In a speech to the nation on March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense (“Star Wars”) Initiative, which, he said, “holds the promise of changing the course of history.” The abrupt broadcasting of that unexamined project to the nation—and to the world—was, in my view, one of the most irresponsible acts by any head of state in modern times.
To fulfill his objective of “providing new hope for our children in the twenty-first century,” the President called on the American scientific community to “turn their great talents…to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering…nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Once our scientists had developed an infallible nuclear defense, “no longer would our country-men have to rely on retaliation to protect them from nuclear attack.”
That, he implied, was as it should be, since “the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence”; and, in any event, he asked rhetorically, “wouldn’t it be better to save lives than avenge them?” “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant retaliation to deter Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic missiles before they reached our soil or that of our allies?”
He spoke with such intensity of conviction as to sound more like a prophet than a president, evoking a state of grace for all mankind in the language of biblical rhapsody, and five months later he reaffirmed his beneficent intentions by suggesting at a press conference that the United States might even give our missile defense technology to the Soviets. Because each side would then be protected against the other, humanity would no longer have to live under the threat of nuclear extermination.
Although the President announced his decision with breathless awe, there is, in fact, nothing new about the idea of developing an antiballistic missile (ABM) system, or, as it is now fashionable to call it, a ballistic missile defense. Such a proposal was first examined and debated more than thirty years ago, and in the latter 1960s there was mounting pressure to develop ABM technology. President Lyndon Johnson, reluctant to embark on an extravagant program that would almost certainly be overwhelmed by developments on the offensive side, preferred to checkmate such a step through negotiations. Finally, in 1972, President Nixon, after consideration of all aspects of the question and with the approval of Congress, reached agreement with the Soviets on the ABM treaty which provided for a mutual renunciation of all but token missile defenses.
Now in a few sentences President Reagan reversed a major American nuclear policy. What are some of the implications of that action? He initiated a project that, if successful, would require renunciation of the ABM treaty with the Soviet Union, which most informed observers regard as one of the two most important measures yet achieved to limit nuclear arms. In addition he set in motion forces that seem almost certain to trigger a furious acceleration of the nuclear arms race, eliminate the last hope of controlling the weapons spiral through agreement, and seriously jeopardize the confidence and support of our NATO allies.
Taken after only the most cursory consultation and preparation, the surprise announcement of a decision “to change the world” seems quite out of character for a democratic leader. One might expect such a whimsical antic from an absolute monarch, as for example when Czar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II produced on their own the ill-conceived Treaty of Björkö, which their horrified ministers then forced them to repudiate; or when the Kaiser impetuously dispatched the famous Kruger telegram. But one expects far more prudence from a president of the United States, especially when he is dealing with the agonizing issue of nuclear weapons and hence the fate of the world.
The President’s proposal did not seem bizarre to a public used to science fiction and conditioned by long exposure to Buck Rogers, Star Trek, and Darth Vader to regard outer space as a natural environment for war and counterwar. The President had told us that the Soviet Union is an “evil empire” and he was now warning America that the “empire” might “strike back.” Nor was it unexpected that the speech touched many Americans. It is heartwarming to think that our weapons would no longer be used to kill people but only to shoot down weapons of the adversary.
It all seemed too good to be true—and, of course, it was. If there was nothing new in President Reagan’s central concept, there was also nothing new in his support for nuclear defense systems. Long before becoming president he had repeatedly shown his aversion to our need to depend for security on mutual deterrence—or Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as the doctrine was called. Indeed, as he later said explicitly, the entire idea of maintaining deterrence through the threat of retaliation was “immoral”—unconsciously repeating a major theme of both the European and American peace movements that he roundly condemned.
That two equally strong adversaries might live in peace by maintaining an uneasy equilibrium through agreement is clearly too exotic an idea for Ronald Reagan’s thinking. Bargaining with the Kremlin was, he seemed to feel, more political shadow play than the means to an enduring peace. “How,” he has asked, “do you compromise between good and evil?… How do you compromise with men who say…there is no God?”
So he had opposed not merely the ABM treaty but every arms control agreement America has ever made with the Soviet Union and he seemed fully convinced that, instead of seeking elusive security through agreements with a nation he despised, we should rely only on military might and a “technical fix.” The prescription for security that emerged was the ultimate expression of that view: we should build overwhelming military power by piling one offensive weapons system on another, and at the same time we should contrive defensive systems to “render” such weapons “impotent and obsolete.” He seems quite oblivious of the inherent contradiction.
Defense by physical means can be either passive or active but Reagan no longer shows interest, as he once did, in safeguarding the population through vast shelter programs. His obsession now is with active defense through the development of mechanisms for destroying enemy missiles before they reach American soil.
He has undoubtedly been encouraged in that conclusion by conversations that began in 1981 with a group gathered together at the Heritage Foundation which included such right-wing industrialists as Karl R. Bendetsen, the beer magnate Joseph Coors, and the late Justin Dart, who were often referred to as members of Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet. Technical advice was provided by Dr. Edward Teller and Lieutenant General Daniel O. Graham, formerly director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
By the end of 1981, however, Graham and Teller disagreed over the most desirable way to install space defense, and the Kitchen Cabinet apparently took Teller’s side. As a result of that disagreement, Graham organized a private study with the pretentious name “High Frontier,” financed by contributions from right-wing sources. The report it produced outlined in some detail a proposed missile defense system.
The argument between Graham and Teller was over whether the United States should go forward quickly to try to build a space defense with existing technology (Graham’s view) or should delay a commitment to a space defense system until our scientists had developed new technology (Teller’s view). Impatient to get on with deployment, Graham was critical of Teller, while Teller asserted that even though Graham’s High Frontier project might be built for a hundred billion dollars, “The Soviets can get rid of High Frontier for ten billion dollars.” Despite Teller’s disapproval, Graham’s High Frontier study seems to have impressed the President.1
Made over an eighteen-month period prior to the President’s speech, at a cost of $500,000 provided by private sources, the study called for a three-layered defense. The first layer, using existing technology, would consist of 432 United States space satellites armed with non-nuclear missiles—including chemical lasers—that would intercept Soviet missiles shortly after launch. As a backup, a second group of non-nuclear missiles would protect each US missile site from Soviet warheads that managed to get through. These two tiers, Graham claimed, could be put in place in six or seven years. Then four or five years later a third layer might be added consisting of particle beam weapons and other Star Wars defenses.
