COVER

LEAPING INTO SPACE

MARCI MCDONALD November 25 1985
COVER

LEAPING INTO SPACE

MARCI MCDONALD November 25 1985

LEAPING INTO SPACE

COVER

Except for ceremonial occasions, he has put away his uniform. Currently, appearing before audiences of believers and skeptics alike, he wears an executive’s benign blue suit of unremarkable cut and speaks in such soothing tones that his listeners occasionally must strain to hear him. Before an assembly of NATO parliamentarians in San Francisco last month, he talked reassuringly of “building a more stable world” and of space weapons tests “no more powerful than the nightlight in your child’s bedroom.” Indeed, few observers faulted the performance of Lt.-Gen. James Abraham-

son, who for nearly two years has been the persuasive salesman for the complex and controversial concept that lies at the heart of this week’s superpower summit in Geneva: President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDl), better known as Star Wars.

Contest: Abrahamson’s mission illustrates the public relations battle that the United States and the Soviet Union have waged over Star Wars in the months leading up to the summit. And the very bitterness of the contest underlines the gravity of the issues at stake. The space-based antimissile scheme, which Reagan has vowed not to sacrifice, has played a key role in

luring Soviet negotiators back to the arms control talks—and Mikhail Gorbachev to the Geneva meeting, as the Soviet leader acknowledged last week. But some analysts view strategic defence as a wedge that could divide Washington from its Western allies, prevent a new era of détente and conceivably set off a new arms race.

Astrodome: To Reagan, who launched the program in a speech on March 23, 1983, SDI is a perfect defensive shield—a “moral” astrodome that could free the world from its precarious balance of terror and render nuclear weapons obsolete. To the Kremlin it is a network of high-tech lasers and particle beams in the sky aimed at winning the Americans military superiority. Variations on those conflicting views have spread unease among the Atlantic alliance and divided U.S. public opinion as well, although an ABC TVWashington Post poll reported last week that for the first time a majority of Americans now favors Star Wars.

As he finished last-minute preparations for Geneva, Reagan, in an interview with European journalists, again hailed the five-year, $26-billion research scheme as “my dream.” But Robert McNamara—leading five other former secretaries of defence who oppose SDl—has branded that dream a “costly and dangerous illusion.”

Still, with its heady mix of idealistic

rhetoric and futuristic Buck Rogersstyle hardware, the Star Wars proposal has captured the popular imagination. At the same time, it has provoked the U.S. scientific community into the most acrid debate since the Manhattan Project—the U.S. government’s program for building the atom bomb 40 years ago. Over the past two months about 2,800 scientists on 90 college campuses have pledged to refuse federal Star Wars research grants.

Experiment: Currently, SDI consists only of a range of untested and disconnected technological experiments, lacking an overall blueprint. Its vagueness is as much a product of the Reagan administration’s strategic thinking as it is of technology. A strong and persuasive cadre of administration officials shares a lingering distrust of arms control and a desire to rewrite U.S. defence policy. That distrust arises from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which virtually outlawed the defensive antimissile systems both sides had been working on since the 1950s. Arms control experts regard it as the crown jewel of their achievements for the simple reason that for 13 years it has successfully prevented an arms race in defensive weapons systems. But opponents, including the President himself, consider it as a barrier to measures

that would reduce U.S. vulnerability to a possible Soviet first strike.

In fact, Reagan was contemplating an attack on the ABM treaty as part of his 1979 presidential campaign, when he toured the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command in Colorado. There, deep inside NORAD’s control centre in Cheyenne Mountain, his vision of a space shield was born. Shown the system’s giant radar screens, Reagan asked thenNORAD commander Gen. James Hill what he would do if his monitors spotted a Soviet missile heading for the United States. Said Hill: “Nothing.” As Reagan later told author Robert Scheer: “I think the thing that shocked me the most was that here with all this great technology of ours. . .and we cannot stop any of the weapons that are coming at us.”

His political strategists told him that the issue of a space-based defence would be political suicide in his campaign. But after his election a small group of true believers continued to push for it. They were led by physicist Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, whose Project Excalibur—an X-ray laser propelled by a nuclear explosion and developed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory outside San Francisco—was one

of the most promising candidates for a new space weapon.

