WASHINGTON — "But is it a bomb?" Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger wanted to know one day walking through the halls of the Pentagon with his then-undersecretary, Richard D. Delauer. Weinberger was inquiring about the X-ray laser, a key weapon in President Reagan's "Star Wars" program.
"I had to tell him," Delauer recalled recently, "you're going to have to detonate a nuclear bomb in space. That's how you're going to get the X-ray."
But Weinberger repeated his question: "It's not a bomb, is it?"
No, Delauer said tactfully, it would be a "nuclear event."
Weinberger seemed satisfied and, as Delauer later told The Times, he concluded that the defense secretary "didn't understand the technology. Most people don't."
As Weinberger's "tell-me-it-ain't-so" question indicates, the X-ray laser, initially expected to carry much of the load for President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), has turned out to be a seriously flawed defensive weapon.
It requires a substantial nuclear explosion to generate the laser, a fact now judged inconvenient in a program defined by the President as a "non-nuclear" effort to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Critics of SDI have made much of the prospect of thousands of nuclear bombs circling in space set to launch their X-rays but--regrettably--also subject to other misfortunes.
"A bomb in space is a bomb in space," said Abraham Szoke, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, "and we wouldn't be too happy if the Russians had them up there."
Worse, the consensus among scientists is that the X-ray laser--if it ever really works--will be useful first as an anti-satellite weapon and then, much later, as a limited part of a defensive system. If it also is developed by the Soviets, it could be used to quickly eliminate what critics refer to as the "sitting ducks" of "Star Wars"--the huge mirrors, battle stations, spy satellites and sensors that would have to be deployed in space at a cost of billions of dollars as part of the President's proposed shield against enemy missiles.
Thus, the weapon that more than anything else may have inspired the optimism of the President's initial "Star Wars" speech is now treated as something of an embarrassment by the Administration.
The Administration is well aware of the political vulnerability of this weapon. George A. Keyworth II, the President's science adviser, at one point all but dismissed the X-ray laser as a defensive weapon when he said: "I think it is unlikely that the American people will maintain full and enduring support for these ("Star Wars") systems if they continue to rely upon nuclear weapons as defensive means, when there is no assurance that the defense weapon is not potentially as damaging as the threat that they confront."
$100 Million a Year
But the Administration continues to fund the X-ray laser to the tune of an estimated $100 million a year and the tale of its persistence forms a curious and important part of the "Star Wars" story. As with much of the rest of the tale, it is difficult to tell without conjuring up the stooped, somewhat enfeebled but always feisty figure of physicist Edward Teller, ever alert to the problems of national security and their potential nuclear solutions.
A good place to begin is one day three years ago at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is funded by the Energy Department and nominally managed by the University of California regents. It was the scene of Teller's past triumphs and is still one of only two places in this country where you can legally design a nuclear bomb.
Teller had come to mark the lab's 30th birthday by speaking against the nuclear freeze and for construction of "a third generation" of nuclear weapons.
"The first generation," Teller explained with mounting enthusiasm, "was the fission (atomic) one. The second was the fusion (hydrogen) bomb. The third, I would describe it as the kind of bomb that uses the nuclear explosion only as a starting point to accomplish something else."
'Star Wars' Exotica
The something else was the X-ray laser--that well-publicized example of "Star Wars" exotica.
"What this laboratory can accomplish now," Teller told his audience, "is more important than what we ever have accomplished before. The third-generation efforts give us every expectation of an effective nuclear defense," he said. "And if defense by nuclear weapons is possible, we must have it." He also warned that the Russians were at work on a defensive system and that if we didn't build one, they would.
Seven months later, after much prodding by Teller, Reagan echoed those sentiments in his now-famous "Star Wars" speech.
Teller had been talking anti-ballistic missile defense with Reagan and many other politicians for decades. But this time he had brought something new to the table: persuasive talk of a bold new weapon--the X-ray laser--which, he claimed, for the first time made defense of the U.S. population feasible.