General Graham expounded the High Frontier gospel in conceptual language remarkably close to that used in the President’s announcement. The High Frontier plan would replace the “ludicrous notion” of deterrence by Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) with the concept of “assured survival.” Mutual assured destruction was, Graham asserted, a “time-worn and morally bankrupt doctrine.” By providing “strategic defenses” the High Frontier system would render the intercontinental ballistic missile “practically obsolete.”
The High Frontier study was reviewed in the Pentagon by a panel led by the undersecretary of defense, Dr. Richard B. DeLauer, which found against it. As a result, on November 24, 1982, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger wrote General Graham that neither he nor DeLauer believed that there was technology available to support the policy called for by the report and hence both were “unwilling to commit this nation to a course which calls for growing into a capability that does not currently exist.” In April a background study for a panel analyzing space-based weapons for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment described the High Frontier proposal as “a defensive system of extremely limited capability” to intercept current Soviet missiles. The study added that if the Soviets should upgrade their booster rockets with quicker burning systems, the system would have “no capability…even with no Soviet effort to overcome the defense.”
Those negative findings did not seem to discourage the President. He still continued to refer to the High Frontier report and it no doubt had a part in his decision to put forward his Star Wars program. After all, in spite of their disagreement over procedures, both Teller and General Graham shared the belief that America could build an effective antimissile defense. The President did not seem to know—or he did not care—that few scientists held that view. It was for him an article of faith that limitless scientific virtuosity was a special attribute of our national genius. It was that faith, rather than any factual analysis, that led him to reverse normal procedures, announcing his decision to the world before, not after, he ordered studies of its feasibility. Nor did it seem to bother him that the project he announced was opposed until the last minute by his secretary of defense and other principal members of his government.
When the President decided to announce his new initiative few were told except for the speechwriters. Neither of the two officials who together supervise most of the government’s ballistic missile defense research—John Gardner, director of Defensive Systems at the Pentagon and Richard Cooper, director of the Defense Research Advanced Projects (DARPA)—was consulted or informed. Dr. Richard DeLauer, the leading Pentagon expert on the missile defenses, knew nothing of the speech until the day before its delivery and thus, in his own words, “had no major input.”
As George A. Keyworth, the President’s own science adviser, is reported to have remarked: “This was not a speech that came up; it was a top-down speech…a speech that came from the President’s heart.” Dr. Keyworth, a protégé of Edward Teller’s from the Los Alamos Laboratory, is reported to have given the project only weak support, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff provided little more than the suggestion that they would favor a somewhat more intensive program for investigating strategic defense; they made no formal recommendation to go forward along that line.
Even granting that the President had devout faith in his proposal, why did he abruptly announce it with so much fanfare after so little study or consultation? Presumably the dictates of theater triumphed over statesmanship; surprise was exploited at the sacrifice of prudence. Of course, some cynics have doubted that the President was driven by idealism to unveil a long-cherished private vision, and they attributed his timing to a more sordid calculation; they intimate instead that he timed the introduction of Star Wars to make more palatable the vast expenditures he was seeking for his military budget and particularly for the MX missile. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., in a speech made in 1984, put heavy emphasis on the desire of the President’s staff for a “big PR splash that would make the President look like the greatest leader in America.” The President’s announcement, he said, “had been poorly timed and prepared.” Whatever the President’s motives, the administration promptly closed ranks. Although the project clearly had many closet opponents there was now a mass conversion reminiscent of that decreed by King Ethelbert of Kent in the sixth century.
Yet not even the most faithful and vocal supporters of the President’s vision could conceal their disbelief in his extraordinary proposal that America might “share” with the Soviets the defense technology it developed. That idea had first been put forward by the President at a press conference—quite possibly on the spur of the moment—and it was, they imply, merely the eccentric musing of a lovable leader, a benevolent quirk to be indulgently overlooked. Indeed the undersecretary of defense, Fred C. Ikle, has bluntly pointed out the fantasy nature of the President’s promise; the United States would, he said, be prepared to share the technology “when the Soviets agree to abolish all offensive systems” or—to borrow one of Chairman Khrushchev’s more earthy figures of speech—when shrimps learn to whistle.
Far too much of the public discussion of the Star Wars proposal has centered on technical arguments and speculation and far too little has concerned the project’s political and strategic implications. Yet one needs at least a rudimentary appreciation of the technological problems to comprehend the enormous complexity of any defensive system, its obvious vulnerability to enemy attack or evasion, and the vast expenditures required even before testing and deployment begin.
Scientists seem agreed on at least one point: that there are three phases in a ballistic missile’s trajectory where attack might be at least theoretically possible. The first is the so-called boost phase when the bus laden with individually targeted (MIRVed) warheads is being hoisted through the atmosphere and into space by first-stage and then second-stage rockets that burn out and fall away. There would be obvious advantages in timing defensive attacks during the boost phase since all the multiple warheads carried on a single rocket could then be destroyed by a single attack. Moreover only in the boost phase does the flaming of the rocket emit an intense infrared signal that should greatly facilitate detection.
On the other hand, there are formidable—and perhaps insoluble—technical problems in destroying rockets during this first phase. To be effective a ballistic missile defense would have to be near enough to the target to be able to attack about 2000 Soviet boosters within three to five minutes after they emerge from their silos or submarine hatches and before they move outside the atmosphere and release their independently targeted warheads. The only weapons so far conceived that would be fast enough to warrant consideration for this purpose are lasers, particle beams, and so-called “smart rocks”—kill projectiles equipped with homing sensors—fired either from rockets based on satellites or from hypervelocity electromagnetic rail guns.
