Four years ago President Reagan asked the nation's scientific community whether it could design a shield in space to protect the United States from nuclear missiles. Last week he got the first authoritative answer--not from technical ideologues, not from military men sworn to storm any hill that the commander-in-chief designates, not from defense contractors, but from the nation's best minds in the field of physics. It was: Not now, not soon, maybe never.
Thus the chaotic debate that has rambled on for four years over "Star Wars" is back where it was in one paragraph, little noted nor long remembered, in Reagan's March 23, 1983, Star Wars speech: "I know this is a formidable technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century . . . (one that) will take years, probably decades, of effort on many fronts."
One by one, scientists have taken sides on the issue during the past four years--some arguing the same conclusions announced Thursday by the American Physical Society, others insisting that the job could be done quickly. At one point the Defense Department tried so hard to please the President that it made up new rules to let it test ballistic-missile defenses despite clear injunctions against such tests in the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty. In recent weeks the Pentagon has been pressing for early deployment of a crude system of what it calls "kinetic-kill vehicles"--fancy words for high-tech B-B guns on space platforms.
The deck was not stacked against Star Wars in the society's analysis. The panel of physicists who pronounced judgment on Star Wars included scientists in uniform, scientists in the defense industry and some of the country's top academic scientists--some of them holders of Nobel Prizes in physics. Its conclusions were submitted to the Pentagon months ago for review.
"Even in the best of circumstances," the report said, it will take a decade or more of "intensive research" just to ascertain whether exotic weapons such as lasers and microwaves would be effective as space weapons. The primitive models of components of a Star Wars system with which laboratories are working "need improvements of several orders of magnitude," the report said. If by several the analysts meant as many as six, those components would need to work 1 million times better than they do now. Getting them to work even as well as they do now has taken four years and cost $8 billion just since the President's speech and not counting the work already under way in 1983.
A formidable task, indeed. And the report did not even venture into the even more formidable task of linking all of the components after they work a million times better than they do now, and then hoisting them into space.
Many months ago Paul H. Nitze, special adviser to the President on arms control, said that missile defenses should be deployed only if they would cost less than the Soviet Union would have to spend to overwhelm them and if they could be protected against direct attack in space. The Physical Society report raises serious doubts about the ability to meet either criterion.
Space-based sensors, crucial elements of any Star Wars system, could be confused by "half a million or more" dummy warheads that would lure defensive weapons away from the real targets, the report said, and the ability of the system to survive is at present "highly questionable."
The American Physical Society report may well be the most important scientific analysis of our time. It puts Star Wars in a chronological perspective that is essential to arms-control discussions. It may well mean that it will take science so long to meet the President's 1983 challenge to find a way to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" that the value of Star Wars as a bargaining chip in arms-control talks must be reexamined.
Perhaps most important, the report should confirm for Congress that it has been on the right track when it shaves billions of dollars from the White House requests for research on Star Wars. Congress also should interpret the report as insisting that the spending that it does authorize on Star Wars be devoted to "intensive research" under strict scientific guidelines, and not be scattered willy-nilly among defense contractors and campus laboratories as is now the case.
And it should say to the President, who yearns--as have all Presidents in the nuclear age--for a way to get out from under the threat of national devastation, not to feel too bad. After all, he was right the first time.