Threat: Then, on Feb. 11, 1983, in a briefing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Reagan’s defence advisers told him that Soviet weapon strength was gaining and that Congress was unwilling to support the MX missile. They told him he needed a new vision to regain the moral high ground from the nuclear freeze movement, then at its peak. Six weeks later, in what the White House had billed as a routine “threat” speech, a secret paragraph—inserted at the last minute and code-named “mx-P1us”—launched SDI.

Initially, the President presented his vision as a way to end the Russianroulette logic that formed the cornerstone of the current strategic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). According to that theory, massive nuclear arsenals keep the peace by threatening massive retaliation. By altering that three-decades-old equation, Star Wars would represent one of the most profound legacies of Reagan’s presidency. But apart from the President himself, virtually no senior U.S. official still expresses a belief in the possibility of a leakproof nuclear umbrella. Penetration by even a single warhead could wreak irrevocable devastation on what military strategists call “soft targets”—human beings.

Silos: Instead, the administration’s Star Wars supporters say that, at least for the foreseeable future, SDI would serve as an interim level of defence for “hard targets”—nuclear missile silos. But that more modest goal would not shift strategic thinking from deterrence to defence. Said Kurt Gottfried, a Cornell University physicist: “It’s just a way of adding more deterrence. That’s not what the President had in mind at all.” In fact, most top administration officials acknowledge privately that that is exactly what they had in mind all along. They now envisage a transition period between the current MAD offensive strategy and Reagan’s nuclear-free promised land. In the interim the United States would have both offensive and defensive weapons —both the sword and the shield —which former president Richard Nixon, among others, has acknowledged would be destabilizing.

The transition period—lasting until the elusive goal of a perfect umbrella appeared—is precisely what Soviet leaders say they fear most. Said John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution: “They believe the defence will be merely a supplement to offence. That’s their nightmare.” Faced with what they gauge to be a bid for military one-upmanship, Moscow has threatened to match Star Wars with its own defensive system, massively in-

creasing inventories of offensive nuclear missiles that would overwhelm any American shield. Last month three top Soviet officials called a Moscow news conference to warn that if Washington did not agree to limit SDI research, the Kremlin would launch its own spacebased antimissile defence—regardless of the impact on Gorbachev’s ambitious economic reform plan.

Cost: In response, Reagan has taken the unusual step of offering to share defensive technology with the Soviets. But in his interview last week the President stipulated that he would not give SDI away for free. Said Reagan:

“They’re going to have to pay for it, but at cost.” The statement made clear one essential problem of mounting such a space-based defence system: the United States could not do it without Soviet concurrence. As Dr. James Fletcher cautioned in a 1983 feasibility report,

“The ultimate utility of this system will depend on the extent to which the Soviet Union agrees to mutual defence arrangements and offence limitation.” And many SDI critics doubt that the Soviets would ever agree to co-operate. Said a report published last month by the nonpartisan Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA): “There can be no assurance the Soviets will behave as we think they should.”

Instead, the Soviet Union may strike back in an area in which the United States is vulnerable. Said Gottfried: “The main short-term military concern is that SDI will undermine a considerable degree of common unwritten understanding about not interfering with each other’s satellites.” He points out that it could start with simple jamming and harassment of the military and communications satellites on which Western security depends.

Treaty: But the failure to negotiate an agreement on Star Wars will have its most devastating consequences on the 13-year-old ABM treaty. Last month National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane surprised Washington’s allies by announcing a new U.S. interpretation of the treaty that would allow SDI research, development and testing—up to actual deployment.

Few arms control experts quarrel with the U.S. contention that the Sovi-

et Union is itself actively engaged in its own strategic defence program. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has told congressional hearings that Soviet expenditures on defensive technology equal or surpass their spending for offensive weapons. And most analysts agree that the large phased-array radar under construction near the town of Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia is the beginning of an antiballistic missile system that flatly contravenes the ABM treaty. Moscow itself tacitly acknowledged that when Gorbachev offered last

month to suspend work on it.

