• U.S.

Star Wars’ Hollow Promise

11 minute read
David Brand

Ronald Reagan appeared to be standing on the threshold of a Buck Rogers future. In a Martin Marietta Corp. research plant outside Denver last week, the President stood before an 18-ft. partial mock-up of a chemical laser project that might one day be rocketed into space to zap Soviet nuclear missiles heading for the U.S. Reagan assured company engineers that the Strategic Defense Initiative, his space-based antimissile program, was “bounding forward” and that they were not working on a bargaining chip to be traded away in an arms deal.

But the project, called Zenith Star, has never produced a laser beam, let alone a deadly one. The laser generator, which is being developed separately by TRW at an estimated cost of almost $100 million, has been plagued by problems and budget cuts over the past two years. Chemical lasers are widely discredited by scientists, who are dubious about the prospects for turning them into weapons. Moreover, they may never be tested in space because of restrictions imposed by international arms agreements. The aluminum-foil- covered model that Reagan so proudly inspected is, in the words of John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a “Potemkin village” — a hollow shell.

Zenith Star stands as a symbol for the ailments besetting the entire Star Wars program. Slowed by development problems and weakened by funding cuts, SDI is a far cry from achieving Reagan’s four-year-old dream of a system that could “intercept and destroy” all incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Few people associated with SDI see much hope of meeting the target date of 1992 for deciding whether to proceed with the first phase of the system. Deployment of even the most basic systems is unlikely before the end of the century or beyond, and even SDI’s director, Air Force Lieut. General James Abrahamson, admits that the program is so far behind that “research does not yet show whether major deployment is justified.”

Despite this uncertain future, Star Wars remains a major obstacle in the path of a U.S.-Soviet agreement to reduce long-range nuclear missiles. Mikhail Gorbachev’s determination to negotiate limits on SDI wrecked the Reykjavik summit last year, and when he arrives in Washington, Star Wars will undoubtedly be one of the top items on his agenda. Yet Reagan insists on pushing ahead with the program. As the President told a group of cheering supporters at the Old Executive Office Building last week, “We will research it, we will develop it, and when it’s ready we’ll deploy it.”

To the Kremlin, such statements are proof that the U.S. intends to defy the limits on weapons testing that are spelled out in the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. However, SDI is running up against limits of a different kind: sharp funding cutbacks imposed by an increasingly skeptical Congress. Since 1984 legislators have appropriated $11.2 billion for the program, approximately half the amount hoped for by the Administration. Two weeks ago Congress clipped SDI’s fiscal-1988 budget from a requested $5.8 billion to $3.9 billion, a cut that Abrahamson says will have a “devastating impact.” SDI administrators are talking about eliminating some research projects, delaying tests in others, and slowing down the overall effort. So painful are the cuts that, says White House Science Adviser William Graham, “the real problems now are not technical but uncertain congressional financing.”

, Much of Congress’s disbelief, though, springs from technical misgivings. From the start, an aura of science fiction has surrounded SDI’s proposals for orbiting platforms, ray guns and nuclear generators in space. Star Wars planners realized that success depended upon developing a system that could destroy attacking Soviet missiles during the boost phase, the first few minutes immediately after launch, as they rose into space and before they released thousands of nuclear warheads and decoys toward targets in the U.S. Yet the more scientists have examined the practical realities of building such a system, the more aware they have become of just how difficult it would be.

Chemical lasers like the one used in Zenith Star seemed to offer early promise. As first envisioned, the laser, an intense beam of light generated by the reactions of gases like hydrogen and fluorine, was to be encased in an orbiting satellite with a giant movable mirror. This would direct the basketball-size beam at a missile, destroying it in seconds. But it was soon discovered that the energy source needed to generate enough power would be the size of an automobile, too heavy and expensive to lift into orbit. Ground- based chemical lasers are also problematical: their wavelengths are too long to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere effectively.

A more promising development has been the free-electron laser, whose radiation is generated by the action of an electromagnetic field on a beam of electrons. The weapon would be so huge that the military could not expect to lift it into space. It too would be land-based, its beam aimed at a series of orbiting mirrors that would focus on the target.

In Colorado, Ronald Reagan enjoyed inscribing his name on a grapefruit with a free-electron laser. But that laboratory stunt is a long way from producing lasers of sufficient intensity and quality to destroy targets thousands of miles distant. SDI researchers have achieved a power of less than one ten- thousandth of that required. A report from the prestigious American Physical Society concludes that “even in the best of circumstances, a decade or more of intensive research” is necessary to prove the effectiveness of lasers as weapons.

Scientists at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has produced the best results on the free-electron research, have also been working on a nuclear-generated X-ray laser that may someday produce the necessary kill power. Theoretically, the rays would be produced in space by < the explosion of a nuclear device. The detonation would destroy the system, but not before leaving behind intense beams of energy that could burn up offensive missiles. However, such a weapon is considered a distant hope.

The role of the X-ray laser in SDI has angered a number of Livermore scientists. They suspect that Edward Teller, director emeritus of the Radiation Laboratory there, gave Reagan an unrealistically optimistic view of the laser’s promise, leading the President to launch the full-scale push for Star Wars in March 1983. “The information he received from this lab, from Edward Teller, is not something that the vast majority of staff would support,” says Roy Woodruff, who was director of nuclear-weapons research at Livermore until 1985, when he resigned in a dispute with administrators. Woodruff is now a senior scientist in the laboratory’s intelligence division.

