Following are excerpts from the report just issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists on “Space-Based Missile Defense”—often referred to as “Star Wars.” The report is of urgent interest in view of the announced plans of the Reagan administration to develop a spacebased missile defense during the coming years. The authors of the report are listed in the box below.
I call upon the scientific community who gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.
—President Reagan, March 23, 1983
These words unveiled the President’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a “comprehensive and intensive effort” with the “ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.” It proposes to rely on unborn generations of sophisticated space weapons that the Secretary of Defense told Meet the Press would provide a “thoroughly reliable and total” defense. We shall adopt Mr. Weinberger’s words, and refer to the President’s goal as total ballistic missile defense, or total BMD—what in the vernacular is now called “Star Wars.”
Every sane person yearns to escape from the specter of nuclear annihilation. But that consensus still leaves a host of unanswered questions: will these BMD systems, which still are just conceptual designs, provide a total defense of our civilization against the Soviet missile force? That force now carries 9,000 nuclear warheads, each far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and able to arrive on US targets within thirty minutes. (The US arsenal is, of course, equally devastating.) If these defenses of the distant future could protect us totally against today’s threat, could they cope with the Soviet strategic weapons of their own era?
What would the Soviets’ response be? Would they devote themselves to a similar effort, and agree to reduce their offensive nuclear forces? Or would they perceive this new American program as an attempt to nullify Soviet nuclear forces—as a supplement to the emerging US capacity to destroy Soviet missiles in their silos? If so, would they not respond with a missile buildup and “counter-measures” to confound our defenses, so that they could still destroy the United States (just as the US can destroy the USSR)? Or would the Soviets not have this option, because our defense would be truly total—robust enough to foil any offensive countermove?
This report addresses these questions. It examines the proposed BMD systems in the light of the scientific facts and principles that will govern their performance, and with the aid of the information released to the press by the Administration’s Defense Technologies Study Team headed by Dr. James C. Fletcher. There is general agreement that a defense of our population is impossible unless the vast majority of Soviet missiles can be intercepted in the first phase of their flight, while their booster engines emit a brilliant flame and before their multiple warheads are released. Otherwise, the subsequent layers of the BMD system will…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.