What Price Star Wars?

Blundering Into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age

by Robert McNamara
Pantheon, 212 pp., $14.95

Robert McNamara
Robert McNamara; drawing by David Levine

The technical ideas which underlie the SDI concept of a defensive screen over the US were generated not by the President or his chiefs of staff, but by scientists and engineers driven along by the vested interests of the weapons laboratories in which they work. Some of them must have provided the information that encouraged Caspar Weinberger to call last December for immediate preparations to deploy and SDI system. Since it was only in October that Lowell Wood, one of the leading figures in the Livermore SDI program, declared publicly that it would be years before anyone could judge whether such a system was feasible, those concerned must have made remarkable progress in the intervening two months. If the call for early deployment turns out not to have been a political gimmick, Mr. Weinberger will have dealt American and Western defense a blow from which it may take long to recover.

Reputable science and bluff do not go together either in the civil or in the defense field. The more prominent scientists and engineers who are working on SDI do not appear to be impressed by what The New York Times called “the incredible pace at which breakthroughs are being made”—as reported to Congress by General James Abrahamson, director of the SDI program.1 Many have expressed considerable disquiet about the sudden shifts in the priorities of the SDI program, and about the campaign for early deployment. Dr. Gerold Yonas, until recently the research director of the SDI organization, is reported as having said that he wonders whether the US is in fact “capable of running a big long-term program.”2

What is clear is that as belief in a perfect space shield has faded, all manner of justifications have been advanced for carrying on with the SDI program.3 Even a leaky defense, it is argued, might reduce the level of destruction the Russians could inflict on the US. An imperfect defense could even enhance deterrence, since the USSR would hesitate before striking at America for fear that a proportion of its warheads might not get through. Another argument is that if the US SDI program continues, the Russians, already in economic difficulties, would feel constrained to follow suit, so adding to their burden, whereas the US, despite the fact that it is now the greatest debtor nation in the world, could afford to carry on regardless. Others assert that the Russians are already spending more than the United States on strategic defense—even, some say, on their own SDI. The US cannot, therefore, slacken its defense effort. The most usual charge is that the USSR has been violating the 1972 ABM Treaty, so that the US would be justified were it to follow suit.

While argument revolves around all these propositions, we seem to have become bewitched by the SDI criterion of “cost-effective at the margin,” as spelled out in…

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