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The Wonders of Star Wars

Star Warriors: A Penetrating Look Into the Lives of the Young Scientists Behind Our Space Age Weaponry

by William J. Broad
Simon and Schuster, 245 pp., $16.95

How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete

by Robert Jastrow
Little, Brown, 175 pp., $15.95

Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies

Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment
325 pp., $12.00

1.

The Geneva summit has come and gone, leaving Mr. Gorbachev adamant that the Strategic Defense Initiative program is a critical impediment to any significant nuclear arms control agreement—for the simple reason that it would inevitably drive the arms race into space. President Reagan on the other hand, remains bewitched by what he continues to call his dream, a dream of a shield of defense systems in space which would liberate mankind from “the prison of mutual terror.” So there it is—as the USSR sees it, a choice between survival and mutual suicide; for Mr. Reagan, a beautiful dream. Where does reason lie? Will there be anything new at the summit later this year?

Had anyone other than the American president ever invited scientists to try to render “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete,” the suggestion would probably have attracted no more attention than had they been asked to square the circle or solve the problem of perpetual motion. But it happened to be the President, and he spelled out his vision of a future over which the nuclear bomb no longer casts a shadow in such homely terms that it all sounded real. How could the message fail to appeal? There was also a promise of vast resources for R&D—a vision therefore not only of peace but, at least in the meantime, of work, prosperity, and excitement for some. For those who might object that the idea was strategically naive, the President even acknowledged that it would “take years, probably decades of effort” for the dream to become a reality, and that in the meantime defensive systems, “if paired with offensive systems,” could be “viewed as fostering an aggressive policy.”1 However fantastic it was, the challenge therefore had to be taken seriously, even by the President’s defense secretary who, it had been widely rumored, had been skeptical about the idea until the moment it was suddenly proclaimed to the world.

The upshot is that within the space of two years, SDI has become one of the best-known acronyms in the world. It has stimulated a global debate. Instead of reducing tensions between East and West and “introducing greater stability into the strategic calculus of both sides,” it has exacerbated the tensions. It has also generated strains in the Western alliance. Even more important, it has divided that part of the American scientific community to which the challenge was particularly addressed, with respect both to its technological implications and to its strategic desirability—a part of the debate in which politicians, military people, and ordinary citizens have also engaged. And of course the debate has produced a mountain of comment, including books such as the three under review.

In some respects the debate is a rerun of the controversies that culminated in the 1972 ABM Treaty, when both sides implicitly acknowledged that it was then beyond their power to design meaningful defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Both had set about the job in the same way, just as they deployed the same variety of anti-aircraft defenses. There were “acquisition radars” which scanned the horizon for incoming warheads; “tracking radars” linked by computer to nuclear antimissile missiles whose explosion outside the atmosphere would emit X-rays to which the attacking warheads would in theory be vulnerable at great distances; and then there were terminal radars and terminal anti-missile missiles to deal with such warheads as would not have been destroyed. By the late Sixties enough hardware and computer links had been developed to justify deployment, or so it seemed.

But doubts had already started to set in.2 Could an ABM system work? It would have to deal not only with nuclear warheads but with a variety of decoys and other “penetration aids” which the missiles would release in order to confuse the radars. Warheads might be exploded outside the atmosphere to create an electromagnetic blackout that would make the task of the radars almost impossible. The large radars themselves were clearly vulnerable to direct attack. The scale of an attack could itself be so great as to swamp any defensive system. Each ballistic missile could carry not one but several warheads which, as was clearly recognized as early as the mid-Sixties, could be made independently maneuverable—what we now call MIR Ved.3 And then there was a political problem—people did not want defensive nuclear missiles planted in their back yards. Finally, neither the US nor the USSR could afford to deploy more than a handful of defensive complexes. If these could be made to function effectively, which was the first question that needed an answer, there was then a second problem, who or what was to be defended.

Despite all the doubts, in 1967 the United States started deploying a “light” ABM system, code-named Sentinel, to defend against a possible missile attack from China. The USSR had started a few years before to deploy one for the presumed defense of Moscow. For, as Mr. Khrushchev saw it, if his ballisticians knew how to “hit a fly in the sky,” so too they could hit incoming warheads. It was therefore only rational to try to defend his capital city. President Johnson was not so sure. In 1967 he asked the only question that mattered: Would an ABM system work? The answer from those best qualified to judge was “no.”4 No ABM system could reduce significantly the vulnerability of the United States; no president could initiate or agree to the initiation of a nuclear exchange without realizing that once it had begun, he could never be sure where it would end—that the risk, were he ever to agree to the actual use of nuclear weapons, was the total devastation of his country. In 1967 President Johnson and Robert McNamara, his defense secretary, tried hard at Glassboro, New Jersey, to persuade Kosygin, Khrushchev’s successor, to accept these propositions. Gradually he and the Politburo saw the light. Dubious ABM systems only destabilized a state of mutual nuclear deterrence.

The result was the ABM Treaty of 1972, a treaty that limited ABM deployment to two sites only—later changed to one—in each country. The treaty did not bar development work that improved the radars, computers, and defensive missiles deployed within the two sites, but specifically prohibited the development of any type of space-based ABM system. Stability was then the order of the political day.

