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STAR WARS: SUICIDE OR SURVIVAL? by Lord Alun Chalfont : (Little, Brown: $16.95; 169 pp.) : STAR WARS--A DEFENSE EXPERT'S CASE AGAINST THE STRATEGIC DEFENSE INITIATIVE by Robert M. Bowman (Tarcher: $14.95, hard-cover; $7.95, paperback; 180 pp.)

June 08, 1986|F. E. C. Culick | Culick is a professor of applied physics and jet propulsion at Cal Tech. and

"Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark upon a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today." Thus, on March 23, 1983, President Reagan introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which became commonly known as the "Star Wars" program.

As a military research program, SDI was formed in unorthodox fashion. According to news reports, the President's announcement was a surprise to virtually everyone in the Department of Defense. It has been remarked that widespread prior deliberations were avoided in order to organize SDI as quickly as possible and at the highest possible funding level. That goal was met.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger established the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in January, 1984. Its director, Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, reports to Weinberger. SDI received $1.4 billion for fiscal 1985 (beginning in October, 1984) and $2.8 billion for fiscal 1986. If the $4.8 billion requested for fiscal 1987 is approved, SDI will become the largest program for research and development of weapons in the budget for the Department of Defense.

According to a Congressional staff paper, the total projected cost of $33 billion for the period 1985 to 1990 would make SDI the largest military research program in the department's history. That cost is more than double the amount that, before the President's speech, was expected to be spent on ballistic missile research during the same period.

The Strategic Defense Initiative is defined broadly as a research program to determine the technical feasibility of a comprehensive ballistic missile defense program. Specifically, the results are intended to serve as a basis for decisions regarding deployment of defense systems in the 1990s and beyond. Although not now part of its main effort, analysis of strategic issues will soon be given more support within SDI.

Since its beginning, SDI has been a controversial program. The debate is likely to become more intense during the next few months as Congress considers the budget for 1987. By far the most important long-range issues concern the strategic and political justification for greatly expanded ballistic missile defenses and the technical feasibility of the systems envisioned with the SDI program.

The debate on strategic issues initiated by the formation of SDI has been largely a renewed examination of questions discussed in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1972, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was agreed upon as the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union became convinced that strategic defenses theoretically tend to upset or destabilize the strategic balance, causing a dual arms race involving both defensive and offensive systems.

Agreements reached in the 1970s therefore placed constraints simultaneously on strategic offense and defense. One of the fundamental problems for SDI is Article V of the ABM treaty, which prohibits development, testing and deployment of sea-based, mobile land-based, and space-based ABM systems.

There is little disagreement among experts and policy-makers that under present world conditions, research on ballistic missile defense systems must continue in the United States. The controversy surrounds the quantity and character of the work proposed under SDI. A primary cause of conflicting views is the idea, expressed in the President's speech and implied by SDI, that the United States would proceed beyond research programs and seriously consider deploying space-based missile defenses in violation of the ABM Treaty.

The search for a leakproof shield against ballistic missiles envisioned by the President in his speech has long since been abandoned, even by supporters of SDI. Proponents of space-based missile defenses base their hopes on extraordinarily complex and imperfect systems that opponents regard as unrealistic. Because determination of technical feasibility is a matter for experts and is the stated purpose of SDI, the lay person has difficulty deciding whether space-based defenses might be realized successfully.

In "Star Wars--Solution or Suicide?" Lord Alun Chalfont recognizes but does not try to assess the central problem of technical feasibility. He supports SDI as an "attractive enough proposition" and places his analysis in the context of world politics and strategy. Partly in response to vocal opposition to SDI, he seeks a "rational response" to the present U.S. Administration's program. Much of his book repeats well-known arguments favoring SDI, but as a European with experience in government and journalism, Chalfont presents some views that are probably not widely known in the United States.

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