When either a Republican or a Democratic Administration appoints an outside commission to study a problem, it usually hopes that the outsiders will endorse policies that have in fact already been decided. Sometimes, however, the government gets more than it bargained for.
A blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Defense Department itself to study President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") has hoisted a very large flag of caution. In a draft report that was leaked to the press, the advisers raised serious questions about the Pentagon's plan to speed up the President's program to develop a space-based defense against attacking missiles.
Although the Pentagon says that no decision has been made, the Administration has seemed determined to move quickly toward the deployment of a first-stage, foot-in-the-door missile defense system in order to make it more difficult for the next Administration to abandon or cut back Reagan's strategic-defense project.
Members of the study group were appointed by the Pentagon and the Defense Science Board. All are members of the defense Establishment, and none have been vociferous critics of the anti-missile defense program. The panel includes such people as Robert R. Everett, former president of Mitre Corp.; William J. Perry, a top Pentagon official in the Carter Administration; Gen. Russell E. Dougherty, former commander of the Strategic Air Command, and Samuel C. Phillips, former head of the Air Force Systems Command.
According to the leaked report, these knowledgeable folks say that valuable technological lessons already have been learned, and they urge that a research program continue. But they warn that the Pentagon lacks enough information to assess confidently how effective any system that could be deployed in the mid-1990s would be.
To quote the draft report, as it was inserted into the Congressional Record by Rep. James R. Olin (D-Va.), the design for an early-deployment Star Wars defense system is "quite sketchy," and "takes the form more of a list of components than a consistent design."
That point has been made by Star Wars critics, but it is all the more telling when it comes from defense professionals with no track record of active hostility to SDI. The obvious conclusion is that, aside from objections that accelerated work toward SDI deployment would have chilling effects on the prospects for arms control, it would be foolhardy on purely technological grounds to plunge ahead.
The Pentagon warns that the leaked document was only a draft, and that the final version could be quite different. In any case, defense officials are working from a different mind-set. This week it was announced that the Defense Acquisition Board, a key in-house group, has recommended that six programs pointed toward a Phase 1 missile defense system be taken into the early development stage. None of the six involve exotic space-weapons technology like lasers or particle beams, but the Pentagon says that they would require several major tests in space.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger will not decide on the recommendations before September. Considering the Administration's predilection for accelerated deployment, it isn't hard to guess the outcome.