And that was the moment—not March of 1983 when President Reagan spoke—when SDI really began. For, not surprisingly, the American and Soviet scientists and engineers who had been working on lasers and particle beams as possible Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) weapons did not cease their experimental inquiries when the 1972 treaty was signed, any more than did the scientists and engineers who were trying to improve the power of the permitted radars and computers, and the design, thrust, and speed of their defending missiles. The military chiefs on both sides, who had anyhow been dubious about the wisdom of the ABM Treaty, were only too ready to encourage them to continue, however little they understood the intricacies of the systems concerned. Most of the scientists and engineers needed little urging. After all, it was their jobs that were on the line.

An important figure who was in no need of any encouragement was Edward Teller, the well-known refugee theoretical nuclear physicist who had worked on the atom bomb under Hans Bethe during the war years. Teller is regarded by some as a distinguished, by others as a notorious, physicist. During the McCarthy years he had played a critical part in the downfall of Robert Oppenheimer, the wartime scientific director of Los Alamos, whether because of jealousy and frustration or because he had conceived of himself as some kind of superpatriot—plus royal que le Roi—it was difficult to say. Whatever his motives, Teller lost the respect of most of his scientific peers, from whom he rapidly became isolated.5 On the other hand he was eagerly supported by members of the defense establishment, particularly in the Air Force, who were only too ready to agree that a more powerful nuclear device than the atom bomb, the “second generation” hydrogen bomb, would be a valuable addition to America’s nuclear arsenal.

They also supported him in his campaign to found a second nuclear warhead laboratory at Livermore as an offshoot of the University of California. Teller had persuaded them that the Los Alamos research center was too liberal. He vehemently opposed the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, basically because it interfered with the testing of new warhead designs, but protesting too that the Soviet Union would be bound to cheat—and that anyhow there was no reason to suppose that the radioactive fallout from nuclear tests in the atmosphere did any harm, it might even do good.6 He became the chosen scientific mouthpiece of the “hard-line right,” a term that Europeans have come to identify with those Americans who are intrinsically against arms control, who uncritically assume that more destructive nuclear power than what already exists means more military and political strength, and who, whatever the risks, wish to oppose the Russians and communism at all times and wherever possible.

Teller was also loud in his protestations against the ABM Treaty and against SALT I and II. The Livermore laboratory, his creation, was going to give birth to a third-generation nuclear device that would transform the entire strategic scene. According to William Broad, the author of Star Warriors, the picture of this third generation of nuclear devices that Teller painted for the President was largely instrumental in instilling in Mr. Reagan’s mind a vision of a future in which nuclear weapons could be made impotent and obsolete.

Teller thus lurks behind almost every page of Mr. Broad’s book, which focuses on a small but select group of the employees of Livermore, who now number, so we are told, some eight thousand, and who cost the federal government more than $800 million a year. Although Livermore does many other things, its primary function is the design of warheads, a field in which it competes fiercely, and presumably very successfully, with the older Los Alamos laboratory. A glossy brochure that was issued to celebrate the station’s silver anniversary claimed that Livermore was responsible for nine of the ten strategic warheads now in the American nuclear stockpile. As Mr. Broad was told by a member of the special group with whom he spent a week in the Livermore compound, warhead and weapon designers are free to follow their heads—the number of possible designs is “limited only by one’s creativity.” The young men Mr. Broad was getting to know were the ones who were responsible for Teller’s third-generation nuclear breakthrough.

Their leader, and Teller’s main disciple, is Dr. Lowell Wood, now aged forty-two. For a week Mr. Broad stayed with him, consorting during all hours of the day and night with his host’s team, which was designated O Group at Livermore, and which numbered no more than a dozen or so young scientists of average age less than thirty. Associated with them were as many part-time workers, some of whom were no more than graduate students. Many of the team had begun as research fellows of the Hertz Foundation, on whose board both Teller and Wood sat, and for which Wood served as the recruiting sergeant. With employment prospects bleak, and competition for jobs fierce, he was able to select from all the universities of the US young scientists and engineers in whom he discerned “outstanding capability that has been developed and exercised in some direction”—usually in mathematics or physics. Apparently men with general interests but no specialized technical accomplishment were not wanted.

  1. 1

    Essays on Strategy and Diplomacy: The Strategic Defense Initiative, No. 3, The Keck Center for International Strategic Studies (May 1985).

  2. 2

    See, for example, J.P. Ruina and M. Gell-Mann, “Ballistic Missile Defence and the Arms Race,” Pugwash Proceedings (1964), pp. 232–235.

  3. 3

    See Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe, “Anti-ballistic missile systems,” Scientific American (March 1968), pp. 21–31.

  4. 4

    Herbert York, Race to Oblivion (Simon and Schuster, 1970).

  5. 5

    If a person leaves his country, leaves his continent, leaves his relatives, leaves his friends, the only people he knows are his professional colleagues. If more than ninety percent of these then come around to consider him an enemy, an outcast, it is bound to have an effect.” Teller, quoted in Stanley B. Blumberg and Gwinn Owens, Energy and Conflict: The Life and Times of Edward Teller (Putnam, 1976).

  6. 6

    Blumberg and Owens, p. 411.

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