Its harshest critics maintain that President Ronald Reagan's objective of creating a generation of space-based defensive weapons belongs in a Hollywood film script, not a Washington policy manual. But Reagan, a former movie star familiar with both types of writing, insists his dream can become reality. And if the President were to assign U.S. film-maker George Lucas—creator of the highly successful Star Wars series, featuring such characters as hero Luke Skywalker, heroine Princess Leia, and R-2 D-2—to produce a movie of the Reagan concept, the script might begin:
Scene 1. A Soviet missile base
One by one, the engines ignite on a series of giant Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) emblazoned with the Soviet hammer-and-sickle insignia. Slowly the ICBMs begin their deadly climb into the atmosphere.
Scene 2. U.S. weapons control room
Staring grim-faced at Strategic Defense Initiative Command’s massive wall map of the Northern Hemisphere are Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and R-2 D-2, a genial robot. The map is aglow with flashing red lights inside Soviet territory.
“That’s it! They’ve launched.”
“Oh no! What can we do?”
“We can zap them!”
Luke moves briskly to a control panel, punches a series of buttons, then picks up a microphone.
An antimissile laser platform, orbiting Earth. It bears the Stars and Stripes emblem of the United States. A glittering concave mirror swings slowly from left to right, and a thin shaft of light streaks across the dark void.
Scene 4. Soviet airspace
Barely 40 miles over the Dneiper River, a half-dozen ICBMs thunder through a clear autumn sky. Suddenly, the lead missile is struck by a dazzling beam of light. There is a stunning explosion, then a blinding fireball.
Scene 5. Weapons control room
The wall map in the control room again. While Luke, Leia and R-2 D-2 watch, the flashing lights blink out one after another.
“The lasers got them all.”
R-2 D-2 “Of course.”
“Oh Luke, it worked!”
Obviously relieved, Luke picks up the microphone.
“All clear, sir.”
Scene 6. The White House
At his desk in the Oval Office the President of the United States maintains a poker face as he speaks into a phone. PRESIDENT
“Well done, Skywalker. My congratulations to all your people at SDI Command.”
He replaces the receiver and smiles bleakly at the uniformed generals and civilian advisers seated in a semicircle around his desk.
“Now, gentlemen, it’s time to explain the new facts of life to Moscow.”
Once again poker-faced, the President picks up the phone.
That scene depicts Reagan’s spaceweapons proposals as an unqualified success. But in reality, even some of the President’s firmest supporters concede that they do not know exactly how—or even whether—his idea will work. Still, the concept has developed support in the United States since Reagan first proposed it in 1983. It has also provoked anger among Soviet officials. The Kremlin’s military and economic plan-
ners are deeply concerned about the effort and cost of any attempt by Moscow to match what would be a vast new American defence enterprise.
The U.S. program’s official title is Strategic Defense Initiative, but it has become almost universally known as “Star Wars”—after the Lucas films. Its ultimate objective: to make the United States and its allies effectively immune to attack by Soviet nuclear missiles. Its estimated cost: a minimum $70 billion during an initial 10-year period. Its
prospects of becoming operational: slim, although some U.S. military and scientific leaders say that American technological ingenuity can overcome virtually any obstacle—with enough time and money. Declared Lt.-Gen. James Abrahamson, chief of the SDI program: “We have a nation which can, indeed, produce miracles.”
Pursuit: Much of the preliminary work in pursuit of an SDI breakthrough is being carried out at federally funded laboratories in California and New Mexico. And many of the ideas under consideration-including laser guns and particle-beam rays—either are beyond the current scope of science to produce or are based on technology that exists only in crude experimental form. But if the American SDI effort continues to expand, it will eventually involve a broad cross section of U.S.—and foreign—industry and provide a multibillion-dollar bonanza for defence contractors.
As a result, SDI is being closely studied by foreign politicians and businessmen, as well as by their U.S. counterparts. An all-party Canadian parliamentary committee reported last August, “The SDI research program can be viewed as an economic initiative designed to revitalize the technological base of U.S. industry.” And, according to Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), a former astronaut
whose study of SDI proposals left him doubtful that Reagan’s goal can be achieved, “the program is mindboggling.” _
The possible nonmilitary applications of whatever new technology emerges are still unclear. But as the parliamentary committee noted in its report, space research is likely “to provide a continued source of commercial spinoffs.” As well, the SDI concept—and whether or
not Washington ought to proceed with it—has already emerged as a major element in the Geneva arms negotiations between U.S. diplomat Paul Nitze and chief Soviet envoy Viktor Karpov. Eventually, by agreeing not to attempt what some critics regard as an impossible program, the United States may extract major arms concessions from the Soviets.
Still, the overall objective of Reagan’s SDI proposal is defence against nuclear destruction. No fewer than four separate approaches defined by the Pentagon are being studied by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, near San Francisco, and the federal nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M. The options range from a comparatively modest plan to develop a limited arsenal of weapons to protect some U.S. ground forces to creation of an elaborate multilayered shield designed to intercept and destroy enemy warheads during a full-scale attack. Indeed, the administration’s vagueness about the precise goal of strategic defense has provoked widespread skepticism. Said SDI critic Kurt Gottfried, a Cornell University physicist: “It is not possible to ask whether it will work until one answers, ‘What is it supposed to do?’ ”
Weapons: According to the Pentagon’s Abrahamson, the defence department continues to prefer the “layered shield” approach under which a variety of new weapons would be used to attack Soviet ICBMs at various stages. The attacks could be mounted shortly after takeoff (boost-phase), during midflight in space and, finally, during the warheads’ re-entry into the atmosphere just before they reach their targets. Among the new weapons under consideration: four distinct laser guns which would direct highly concentrated energy (light) at Soviet ICBMs, causing them to explode; and the potentially more damaging particle beam, which would direct an intense stream of destructive atomic matter (protons and neutrons) at the internal electronic systems of Soviet missiles. Also under study: the so-called rail gun, which would use concentrated electrical energy to hurl electronically guided “rocks” at incoming missiles.
But many problems remain. One obstacle is the difficulty of finding ways to generate the huge amounts of energy some of the weapons would require. Another problem arises from the gigantic dimensions of the hardware that would have to be placed in space. Scientists would also have to develop a highly sophisticated computer and sensor system to operate the weapons with speed and precision. In Hollywood film scripts those problems are solved with special effects. In the SDI world of applied science, solutions are less readily at hand.
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