The signals were confusing. Arriving on Capitol Hill straight from a meeting with President Ronald Reagan and other top officials, Secretary of State George Shultz assured a Senate panel last week that a decision to deploy the first phase of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), the space weapons program popularly known as Star Wars, was at least two years away. But a day later Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger—another of the participants in the White House meeting—came to a House of Representatives committee meeting with a different story. He claimed that the administration was close to recommending a go-ahead for Star Wars that would push the plan well ahead of its original timetable for full deployment by the end of the century.
At week’s end, it was unclear which of the two cabinet officials held the upper hand in the internal White House battle. But Weinberger’s statement—along with reports that the administration was prepared to adopt a broader interpretation of the AntiBallistic Missile (ABM) treaty in order to permit SDI testing and deployment-provoked sharp reactions. Indeed, signs of action on SDI prompted Lord Carrington, the secretary general
of NATO, to ask the White House to consult its allies before any space weapons decisions were made. As well, the administration demonstrated its determination to proceed with its overall defence program last week by detonating its first nuclear test of the year. Democratic congressmen quickly denounced both the test and Star Wars, which many argued would set off a dangerous new weapons race while costing more than $1 trillion. Said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat: “If they commit to deploy Star Wars or move to a new interpretation of the ABM treaty, that would amount to tearing up the treaty. Then all hell will break loose around here.” And Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, Democratic chairman of the Senate armed forces committee, warned Reagan that any such action would “provoke a constitutional confrontation [with Congress] of profound dimensions.”
Weinberger and other backers of SDI say that recent research breakthroughs justify an early start on the antimissile program. But others question their motives. Said Dunbar Lockwood, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information (CDI): “There has been no change in the technology. The change is in the Pentagon’s approach. They have been convinced that they are not going to get the funding they want unless they can show tangible results.” Indeed, Terri Lukash, a spokesman for the pro-SDi lobby group High Frontier, said that the push for early deployment was partly to ensure that the program was so far advanced when Reagan left office that no future president could reverse it.
The first phase that Weinberger is seeking to deploy is a small portion of the ambitious overall plan to create a space shield that would block all incoming Soviet missiles. That initial phase would involve the use of so-called kinetic energy weapons. Unlike futuristic beam weapons proposed for later stages, kinetic devices use basic destructive forces. These missiles knock out incoming missiles by either crashing
into them or blowing up near them.
But even that method faces significant technological hurdles. An early prototype rocket successfully destroyed a single incoming missile and its dummy warheads in a test last June. But CDl’s Lockwood argues that such systems could be easily fooled in battle and that the Soviets could employ fake warheads to “distract” the missiles from real targets.
The administration also faces legal hurdles in getting Star Wars off the ground. Traditionally, the United States viewed the 1972 ABM treaty with the Soviet Union as prohibiting the development or use of any new antimissile weapons systems. But during a television program in October, 1985, thennational security adviser Robert McFarlane announced that the state department had found a loophole. State department lawyer Abraham Sofaer had offered a legal opinion that the treaty only banned deployment of conventional antimissile systems and did not cover high-technology schemes such as Star Wars. While the White House welcomed Sofaer’s view, many of the original American ABM negotiators and many observers—including NATO allies and Shultz—rejected it. In the end, the White House agreed to continue to follow the original treaty interpretation.
But last week reports in The New York Times indicated that Shultz had softened his opposition and that the White House was preparing to adopt the Sofaer interpretation. That was a significant change: at last October’s Iceland summit Reagan offered to honor the treaty—which has no expiry date—for another 10 years.
At the same time, the United States set off a nuclear test at a range in Nevada. The explosion prompted the Soviet Union to warn that it would now end the unilateral test ban it had observed for 18 months. The test also led to a major protest by Americans. About 2,000 demonstrators—including six members of Congress—gathered outside the test site for the largest antinuclear demonstration in the facility’s 36-year history. Actor Martin Sheen, singer-actor Kris Kristofferson and astronomer Carl Sagan were among the 433 people arrested for trespassing.
The Pentagon’s desire to speed up Star Wars will be put to the test in the upcoming budget debate in Congress. The White House is asking for an extra $3.7 billion on top of the $4.7 billion already voted for Star Wars research this year. With many in Congress now calling for a test ban and strict adherence to the ABM treaty, a bruising battle on arms control appears inevitable.
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