work."
As a result, the SDI program invested heavily in elements that are not part of G-PALS or any other SDI system in the foreseeable future. They included:
--Directed energy weapons, costing $4.9 billion. These would have produced beams of atomic particles and lasers. This category includes the free electron laser at an estimated $100 million, chemical lasers at $200 million, nuclear-powered X-ray lasers at $1 billion, and excimer lasers at $100 million, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
--SP-100 nuclear reactor, costing $300 million. This would have been a power source for space-based energy or laser weapons.
--Boost surveillance tracking system, costing $958 million. This is a type of tracking satellite.
--Kinetic energy weapons, costing $3.8 billion. This is a large class of weapons that include such items as rail guns--an electromagnetic weapon that would shoot high velocity bullets at missiles.
"Here we are $24 billion and eight years later and they don't have much to show for it," said John Pike, a frequent "Star Wars" critic at Federation of American Scientists. "Never has so much been spent with so little to show for it. Their major accomplishment is to demonstrate technologies that won't work. I could have told them, but they wouldn't listen."
By Pike's reckoning, as much as one-third of the $24 billion "just disappeared into rat holes and nobody knows where it went."
Not so, contends Robert Snyder, SDI deputy director for program operations, who provided to The Times a technology-by-technology accounting of the $24 billion since SDI's inception.
"It is easy to look back and have people shoot at the program," Snyder said. "If you start from the premise that we were a research and development effort, you can make the case that we were successful at a modest cost."
In the Pentagon's view, that success would be the G-PALS plan. Rather than defending against a Soviet preemptive strike, G-PALS would provide protection against an accidental missile launch or a modest attack by a Third World power, which the Pentagon asserts is a growing threat.
The Pentagon has classified its most-detailed assessments for Third World ballistic missile capabilities, but 18 Third World nations possess ballistic missiles and that number will grow to 24 by the end of the decade, according to information provided by the SDI organization.
The majority of such missiles are little better than the Scud. The longest-range missile under development by a Third World nation is the 1,500-mile-range Indian Agni missile, according to an article last year on Third World ballistic missiles in Scientific American.
"I think it is unlikely that these countries will develop an intercontinental-range ballistic missile in the next five years and probably in the next 10 years," said Albert Wheelon, former deputy director for science and technology of the Central Intelligence Agency who co-authored the Scientific American article.
Drell, the Stanford physicist, believes the lesson of the Gulf War is not that a strategic defense works against intercontinental missiles, but that a battlefield defense works against short-range missiles.
Even if the Third World did provide a credible threat to the United States, it is not clear that the Pentagon has solved the most vexing technical problem confronting the system: the ability of SDI sensors to discriminate warheads from decoys before they are perilously close to detonation.
Once a ballistic missile deploys decoys, optical and radar tracking systems have no way to discriminate them from real warheads, meaning that an offensive missile can saturate a defense system with phony warheads. Not until the warheads and decoys reach the atmosphere--at perhaps 60 miles of altitude--could the heavier warheads be identified by a more rapid descent.
"The decoy problem was never worked on," Rechtin said. "I could never see any work done on the issue at any level of classification. The decoy discrimination problem has never been solved."
Aerospace Corp. delivered a classified report to the Pentagon arguing that the SDI system would not work, in part because of the decoy discrimination problem. "It was deep-sixed," Rechtin said.
Pentagon officials do not dispute that the decoy problem remains unsolved. By the mid-1990s, a "mid-course sensing experiment will look at the issue of decoys and attempt to solve the problem," said Snyder, SDI deputy director.
Because of such uncertainties, the $41-billion estimate for G-PALS is considered highly unreliable, said Joseph Cirincione, an aide to the House Armed Services Committee. Even disregarding the uncertainties, total SDI funding, which includes about $2 billion in annual research beyond the G-PALS plan, and inflation could drive up the cost by 100%, according to congressional estimates.
"There is no independent assessment of the $41-billion figure by the Defense Acquisition Board or the Defense Science Board," Cirincione said.
The Pentagon has requested $5.2 billion in SDI funding in fiscal 1992, up from $2.9 billion this year. House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) said funding is not likely to increase beyond $3 billion.
"There is some hope being held out that this will provide an umbrella over the U.S. and I don't think anybody believes that is a realistic approach," Bennett said. "The problem with the SDI office is that they are not willing to take a financially conservative position when everyone else in defense is being forced to cut back."
Many supporters of SDI believe an economical ground-based system could be quickly deployed. Lockheed Chairman Daniel Tellep said a fleet of 100 Eris missiles, complying with the anti-ballistic missile treaty, could be deployed in North Dakota at a cost of $5 billion, not including the related surveillance systems in space.
"Eris could protect the entire continental United States from (a base in) North Dakota," Tellep said.
SDI officials would prefer to protect all 50 states and U.S. allies, despite the higher cost. If the United States were to find itself under attack in the same way Israel or Saudi Arabia did, the $41-billion cost of SDI might not seem so high, said Stephen J. Hadley, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy.
"Doing something--i.e., providing global protection against limited strikes--is better than doing nothing or waiting until we can do something much bigger than that," Hadley said. "If you look out to the end of this decade and you think threats are likely to emerge, then we're probably coming just at the right time. And it is a light-war global defense, but it's better than nothing."