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Second Opinion

September 06, 1987

Does it make sense to try to create a defense against nuclear missiles by throwing a bunch of machinery into the air without wasting time on any more research? A group called High Frontier thinks so, and it didn't like the answer the last time the question was raised.

That was when the Pentagon asked a panel of space specialists, who said, in rather more technical language, that it was a dumb idea. So High Frontier plans to raise the question again, this time with people who know a lot less about space-based defenses than do physicists and the like. High Frontier will look for an answer more to its liking by putting the question onto the California ballot.

High Frontier has been promoting a primitive version of President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, which, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he insists can shield the nation from incoming missiles. The group's message is that space-based defenses can be put into place with existing technology. Even the President did not buy that line, and in March, 1983, he asked only for research on something more sophisticated than the High Frontier idea, which works something like orbiting B-B guns and which the Pentagon itself said years ago would not work.

Research over the past four years indicates that even a sophisticated system probably would not work the way the President has described it--well enough to make nuclear missiles impotent and obsolete--for years, if ever. One problem among hundreds and perhaps thousands is that the system would have to work perfectly the first time someone threw the switch. Counting on something as complex as Star Wars to work the first time would be a major gamble in an age in which you cannot make such a claim for anything more complicated than a clothes hanger.

But scientific inquiry means less to High Frontier than revelation does, and it has yet to change course. Some of its promotion methods on a scientific and technical question as serious as missile defense are rather bizarre, as in its sponsorship of a sweepstakes-by-mail to drum up support and contributions. Its ranks include people who insist that a workable defense network in space would require only 10,000 platforms, as though any nearby hardware store stocked at least that many.

We suspect that we know the question High Frontier will ask, and the answer it will get. The question will be something on the order of whether Californians would like to have a leak-proof shield overhead that would bounce incoming nuclear missiles back into outer space. Who would say no?

But Congress already knows the answer to that question. And it is likely to look elsewhere for answers to the hard questions, like whether even a carefully planned defense system would work. It will take into account the cost of a system that even the Pentagon now admits would leak--estimates of which run as high as $1 trillion. It will balance Star Wars as hardware against Star Wars as a bargaining chip that might open the way for massive reductions in Soviet nuclear missiles. It already is pondering the usefulness of a system that would catch intercontinental missiles but be helpless against cruise missiles. The California ballot is not long enough to begin to get into such detail, even if it were likely to elicit answers more helpful than "Who knows?"

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