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Where the Star Wars Dollars Go : STAR WARS The Economic Fallout by Council on Economic Priorities, Rosy Nimroody, senior project director (Ballinger: $19.95; 234 pp.)

November 08, 1987|Daniel J. Kevles | Kevles, author of "The Physicists" (Knopf), is at work on a book about science and defense since 1945. and

President Reagan clings to a dream that his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) will provide a blanket protection of the American population against ballistic missiles. He clings to it despite the technological unlikelihood of achieving anything resembling a perfect defense in the near future, if ever, and despite the fact that his tenacity jeopardizes strategic-arms-reduction agreements, not to mention summit meetings, with the Soviets. However, the technological realities have not been lost on defense policy makers in the Administration, including a number in the SDI Office. They have been shaping the actual program for SDI research, development, and deployment into what the President says it is not--a near-term enhancement of deterrence, a means of protecting the U.S. strategic offensive and retaliatory capability.

According to the authors of this authoritative study from the Council on Economic Priorities, a respected nonprofit research organization, the Soviets could easily--and, comparatively speaking, cheaply--overwhelm whatever partial defense we might mount simply by increasing the number of warheads and decoys they deploy against us. A recent public opinion poll reports that while some two-thirds of the American public strongly support a Star Wars program of genuine population defense, fewer than one in six people think that an SDI merely to beef up deterrence is worthwhile. Still, while the Congress has repeatedly cut the Reagan Administration's SDI requests, it has also each year appropriated billions for the program--a total of more than $9 billion since 1983. The ultimate costs for some version of SDI are estimated to be enormous--between half a trillion to a trillion dollars or more.

"Star Wars: The Economic Fallout" soberly addresses all these matters, and more. For example, it surveys the relative progress of the component technologies of SDI in the United States and the Soviet Union, concluding that in almost all areas, the United States is ahead by at least some margin--and, in most, by a wide one. However, much has been written about the technical, military, and strategic merits of SDI. What makes this study exceptionally valuable is its overarching concern with the economic ramifications of SDI, about which little of a systematic nature has been published. The ramifications are, not surprisingly, already wide-ranging. SDI's billions have made themselves felt in academic science, among defense contractors, and in the political system.

In the fall of 1984, SDI established a program in Innovative Science and Technology, which aimed to support technically high-risk work, mainly in universities, and to obtain more scientific respectability for Star Wars, especially with the Congress, than it might otherwise enjoy. Between 1983 and 1986, universities received $205 million in contracts from SDI, with the result that several institutions--notably Texas Technical University, the State University of New York, Auburn University, and the Utah Higher Education System--have become strongly dependent on Star Wars money. The authors of this study warn that the trend could lead "to conceding control of our nation's advanced scientific research effort to the Department of Defense." However, some might think their sense of danger exaggerated. SDI funds still represent only a small fraction of the research support that leading academic institutions receive from the Defense Department, which, in any case, while almost 50% higher than in 1980, currently amounts to only 17 cents of every federal dollar spent on university research.

The vast majority of SDI monies have gone, of course, to industrial contractors, with results that one would expect. "The nation's defense corporations have become de facto participants in the SDI policy-making process," the Star Wars authors contend in the most arresting part of their study. "A politically interdependent relationship exists between the Department of Defense, the key committees and members of Congress, and the private interest of the defense industry that generates momentum for the program." The relationship is manifest in the large number of SDI contractor representatives who sit on the Defense Science Board, an influential policy advisory group in the Department of Defense. It is also apparent in the evidence that the authors of this study have dug out concerning the contributions of SDI contractors to political action committees (PACs) and the voting records on SDI appropriations of PAC-supported senators and congressmen. The PAC campaign contributions have gone heavily to members of the armed service committees or the defense appropriations subcommittees in their respective houses, and the recipients of these funds have voted most of the time against cuts in the SDI budget.

The Star Wars program, in short, seems to be generating its own self-sustaining political economy. As Hans Bethe, the Nobel laureate in physics, has remarked: "When a trillion dollars is waved at the U.S. aerospace industry, the project will rapidly acquire a life of its own--independent of its public justification; it will become an unstoppable juggernaut."

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