Stung by the lack of progress in its laser research, the SDI program has retreated from the space age to the stone age, to so-called smart rocks that could be hurled across space to collide with offensive missiles. This project, called space-based interceptors or kinetic kill vehicles, is being developed by Rockwell and Martin Marietta under an Air Force contract. It might be the only part of SDI considered so basic in concept that it could be far enough along to meet the program’s 1992 target date for a decision to deploy. The plan is to launch about 1,000 orbiting platforms, each of which would “garage” five rockets. After a sensor satellite warning that a missile had been launched from the Soviet Union, the rockets would be fired to intercept and destroy. The George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank, puts the price tag for deploying such a system at more than $60 billion.

But smart rocks could quickly become outdated. They are designed to attack SS-18 missiles, the huge “silo busters” that make up a large portion of the Soviet Union’s arsenal of 1,400 ICBMs. These “slow-burning” missiles ascend for five minutes before releasing their warheads. However, the Soviets are already updating their nuclear force with more advanced SS-24s and SS-25s, which burn for just three minutes. According to an internal Livermore study, by the mid-1990s the U.S. would need to have 100,000 smart rocks in space to stand a chance of evading Soviet countermeasures and destroying these more sophisticated missiles.

Even if smart rocks are effective in attacking the SS-18s, Livermore’s Christopher Cunningham estimates that 50% to 70% of the Soviet missiles would get through and release their warheads. SDI planners would counter these with two sets of land-based rockets that would attempt to intercept the warheads, either during the midcourse phase of their flight or as they descended on the U.S. Yet the interceptor program for this terminal stage has been severely curtailed by budget cuts.

A lack of money will also affect work on the sensors, the “eyes” of Star Wars. Two basic kinds are being developed. The first would detect and track nuclear missiles until the warheads are released. Then a second space-based sensor system would try to distinguish the warheads from the tens of thousands of decoys certain to be released by attacking missiles. Theodore Postol of the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control points out that the “biggest problem” facing SDI is that “nobody knows how to discriminate real objects from false ones. It is the Achilles’ heel of the program.” One intriguing technology for identifying warheads is the neutral particle-beam accelerator under development at the government laboratory at Los Alamos. Initially, scientists thought the particle beam could be used to destroy missiles, but its energy levels are still much too weak.

Smaller but still damaging cutbacks are expected in work on the “brain” of SDI, the computer network that will record the sensors’ detection of the Soviet launch, calculate its course and speed, and guide the smart rocks to their targets. The computer would also track enemy warheads along their flight path, bringing other defensive systems into operation along the way. The programming needed for all this will require millions more lines of code than many scientists believe possible. Several companies are bidding on contracts worth up to $1 billion to build the first SDI computer center at Falcon Air Force Station in Colorado.

Even if all this technology could be developed, the U.S. would still have to figure out how to loft the components into orbit. Each pound of rocket interceptors, for example, requires 600 lbs. of equipment (at a current launch cost of $3,000 per lb.). Full deployment would need at least 50 shuttle flights a year, according to the best estimates. Yet the shuttle has not flown since the Challenger explosion in January 1986, and is not due to resume until next June, with a limited schedule of three flights in 1988. The military and & space communities are pressing for the development of an unmanned alternative, the heavy-lift launch vehicle. If the approved initial funding of $75 million is released by Congress, work on the big rocket booster could begin as early as 1989.

Another major hurdle for planners is how to protect a Star Wars system from attack. Although some SDI advocates have compared the crash research program to that of putting men on the moon, John Pike responds, “The difference between SDI and the moon landing is that here the moon shoots back.” To date, planners seem to have made little progress on how to prevent the space-based part of the system from being wiped out in the first few moments of a nuclear war. Teller believes the system can survive through such gambits as decoys and duplication of hardware.

Despite the obstacles to SDI, the Reagan Administration continues to insist that this elaborate and complex research program will continue at full throttle. In his first press conference after taking office last week, Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci declared that the “President will not compromise in any way on the SDI program.” Moreover, said Carlucci, “we ought to deploy SDI as soon as we can.” Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that congressional pressure and Soviet persistence will persuade the U.S. to agree at least to abide by a narrow interpretation of the ABM treaty for perhaps as long as a decade, thus limiting testing of SDI in space and pushing back the date of deployment. Furthermore, as Harvard Arms-Control Specialist Joseph Nye told the New York Times last week, “what killed early deployment was the recognition that there was nothing to deploy.”

Even SDI’s strongest proponents appear to have modified their claims for the program. Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger used to talk of SDI as an “astrodome” that would protect the American population from the hard rain of nuclear warheads. Today planners are willing to settle for a leaky system that will do little more than increase the survival chances of U.S. missile silos, thus planting doubts in the mind of a Soviet leader who might seek to launch a first-strike attack. Ronald Reagan may still hope that SDI will someday free Americans from the fear of nuclear war. But at present, says IBM Physicist Richard Garwin, an expert on SDI, “the President can announce success only if he forgets what he originally promised.”

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