In order to put the weapons near enough to the Soviets’ silos or to their nuclear submarines, one proposal is to build and launch into space a large fleet of so-called orbiting battle stations (each weighing approximately 100 tons) revolving around the earth in sufficient numbers to assure that enough of them would be over the launching area at any moment to attack Soviet rockets with their lasers or particle beams.
An alternative under consideration is to build many earth-based lasers whose beams would bounce off relay mirrors, orbiting at 24,000 miles above the earth, onto “fighting” or “mission” mirrors in low orbit. These would then redirect the energy beams at the rising enemy boosters. The mirrors would have to be kept optically perfect and capable of changing their angles with complete accuracy in fractions of a second under the direction either of their own sensors or of battle management satellites in geostationary orbit 24,000 miles above. Since prepositioned mirrors would be easy targets, some preliminary though is being given to mirrors that would be carried collapsed on rockets and would be “popped up” at the first warning of an enemy attack.
Another variant is the possibility of “popping up” laser interceptor weapons mounted on rockets during the three to five minutes of the boost stage. X-ray lasers powered by a nuclear explosion are the only weapons light enough to be considered for such interception. Since the earth is round, the interceptor weapons would have to be fired from submarines off Siberia or close to the Soviet Union; a Soviet silo in Siberia cannot be seen by an interceptor popped up from Alaska until that interceptor has risen to an altitude of 1000 kilometers—by which time the Soviet missile would have completed its boost phase.
Once the boost phase is completed and the missile is in “midcourse,” the target to be destroyed is no longer a single missile. One Soviet SS-18 might release ten or more warheads together with a hundred or more decoys and quantities of other so-called penetration aids, such as chaff and clouds of infrared-emitting aerosol. Thus a thousand Soviet launching silos could present our defenses with hundreds of thousands of potential targets.
Finally, there is a possible so-called third phase or terminal defense—which means destroying the warheads after they reenter the atmosphere and come as close as a quarter of a mile to the target. But the Soviets could set their warheads to detonate as soon as they sense interception, and interception even as high as ten miles’ altitude could effectively devastate the cities we are trying to protect.
All of this is, of course, a crude and rudimentary description intended to suggest only a tiny fraction of the technical problems that must be resolved to mount even a partial defense against Soviet ballistic missiles. Moreover, even if we did succeed in building these enormously complex mechanisms we would still have to develop defenses against Soviet cruise missiles or bombers that do not operate in outer space but can fly under US radar. Notwithstanding such evident pitfalls, the danger remains that, in their eagerness to tackle the manifold problems of the Star Wars project, some scientists may be tempted to express more optimism than is justified by the hard realities. Meanwhile there is serious confusion within the administration itself.
Once the ritual conversion had occurred and faithful adherence to the President’s proposal had become, in the words of one administration official, a “loyalty oath,” exegetes of the President’s text quickly surrounded it with conflicting heresies. Thus today administration spokesmen are rushing frenetically around the world expounding their own variants of the true faith, leaving the President as almost the sole apostle of the doctrine in its pristine form.
Even Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger—while defending the President’s proposal with the excessive zeal of a last-minute convert—still interprets it as implying a quite different objective from what the President intended. “If we can get a system,” he says, “which is effective and which we know can render their weapons impotent, we could be back in a situation we were in, for example, when we were the only nation with a nuclear weapon.”
Thus, although repeating, as part of the orthodox ritual, that we will somehow achieve a “thoroughly reliable and total” antiballistic missile defense capable of protecting our cities, he interprets the President’s vision not as abolishing nuclear competition by mutual neutralization, but rather as assuring an American nuclear monopoly. Far from construing the President’s announcement as calling for a world in which all nuclear weapons are neutralized, he sees it as producing a “situation” in which the United States alone can rattle the atom and thus be in a position to impose its views on the Soviet Union.
But if Weinberger continues to hold firm to the thought that we can develop a “thoroughly reliable and total” missile defense system capable of ridding our people of the need to rely, for security, on deterrence, he is almost the only highlevel American official to do so; others have been content to rationalize more credible prospects. Thus a central schismatic line divides those few who still take the President’s vision literally from those who favor partial missile defense systems for quite different reasons.
The first foreshadowing of these heresies was contained in reports commissioned by the President himself. Although Ronald Reagan made almost no effort to check the wisdom, or even the feasibility, of his proposal before its dramatic unveiling, he afterward appointed two panels to study various phases of the project and a third interagency group to integrate those studies. The panels conducted their assessment of the project between June and October 1983.
James C. Fletcher, former administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, who chaired one panel, the “Defensive Technology Study Team,” commented, in summing up his panel’s findings, that even the most effective ballistic missile defense could never defend the total US population. “Total is one thing, substantial is another…. What you want is to minimize the casualties. There is no such thing as a nuclear umbrella.”
Frederick C. Hoffman, a protégé of Albert Wohlstetter’s who heads the California think tank called Pan Heuristics, led the second panel devoted to “Future Security Strategies.” It was largely composed of weapons-industry representatives and established Pentagon consultants. That panel was even more skeptical than Fletcher’s about the prospect of total defense; indeed it devoted most of its analysis to the development of strategic rationales for partial or “intermediate” systems designed not to safeguard the American population but to protect land-based missile silos and other military targets. Rather than concentrating on fulfilling the President’s purpose of doing away with dependence on deterrence, the panel justified these partial measures as “strengthening deterrence” on the ground that such defenses of limited capacity could “deny Soviet planners confidence in their ability to destroy a sufficient set of military targets to satisfy enemy attack objectives.”
