Defense Secretary Les Aspin declared "the end of the 'Star Wars' era" on Thursday, ordering a change in the name and the direction of the Pentagon missile-defense program that set out to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" a decade ago.
After reviewing the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative, Aspin said the program now will focus primarily on the deployment of ground-based systems like the Patriot missile to protect troops against short-range missiles. The development of space-based systems to counter intercontinental missiles would be a second priority.
Aspin's announcement marked a significant shift from the program that President Ronald Reagan launched in 1983 to provide a globe-girdling network of defenses against massive missile attacks from the Soviet Union.
Under Aspin's directive, the program's $3.8-billion budget request for next year would remain unchanged, but future budgets would reflect the new direction, Aspin said.
"These changes are possible because of the end of a battle that had raged in Washington for over a decade over the best way to avoid nuclear war," Aspin told reporters. "Like many Washington battles, that wasn't decided on the merits. It just went on so long that circumstances changed the terms of the debate. The fate of 'Star Wars' was sealed by the collapse of the Soviet Union."
Although Pentagon research into "Star Wars" weapons has been under way for a decade, the nation is still many years away from developing and deploying a space-based system to protect the entire United States. Aspin insisted that the Defense Department will continue to pursue the longer-term goal and said he is confident such a system will be created eventually.
Underscoring the new direction of the missile-defense program, Aspin changed the name of the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Although the new moniker is unlikely to match the "Star Wars" name for sizzle and simplicity, it represents a clear effort to bring Reagan's high-profile initiative down to Earth.
For many high-technology firms, including many of the nation's largest contractors based in the Southland, the shift dictated by Aspin closes an era in which the Pentagon was willing to underwrite the development of technologies so futuristic they could take decades to bring to fruition.
"This is in essence an announcement that the process is over, rather than that the process is beginning," said Wolfgang Demisch, a financial analyst for UBS Securities.
Aspin said the change in emphasis is possible because the threat of a surprise attack from the former Soviet Union "has receded to the vanishing point." At the same time, "Saddam Hussein and the Scud missiles showed us that we needed ballistic-missile defense for our forces in the field," he said. "That threat is here and now."
At the Pentagon, the announcement was widely viewed as the predictable outcome of the new Administration's priorities. In his election campaign, President Clinton promised to "bring a healthy dose of reality to the SDI program."
Others, however, sharply criticized the shift. Hank Cooper, former SDI director, said cuts in the program are inconsistent with the Administration's "claim to be responsive to the post-Cold War dangers, particularly renegade nations armed with weapons of mass destruction."
Aspin's statement that the fate of SDI was sealed by the collapse of the Soviet Union "is just plain backward," said Cooper, who is affiliated with Empower America, an advocacy group for conservative causes. "The dramatic change in the balance of power between East and West was the direct result of America's strategic defense program."
Aspin also indicated that he intended to rein in the program by ordering a change in its management structure. Since the SDI organization was established in 1985, its director has reported to the defense secretary--a sign of the high priority the program enjoyed under Reagan and former President George Bush. Instead, Aspin has ordered that the director of the new defense program report to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, John Deutch.
"The SDI program has been as much a religious cause as it has been a technical enterprise," John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said. "This is a major redirection with major implications for the program. If it is seriously carried out, this shift will help to demystify the 'Star Wars' program and help bring it back into the mainstream from which it had departed."
Aspin's initiative won more qualified praise from other critics of the program, which has spent almost $35 billion in the last decade without fielding a single system.
"The Defense Department has finally and officially recognized what I have believed for a long time: that the 'Star Wars' concept of the 1980s was unworkable and a monumental mistake," Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) said.
"But now we need to adjust our funding levels for missile defense to reflect that reality and put a good portion of the savings toward deficit reduction," Bumpers said. "I believe we've got to make real reductions in the program this year. The threat we're facing now isn't Soviet missiles, it's the budget deficit."
Another longtime critic of the program, Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) charged that Aspin "is putting 'Star Wars' through the equivalent of the witness protection program: They've given it a new name and a new identity." But he cautioned that the new program faces the same questions as the old one.
"Why is it growing faster than anything in the federal budget--even faster than Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt?" Sasser asked. "Do we really need to build a defense system that will benefit our allies most? And if we do, why should U.S. taxpayers bear most of the cost?"
Steinbruner and others said the changes Aspin has ordered may help preserve the political viability of the Pentagon's missile-defense program in Congress. But they said Aspin's initiative will likely lead to deeper budget cuts in the years ahead.
In Aspin's 1994 budget submission, spending on space-based defenses accounts for roughly half of the $3.8 billion requested for the missile-defense program. The space efforts are likely to be cut even more in the coming years if they take a back seat to work on defenses against short-range missiles.
The Central Intelligence Agency has estimated that, within roughly the next decade, a Third World power could build nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles needed to reach the United States.