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SDI is impractical and fatally flawed

Guest Column/Alan Szarawarski

Few problems are as troubling and frustrating as the threat of nuclear war. For the last four decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the size, sophistication and cost of the superpowers' nuclear arsenals have increased steadily. Presently, even a tiny fraction of either side's arsenals is enough to destroy both the United States and the Soviet Union.

President Reagan appeared before this dismal backdrop in the spring of 1983 and offered a glimmer of hope: the Strategic Defense Initiative. Rather than build more weapons, he said, we would render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" by developing a defense against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM's).

SDI is promising. To beleaguered citizens it promises hope. Here at last is a plan that does not require the cooperation of the Soviets. To military contractors and their employees, SDI promises money. Most defense contractors have already appointed vice presidents in charge of getting SDI funds. Finally, to scientists and engineers, it promises research grants and a never-ending supply of interesting technical problems.

Tragically, SDI is fatally flawed. It is at best impractical and at worst dangerous.

The Soviets could launch some 10,000 warheads in a nuclear attack. Even General Abramson, the head of SDI, does not say that a 100 percent effective missile defense is possible. No one does. And even an SDI system that is 98 percent effective will not prevent the destruction of the United States in a nuclear war.

Furthermore, SDI is only effective against ICBM's. The United States would still be vulnerable to attack by submarine-launched missiles and cruise missiles. Even the impossible, a perfect shield against ICBM's, will not bring the security we yearn for.

But even a 98 percent effective system is ridiculous. The technology to shoot down even one missile exists only in the dreams of some military planners. Many experts say that shooting down even a small fraction of incoming missiles is impossible. SDI supporters concede that even a 50 percent effective SDI system will not be ready for decades.

Ironically, the same people who argue that we need SDI to defend against the aggressive, war-mongering Soviets tacitly assume that the Soviets will do nothing while the United States tries to build SDI. They will not. They will surely develop countermeasures.

The most obvious one is simply to build more missiles. Suppose that after twenty years and a trillion dollars the United States deploys a missile defense that is 75 percent effective. The Soviets could, at a lower cost, quadruple the size of their offensive arsenal. The final result? The United States is no safer, the Soviets have spent less than us, and there are more nuclear weapons in the world.

Other responses include switching from ICBM's to submarine-launched missiles, building inexpensive decoy warheads, "hardening" existing missiles or developing anti-anti-missile weapons. Scientists at Livermore are already discussing how to protect SDI satellites (anti-anti-anti-missile weapons, presumably).

The preceding points are frequently countered with arguments that technical innovations will make SDI effective. But shooting down warheads is not much different from shooting down SDI battle stations. Unforeseeable technical advances that might make SDI feasible will also make it a sitting duck.

In desperation, SDI proponents assert that while it will not protect us from the Soviets, it will defend against terrorist attacks. Terrorists are more likely to deliver a bomb in a truck than with an ICBM. SDI will not protect us from terrorists.

In short, we can't have a perfect shield, and we don't want an imperfect one. The sooner we abandon the Star Wars fantasy, the safer we will be.