That now forms the distinctive doctrine for the new set of heresies. Although paying occasional lip service to presidential orthodoxy whenever they remember to do so, most administration spokesmen implicitly reject the idea that the Star Wars project even seriously contemplates the defense of cities or that it will relieve endangered humanity from the need to rely on the “immoral” concept of deterrence. Under the new heterodoxy, the Star Wars project has become merely another—although obviously an extremely doubtful and costly—way of augmenting deterrence.
This strange duality is now evident in most of our official statements, to the confusion of our allies. Thus during a London press conference at the beginning of February Secretary Weinberger spoke of a “thoroughly reliable defense,” while, in the same city during the following week, Kenneth L. Adelman, the director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, defended the achievement of “a less than perfect” defense as a means of reducing the risk of nuclear war by increasing the enemy’s uncertainty.
That theme has also been echoed by the recently appointed principal negotiator for the current Geneva arms control talks, Max M. Kampelman. As co-author of an article that appeared almost simultaneously with his appointment, he invented new gobbledygook to compound the confusion. We needed to explore, he and his coauthors proposed, a new third option called the Strategy of Mutual Security or “mutual assured survival.” This, they asserted, must replace the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, since, after all, the “proper role of government is to protect the country from aggression, not merely avenge it.” They attempted to justify their proposal, however, not by arguing that it would end the need to rely on deterrence, but by claiming that “the combination of defense against space missiles with retaliatory defense in reserve enhances deterrence.”2
Fred C. Ikle, the undersecretary of defense for policy, has tried to make a potable highball out of all this muddy water. Appearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces on February 17, Ikle first made clear the firmness of the administration’s commitment to Star Wars. Implicitly dismissing the justification advanced by some apologists that the Star Wars proposal was needed to provide a potential bargaining chip in the forthcoming arms talks at Geneva, he said categorically: “The Strategic Defense Initiative is not an optional program, at the margin of the defense effort. It’s central.”
When asked whether the program would be designed to protect cities or only American missiles he replied that at first the system would be designed to protect the missile fields that are the presumed target of Soviet military planners. However, he suggested, in the next century it might be expanded to protect cities as well. Thus wretched mankind must live for at least the next two or three decades in the purgatory of Mutual Assured Destruction; only many years after the turn of the century can it hope to gain entrance to the heaven of what the President calls “Mutual Assured Security.”
Into all this blathering Paul H. Nitze, a weary veteran of the nuclear defense arguments of twenty years ago, has bravely sought to inject a note of coherence. Since Mr. Nitze is a principal adviser to the secretary of state for the forthcoming disarmament talks and since his experience with arms control matters is unequaled in the administration, his words carry impressive authority.3
Under current United States strategy, as Nitze propounds it, the United States would continue to press for radical reductions in nuclear arsenals of both sides, while at the same time continuing (as it has, in fact, been doing for some years) to pursue research in strategic defensive systems. But the United States would begin to place greater reliance on defensive systems only if it finds that the technologies can produce “survivable” systems; otherwise “the defenses would themselves be tempting targets for a first strike” and that, he said, “would decrease, rather than enhance, stability.”
Nor would our government regard a defensive system as feasible, Nitze said, unless it should prove to be clearly “cost-effective at the margin”—that is, “it must be cheap enough to add additional defensive capability so that the other side has no incentive to add additional offensive capability to overcome the defense.” “If this criterion is not met,” he continued, “the defensive systems could encourage a proliferation of countermeasures to overcome deployed defenses, instead of a redirection of effort from offense to the defense.” (Henry Kissinger, for his part, recently commented that “the criteria… Paul Nitze has laid down for building a strategic defense system seem unlikely to be met.”)4
Nitze then summed up the new American nuclear strategy, by insisting that it was, in fact, “wholly consistent with deterrence….” In fact, he insisted, “In both the transition and ultimate phases deterrence would continue to provide the basis for the US-Soviet strategic relationship” (emphasis added).
Not only does Nitze thus categorically deny the central thesis of the President’s concept—that the Star Wars project would enable the American people to be secure without further reliance on deterrence, he also ignores another tacit premise of the President’s approach that the only way to achieve security is by offensive and defensive military might. Instead he envisages US security as an objective to be accomplished through a concerted effort with the Soviets under which each side would develop its defenses while reducing its offensive arsenals. Diplomacy, in other words, is still at the heart of his strategy.
In contrast to these heretical views the President seems to be living at a different time and in a different world, for he continues to espouse his original proposal and to justify it with the same idealistic litany. As recently as the middle of February he was still talking about relieving Americans of the need to rely on “MAD—Mutual Assured Destruction,” which in his view is immoral. “Why don’t we have MAS instead—Mutual Assured Security,” a catch phrase he seems to have borrowed from the article by Max Kampelman I have mentioned. In other words, he still justifies his proposal as ridding mankind of reliance on deterrence.
No one seems willing to tell the President that, in his exuberant faith in the wisdom of his doctrine, he is making a false representation to the American people. Were he a private citizen seeking to finance his project on such representations the SEC would immediately put a stop to it.
During the early years of the administration one might have forgiven Ronald Reagan’s performance, since it took him many months to realize that, as president, he could not speak with the same cavalier disregard for the facts as when he was making speeches for General Electric. Even after four years he seems not always to recognize that the words of a president are a powerful instrument to be used with scrupulous restraint; otherwise they may deeply prejudice the objective debate needed for a judicious determination of policy and, by their reverberations around the world, produce complex and destructive reactions in different parts of the globe.
As president, however, Ronald Reagan has either overlooked or deliberately ignored these hazards. Not only did he take his own advisers and the Congress by surprise, it seems never to have occurred to him or to his advisers that America was obligated to give advance notice to our principal NATO allies before it announced a drastic change in American nuclear policy that could deeply affect their security.