The offer was conditional, however, on the United States abandoning modernization of early-warning radars in Britain and Greenland—systems that will complement Canada’s planned North Warning System in the High Arctic. Washington rejected the proposal, noting that most of the remaining work at Krasnoyarsk was indoors and that U.S. spy satellites would be unable to monitor Soviet compliance with any moratorium. But as Paul Brown, arms control director at Lawrence Livermore, pointed out, the Krasnoyarsk radar so far is “not militarily significant.” In fact, to some anti-SDi campaigners, the heated denunciations of the installation appear part of a long-term effort designed to justify revision or abrogation of the treaty. For its part, Congress’s OTA re-

port warned against the “worst of all possible worlds”—eroding the limits of the ABM treaty only to find that Star Wars proves unworkable.

Battle: As the ABM dispute illustrates, the key Star Wars battle is the one for hearts and minds. Leading the charge for the administration, Abrahamson, 52, a onetime astronaut candidate and Vietnam fighter-pilot, has persuasive public relations credentials. As director of the U.S. space shuttle program in 1981, he gained full funding from a reluctant Congress and saved the F-16 fighter-interceptor de-

velopment by convincing U.S. allies to buy the plane. Housed temporarily in a dingy downtown office building that he shares with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Abrahamson’s mission is to assure that SDI is not an enthusiasm that dies with the demise of the Reagan administration in 1989. His most potent weapon is money—the generous research contracts that he awards to academics and defence contractors. This year’s projected SDI budget: $2.7 billion.

According to the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities, an independent think tank, the grants will build political support in universities and industry. Having acquired a heavy financial stake in Star Wars, they will lobby to continue the program long after Reagan leaves office. Enthusiasm among defence contractors is already

running high. When Abrahamson invited the industry to a conference on how to win Star Wars contracts in August, 1984, he had to move the site from a 450-seat state department theatre: 1,200 executives attended. There is little doubt that SDI research funds

will speed up breakthroughs on several technical frontiers.

Abrahamson has also been instrumental in winning allied support for Star Wars, in part by inviting European industry to join the SDI research efforts. Initially, European governments distrusted the program. Only a year after spending enormous political capi-

tal in accepting U.S. Pershing and cruise missiles on continental soil, they were not anxious to promote a vision that Reagan claimed would make those weapons—and their own nuclear deterrent forces—obsolete.

But those concerns were balanced by

the fear of being excluded from a technological revolution that could leave their lagging high-tech industries even further behind and provoke a scientific brain drain to the United States. Said German Chancellor Helmut Kohl: “European allies must not be technologically decoupled.” To counteract that, French President François Mitter-

rand—the first to refuse participation in SDI—has launched the continent’s own program called Eureka. But Eureka remains poorly defined, and Star Wars research contracts have already been awarded to European companies.

Some defence analysts charge that Canada is implicated in Star Wars despite the fact that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally declined the Pentagon’s invitation two months ago. For one thing, a defence against intercontinental ballistic missiles is useless without a complementary defence against what military experts call “the air-breathing threat”—low-flying Soviet bombers and cruise missiles that never enter outer space. That is precisely the function that Canada has undertaken in NORAD by agreeing to share the costs of modernizing the North Warning System’s radar.

Accord: A parliamentary committee is now reviewing the NORAD accord, which is up for renewal next February. According to NDP defence critic Pauline Jewett, a key clause, stipulating that Canada would not undertake any NORAD commitments that violated the ABM treaty, was inexplicably dropped in 1981. At the Shamrock Summit in Quebec City last March, Mulroney also signed a defence memo of understanding committing Canada to co-operation on “space-based technologies consistent with NORAD agreements.” And defence analyst William Arkin of Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies argues that some pivotal early-warning and SDI command functions will depend on a Canadian role.

Indeed, as Britain’s prestigious Institute for Strategic Studies noted in a recent report, Star Wars has opened a “controversy which will run for many years.” And the controversy appears to be building. In recent months Congress has cut nearly $1 billion out of this year’s SDI budget request, and many congressmen confided that they supported the program only to give the President another bargaining chip in current arms control talks. If Reagan refuses to use it, they threaten to cut more funds from the program. Brooking’s Steinbruner adds that if Reagan rejects a Soviet offer of offensive nuclear arms cuts rather than put limits on Star Wars, he risks seriously alienating his European allies. Said Steinbruner: “If there’s no compromise, it’s going to get very nasty.” Whatever the outcome, Paul Stares, author of The Militarization of Space, warns that the advent of Star Wars has been “akin to opening the mythical Pandora’s box,” raising questions that will leave technology, military strategy—and perhaps the world—forever changed.

MARCI MCDONALD