Had the President consulted the European leaders in advance he would no doubt have been told that they did not share his desire to neutralize nuclear weapons. Unlike Americans who never felt menaced by external attack until nuclear weapons were devised and now wish that had never happened, most Europeans devoutly believe that the invention of nuclear shells and missiles has provided their one hope of breaking the cycle of wars that have ravaged their continent two or three times a century. Moreover, the whole concept of NATO defenses is postulated on the deterrent effect of a nuclear response; and Europeans fear that were such weapons neutralized, Soviet conventional forces might overrun Europe.5
Although that concern is fundamental it is still not the sole issue worrying our NATO allies. Some are concerned that the result of America’s building an effective missile defense would be to “decouple” our strategic missile force from the defense of Europe; or in other words they fear that, in case of a Soviet attack on Europe, America might sit safely behind its protective shield and let Europe be incinerated. To be sure, that reflects more paranoia than logic since until now the greater European fear was that an America exposed to Soviet attack would not risk New York to save Paris or London or Düsseldorf.
Another European worry is that once America felt protected against attack, it would not be willing or able to extend its defensive shield to Europe or that, in response to America’s ABMs, the Soviets would build a defensive system of their own that would render useless the independent French and British deterrents.
All these are understandable concerns. Yet there is a mitigating factor—the hope in some European quarters that, if the United States should go ahead with a vast research program, European firms might share in the effort and thus benefit from a fallout of American technology. That attitude has led one shrewd and worldly American bureaucrat to remark that, although he agreed that European government support of Star Wars could not be bought, it still might “be rented.”
In sum, European leaders remain uneasy and if they become convinced that the United States is seriously going ahead with the President’s project, they will increasingly manifest suspicions and resentments that could help erode the fundamental confidence on which the NATO structure depends.
At home, the President’s call for a missile defense system has been captured and perverted by various interests who, for reasons of religion, ideology, or profit, would like to speed up the arms race and, therefore, strongly oppose all efforts to reach a modus vivendi with the Soviets that would enable the two sides to halt or reverse it. Now that he has given those diverse groups a common rallying cry, they are mounting powerful pressure to railroad his proposal through Congress—even though they are on the whole antipathetic to his central objective.
Among other elements promoting their own special version of the President’s proposal are the secular fundamentalists who style themselves neoconservatives. Among the most vocal members of this group are the intellectuals who are attached to conservative think tanks or who regularly fill the columns of such rightwing journals as Commentary, Policy Review, and Public Policy.
Since they share a vigorous repugnance to dealing with the Kremlin, the leading secular fundamentalists are now joining in a loud and well-orchestrated chorus, proclaiming that all past efforts at nuclear arms control have been futile and that most such efforts have benefited the Soviet Union against the interests of the United States. Such tendentious attacks ignore the manifest benefits of the Partial Test Ban Treaty and disparage SALT I because its renunciation of ABM interferes with the fundamentalists’ desire to build more missiles and thus pursue their unavowed but evident desire for nuclear superiority, even though such superiority can only be illusory. They fail to acknowledge that the SALT II treaty, whose confirmation they opposed, was intended primarily to impose temporary limits on the arms race until SALT III could bring about real reductions. With more passion than logic they attempt to foreclose the possibilities of negotiations before they begin.
Thus in answer to the question posed by Policy Review, “Have control negotiations with the Soviet Union benefited the United States?” Professor Richard Pipes, a prominent advocate of the hard-line right wing who served in the National Security Council during the first years of the Reagan administration, answered that on the whole “such negotiations have been a failure.” Irving Kristol asserted the negotiations “have only benefited the Soviet Union.” Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense and perhaps the most powerful influence on administration arms control policy, states: “I don’t think the negotiations have helped us in the main.”6
Simultaneously, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, has written that “we find no rational justification for the faith in arms control.” It is, he insists, “the great superstition of our time” that “can easily prompt action whose unintended consequence will be to bring about the very thing it is meant to avoid—including the abandonment of the Strategic Defense Initiative which, unlike the doomed delusions of Geneva, really does hold out the rational hope of an eventual escape from the threat of nuclear war.”7
The leitmotif running through all these statements is the obsessive urge to build up our nuclear arsenal and to reject efforts to halt the arms spiral through diplomacy. Just how these militant intellectuals conceive that the process will finally end is the great unanswered question. Can we, as some seem to imply, drive the Soviets beyond the limits of their resources to ultimate exhaustion? Or, by outspending them, can we—to borrow a phrase recently hallowed by presidential use—force them to cry “uncle”? Neither possibility seems likely.
If we continue to build more and more nuclear weapons and the Soviets neither become exhausted nor submit, what then? That question seems never to concern the secular fundamentalists, even though an endless arms spiral could well turn into a cyclone. Nor do their fellow Soviet-haters, the religious fundamentalists, seem at all disturbed by the prospect of a cataclysmic collision. Because they regard the Soviet Union as the Beast of Revelations, they seem not to fear the final battle of Armageddon, since they know that just before it begins they, the elect, will ascend to Heaven to join Christ in Jerusalem where he will reign forever.8 But the secular fundamentalists have no such comforting prospect; they are doomed to roast along with the rest of us.
America’s right-wing intellectuals are by no means the most effective proponents of the Star Wars project. All they can contribute is words, while ideological industrialists have money. Not only can they finance research to document and spread the gospel—and conservative think tanks have been sprouting—they also have practical means to try to reshape the Congress. To help the Star Wars project gain approval General Graham of High Frontier organized the American Space Frontier Committee and by June 1984 was able to announce that its political action committee had raised $300,000 to support pro-space defense candidates and thus “send to the Congress men and women who understand that our country must build a defense against possible missile attack.” The committee concentrated on defeating five Democratic congressmen who were contending that the Star Wars project would accelerate the arms race: George Brown and Mel Levine of California, Berkeley Bedell of Iowa, Nicholas Mavroules of Massachusetts, and James R. Jones of Oklahoma. It also opposed a Republican, Senator Charles Percy of Illinois. Its score card, however, was not impressive; only Senator Percy was defeated and there is no indication that Star Wars had any part in his defeat. We can expect the committee to be more active in 1986.
Perhaps the most effective support for Star Wars is now being generated not by ideology but by good free-enterprise greed. Firms in the hypertrophic defense industry, along with their thousands of technicians, are manifesting a deep patriotic enthusiasm for Star Wars. Since they are experienced in lobbying and wield heavy influence with members of Congress who have defense plants in their constituencies, they are creating formidable momentum for the project. Whether or not it would contribute to the security of the nation, it offers them security. Thus an investment analyst for the industry published a newsletter about the President’s space program entitled “Money from Heaven,” while another analyst wrote: “For the US aerospace industry the redirection of the strategic arms competition toward defense can hardly come soon enough.”
Although basically supporting the program, the armed services are not all reacting in exactly the same way. The Air Force is the most enthusiastic, since air officers see space defense as opening a new fourth element in which wars can be waged—offering the prospect of a whole new service domain which the Air Force hopes to preempt. The sea belongs to the Navy, the land to the Army; and, the Air Force contends, it would be only natural for it to extend its dominion beyond the atmosphere into outer space.
In Navy circles one hears more muted enthusiasm for such a geopolitical concept. The Navy’s reservations arise in considerable part because it has been counting on claiming a strategic mission the Air Force has so far monopolized. Since the Navy’s Trident II submarines would be able to fire from precise positions thanks to the new NAVSTAR satellite navigation system, the reentry vehicle fired from the Trident II will have the “hard target kill” accuracy comparable to that of the MX—without the MX’s vulnerability to a first strike. Thus in principle the Navy would favor an agreement with the Soviets to restrict the development of antisatellite weapons and thus safeguard its own navigation satellites—a position that, of course, the Air Force strenuously opposes. The cold war of interservice rivalries still persists on the home front.
Nevertheless, the Navy has also created a space command of its own, although a year later than the Air Force; and, however much the services disagree about their missions, the Star Wars project clearly promises expanded tables of organization with all kinds of new slots for ambitious officers. Still, in private talks, some military leaders in all services have expressed to me and others nervous concern not only that the President’s program seems unreal and unattainable but also that the vast funds it would consume could drain resources from other more traditional programs.
Although some officials on the civilian side of the Pentagon no doubt secretly question either the feasibility or the political wisdom of the Strategic Defense Initiative, they carefully conceal their doubts. Already the President has created a new office under the secretary of defense to organize and run a program of research and development estimated to cost $26 billion over the next five years. The head of that office, Lieutenant General James A. Abramson, is already busy lobbying Congress for its approval.
A major point so far largely overlooked in all this mindless hustle and bustle is that historical experience strongly tends to refute the assumptions of the President’s proposal.
In the evolution of warfare, as such respected students of strategy as B.H. Liddell Hart and Major General J.F.C. Fuller repeatedly point out, the advantage shifts constantly back and forth between the offense and defense in a macabre rhythm. The all-conquering medieval knight weighted down by armor was, in due course, stopped in mid-gallop by massed archers and pikemen. The castle lost its defensive invulnerability when besiegers found that shot propelled by gunpowder could knock down its walls. The ironclad warship proved victim to the submarine and mine. The defensive advantage tragically shown by the machine gun in the trenches of Picardy was in time overcome by the tank and offensive aircraft.
The offense-defense pendulum process is succinctly described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Until the 19th century, offensive and defensive cycles were of long duration. Improvements in weapons have come so rapidly since the Napoleonic era that the swing from one to another is a matter of only a few years. Generals of all armies were confident at the outbreak of World War I that the offensive power of the arms of 1914 would prevail in a few months. The machine gun had the leading part in turning the conflict into a stalemate, however, and not until the last few months of the war did the tank provide the victors with an offensive weapon capable of breaking the deadlock. Even so, a school of military thought held after the war that the defensive remained powerful enough to curb an aggressor in the next conflict. The illusion was soon dispelled when the German armies of 1940 drove on to a succession of early victories.
The lesson from all this could hardly be clearer. Those who put their trust in the efficacy of defensive measures as a longterm solution to the current East-West competition are likely to make the same discovery as did the French general staff in 1940—that in today’s world of fastpaced change, defensive measures have only a brief life span of effectiveness. Indeed many may never provide even momentary value.
To contend that American technology could swing the nuclear pendulum back toward the defense and keep it there is to believe in a magical force that can arrest all military motion. But not even lasers and computers are magical, and any Star Wars defense we might someday develop at exorbitant cost would be a quickly depreciating investment. The Soviets would never sit idly by watching us struggle to build a shield behind which—as they saw it—we might safely launch a first strike. They would do what other nations have done when presented with a comparable threat—commit whatever resources were required to develop defensive weapons of their own, as well as new devices to counter their enemy’s defenses—no matter how bizarrely elaborate they might have to be.
At the same time they would drastically increase the quality and quantity of their offensive weapons so that, either by their mass use or by new technical countermeasures, they would be able to overwhelm our own defensive systems. Moreover, in the quite unlikely event that they should find themselves being outdistanced, one cannot completely reject the thought that they might strike preemptively, just as the Japanese chose to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941 because, by 1943, America would have completed its battleship program and thus gained decisive naval superiority.
The applicability to the Star Wars proposal of mankind’s long experience should be obvious. Impelled by the vaulting momentum of modern science, the pendulum of advantage will—if we do not halt it by agreement—swing with increasing speed from offense to defense and back again, giving a relentless dynamic to the arms race. If, in today’s fast-paced world, we yield to the credulous believers in a strategic nuclear defense, we are almost certain to discover, after wasting vast resources on an ephemeral project, that our country is in greater danger than ever.
The unique and invaluable achievement of the ABM treaty was to halt the pendulum swing, remove that competitive increment to momentum from the arms race, and thus restrict the arms rivalry to weapons for which control agreements were still feasible. It is the most important advance toward security that we have achieved from our negotiations with the Soviets. It would be tragic folly to discard it on the whim of a president who has repeatedly shown his ignorance of the most elementary facts on which our nuclear strategy is based. If we now, in a fatuous pursuit of false security through space defense, restart the pendulum, we shall very likely throw away our last chance to keep the weapons spiral from whirling without control onward and upward with accelerating speed.
Unhappily Americans today have a short attention span. Not only do we forget the lessons of two world wars but our government seems to have ignored even more recent experience that directly involved the nuclear defense issue. As early as the 1950s our leaders became concerned that the Soviets might be developing an effective ABM system to neutralize our offensive weapons. Just as the Pentagon today is, by conditioned reflex, exaggerating reports of Soviet progress toward missile defenses to bolster its own claim for new missions and resources, so officials thirty years ago were alarmed at overstated intelligence reports that Soviet installations with the quaint name of Galosh were being built to protect Moscow and that the Tallinn air defense system was really designed to knock down attacking missiles. How then did we react? Well, exactly as one may expect the Soviets to do if we proceed with the Star Wars project. Not only did we begin work on a defensive system of our own but we undertook to produce an offensive force that could overwhelm any possible Soviet defense. Our effort in that instance centered on the development of Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) that would enable each missile to carry a cluster of warheads.
The initial American flight test of MIRVs was held in August 1968 just as the superpowers were agreeing to enter the SALT I negotiations. In retrospect, it seems quite possible that, had President Nixon taken the initiative when he took office in January 1969, we might have reached an accord with the Soviets to halt MIRVing and restrict the building of more ICBM systems in a single package agreement. That would have sharply curtailed the momentum of the arms race, for with ABMs forbidden, there was no excuse for MIRVing. At the same time, if Soviet MIRVing could have been forestalled, we would not need an ABM system of our own to protect the US Minutemen forces.
But President Nixon, moved by the same interests and influences that are today impelling us toward Star Wars, rejected any such negotiations and proceeded with the MIRV program. His excuse was that we must go forward to build MIRVs in order to have a bargaining counter during a second phase of SALT talks. By that time, however, the Soviets, having felt compelled to invest major resources to catch up on MIRV technology, had lost interest in banning MIRVs.
That is a sad story, for it was our failure to ban MIRVing that strengthened our adversary’s position at high cost to us, since the Soviets could hang three or four times as many MIRVs on a single huge SS-18 as we could hang on our smaller Minuteman. Thus they gained an enormous advantage by the operation. Indeed, it was this Soviet advantage that led to all the overheated rhetoric about the “window of vulnerability,” which, as the Scowcroft Commission later determined, was simply a trompe l’oeil painting of a window by dexterous alarmists. Even so, the resulting excitement generated frantic pressure for the MX—that orphan missile, beloved by hard-liners and the weapons industry, for which no one can find a home.
Today the administration’s nuclear strategy is a mare’s-nest of self-deception and contradictions. During past weeks the Star Wars proponents have been congratulating the President, saying that only his strategic defense initiative could have brought the Soviets back to the bargaining table. But even though one gives that assertion at least a Scots’ verdict of “not proven,” the achievement seems ephemeral. They were not reacting from weakness, as the administration spokesmen imply. Far from it. They simply saw the United States embarking on a foolish course that would be costly and dangerous and open the door for unlimited escalation. It was only natural that they should seek through diplomacy to forestall the creation of a new destructive competition in which they would feel compelled to engage—and vigorously so—should we refuse to give up the Star Wars project.
If we are prepared to offer nothing that could provide the basis for a possible deal, arranging for the representatives of two great nations to sit around a green baize table is not diplomacy but logistics. If it is true that the Soviets have agreed to talk only because they hope to forestall the Star Wars projects, then nothing useful can be expected. The President has made it dogmatically clear that he will not bargain away his cherished vision; he will go forward with Star Wars no matter what happens or fails to happen at Geneva.
In the face of this adamantly expressed position it is absurd for administration spokesmen to imply that we might nevertheless persuade the Soviets to reduce their ICBM arsenal or at least restrict the addition of new systems. How could any belief be more fatuous—or more disingenuous? Even administration casuists should recognize that, facing the loudly trumpeted threat of an American ABM system, the Soviets must inevitably insist on keeping full freedom to build all the offensive missiles required to overwhelm that system.
Meanwhile the administration is trying to take the opponents of Star Wars off balance by asking in tones of injured innocence: Why all the excitement when the President is not now proposing to deploy or even test a missile defense system? All he is asking, they say, is that Congress appropriate $30 billion over the next five years to finance the research necessary to “provide the evidentiary basis for an informed discussion on whether and how to proceed in the system development.” No doubt some have a taste for such clotted prose and indeed some members of Congress seem willing to be seduced by it; after all, it gives them a facile justification for going along with the White House. But it is clearly a trap all the same.
The point to be understood is that the President is not treating the Star Wars proposal as merely a somewhat expanded nuclear defense research program such as the United States and the Soviet Union have both been conducting for some years. Had the administration chosen to regard the project as that it could have increased the budget for such research from $1.4 billion to $3.7 billion for the next fiscal year just as it is contemplating under Star Wars. But instead the President has chosen to announce his initiative to the listening world in rhapsodic prose as a total change in policy. Moreover, that new policy, as Undersecretary of Defense Ikle has announced, has now become “not an optional program” but “central” to our whole defense effort—whatever that may mean. Moreover the administration is not just asking for an additional $2.3 billion for the fiscal year but announcing a five-year program estimated to cost $30 billion, which is hardly small change even for the Pentagon.
How must all this look to the Soviets? They understand America well enough to know that what is contemplated is not a mere increase in appropriations for research but a critical change in United States policy, setting in motion driving forces that will quickly acquire ever-increasing momentum. Thus on February 19, the Defense Department announced that in 1987, two years earlier than planned, it will use the space shuttle to test “ways of tracking and targetting enemy missiles in space”—a measure that may well violate the ABM treaty.
So, even if some Americans seem tempted to pass this program off as merely prudent intensification of research, the Soviets are not that gullible. They know full well that once we have spent such a vast sum (together with additional billions for the normal overruns) any president will be under almost irresistible pressure to continue the testing and development of the system, no matter what $30 billion worth of experimentation might indicate about possible success.
How will the Soviets react? They will immediately set about parallel activities. They will do far more than simply augment the research activities they are now undertaking. Indeed, if they did not take such actions, they would be out of character, for the Soviet leaders are anything but reckless.
Nor should anyone possibly expect the Russians to be put off by the President’s promise to consult with them before we test an ABM weapon. Once we reach a point where testing is appropriate, we will have made such great strides toward development that the Soviets—in their view—will be lamentably far behind. So they must immediately launch a similar program of their own.
That is not the only element of self-deception in the current proposal; there is fraudulence both in its conception and promotion. In first proposing the Star Wars project the President compared it by implication to the manhattan Project, which brought about the first nuclear bomb. But the Manhattan Project was vastly simpler; indeed in 1983 Dr. Richard DeLauer, then the Pentagon’s top scientist, testified that to fulfill the objectives of the Star Wars project will require breakthroughs in eight key technologies, each “equivalent to or greater than the Manhattan Project.” Nor is that the only critical point of difference. America did not undertake the Manhattan Project at a time when the other side was frantically seeking to develop countermeasures. During the five years of research contemplated by the President’s proposal, the Soviets can be expected to provide at least partially effective answers to any ABM system we might devise.
The administration’s scientists well know that it requires no great “breakthroughs” to contrive countermeasures but merely the application of existing technologies. Thus it is significant that our technicians are already vigorously working on countermeasures of our own. The Pentagon recently announced that it was expanding its countermeasures research at Norton Air Force Base in California, and in the next fiscal year will triple the funds appropriated for that work. The research will concentrate on the development of so-called “penetration aids” to help clear the way for our missiles against possible missile defenses by the Soviets. The New York Times reported on February 11, 1985:
According to Air Force officials, once scientists and engineers have their hands on a weapon, it is relatively easy to design a counter-measure.
“You can always beat the other guy’s defenses if you know what he’s got coming at you,” said Major Skapin [of TRW, Inc., the principal civilian contractor for the program].
“I don’t think we’ve seen any defense yet that was effective enough that you couldn’t develop an offense to counter it,” said Bruce R. Abell, a spokesman for White House Science Adviser George A. Keyworth.
Just as we are stepping up our efforts to design countermeasures against nuclear defenses not yet installed, we can be certain the Soviets are doing the same thing. If we should mount space platforms from which to use defensive lasers or particle beams they would devise means to shoot them down; so we would have to equip those platforms with their own defenses, perhaps developing a protective fleet like the battle group around an aircraft carrier. Somehow it is all reminiscent of Dean Swift’s version of an old comment on the human condition:
Hath smaller fleas than on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
What the President’s defense initiative reflects is a fantasy that nuclear danger can be eliminated through some wonderful new invention—a purely mechanistic approach that denies the reality that the world will never be free from the nuclear threat until there is some reconciliation of interests and some agreement on coexistence between the nuclear powers. The native faith that we can achieve security by some new system or gadget that blunts the edge of the Soviet sword runs counter to the advice of a widely experienced president—Dwight D. Eisenhower—who understood the nature of war. When, so he observed, we face crisis, as we inevitably shall, “there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties”—an action such as “a huge increase in the new elements of our defense” or “a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research.” But, he wisely continued, “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
As a military man of long experience, President Eisenhower was aware of the historic and ineluctable pendulum swing from offense to defense and back again, and he was sufficiently mature not to believe in the promise of a magic wand that would stop Soviet missiles in their tracks.
From all this it seems hard to reach any but a gloomy assessment of our current position. Unless Congress substantially reduces the requested appropriation for Star Wars defense and makes clear its disapproval of the President’s drastic change in our nuclear policy, we shall be committed to a new stage of weapons competition that will further drain the resources of both the US and the USSR while at the same time creating new vested interests in continuing weapons development. Quite innocently we may thus give validity to the current faddish but foolish contention that arms control is no longer achievable for we shall have passed beyond the point where verification is possible.
Thus we may unwittingly confirm the President’s assertion that his Star Wars proposal “holds the promise of changing the course of history.” If Americans should buy that project we would not be purchasing security but nuclear escalation. We would restart the momentum of the offense-defense-offense pendulum, open the door for unlimited nuclear escalation, and compel the Soviets to compete even more fiercely in both defensive and offensive weapons. Yielding to pressure from the same elements now promoting it—ideology, wishful thinking, fear, and greed—we and the Soviets would almost inevitably try to put to offensive use the technology acquired in building space stations and exploiting the potential of lasers, particle beams, and other esoteric means of transferring energy. In addition, by building space-based defenses and thus foreshortening response times, we would be forced to entrust to computers rather than the human mind decisions that could threaten the survival of mankind.
The risks of this ill-conceived venture are thus enormous and they are increased by the possibility that the public will be so deceived by specious promises or confused by technological jargon that it will ignore the lessons of the past and acquiesce in a vision that seems to promise peace but will have the opposite result. Pursuing the President’s Star Wars program will turn outer space into a new battlefield, increase the risks of catastrophic conflict, and enlarge man’s ability to destroy civilization.
April 11, 1985
See The New York Times, March 6, 1985. ↩
See The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 1985. ↩
See his speech of February 20, to the Philadelphia World Affairs Council. ↩
See the New York Post, March 4, 1985. ↩
See my article, “White House Roulette,” in The New York Review, November 8, 1984. ↩
See Policy Review, Winter 1985, pp. 37–38. ↩
See The New York Times, January 24, 1985, p. 25. ↩
See Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth, published by Zondervan in 1976, a book that has sold 18 million copies. See also The Washington Post, October 24, 1984. ↩