The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 30.0°F | Partly Cloudy

...technical, political flaws

While collecting signatures on the pledge against Star Wars research in Lobby 10, I am continuously confronted with the question: "How can you oppose Star Wars without doing the research first to find out if it's feasible?"

Pressed for time at the booth by students rushing to class, I'm inclined to give the short answer:

"The entire Star Wars (SDI) research program neglects defense against cruise missiles, which evade radar detection by following the terrain at low altitudes. Even if SDI accomplished its goal, the Soviets could deploy more threatening submarine-launched cruise missiles only a few seconds from our coast."

Though I believe this short answer is an adequate rebuttal, some students don't like it. Some of them insist that the government would not be stupid enough to spend $2.7 billion on half a defense.

But remember who's in the White House. Back in California when Reagan was governor, nearby defense contractors such as Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Lockheed, and Rockwell suffered the blow of Nixon's 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Despite the treaty, these companies continued to receive hundreds of million dollars of ballistic missile defense contracts -- even during the Carter administration. Reagan never fails to outdo Carter.

Other MIT students believe we'll eventually discover a way to stop cruise missiles even though SDI doesn't try right now. This is a natural reaction for MIT students; after all, why would anyone come here unless they believed in the potential of technology?

Such problems certainly present a technical challenge. But technical solutions usually have political consequences, and therefore they are political actions.

Sometimes the political consequences are so arbitrarily or remotely related they can be ignored. For example, you might discover a promising alternative energy source that required a mineral from Zambia. This discovery might prompt the United States to increase aid to Zambia, and to help its mining industry. Military aid might allow an oppressive Zambian leader to stay in power against the wishes of his people. But this result is unlikely, compared to potential direct benefits of your new fuel.

Technological effort is rarely politically neutral. Basic research in theoretical mathematics is a notable exception. Before 1945, so was basic research in physics.

Research in other fields, such as applied math, often has political consequences. A friend of mine trained in game theory recently worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative, until he realized that the results of his narrowly focused efforts could only be used to justify a program with which he did not agree.

In computer science, the political consequences are becoming so direct they may be embedded within the software itself as capabilities advance. Robot control systems and space shuttles are placed under software control. Projected "advances" include autonomous fighting robots, battle management, and missile targeting. As computer software advances through this spectrum of politicization, where do we draw the line? Should a computer program be permitted to make the ultimate political decision: whether to launch the missiles?

Unfortunately, Star Wars is often debated on purely technical grounds. But political arguments must be considered because even the software may have to make political decisions. For the software to be "correct," we must fully consider the Soviet response to our technological initiative.

In the near term, since the Soviets will not permit the United States to have a unilateral SDI edge, they will respond with countermeasures, decoys, and more missiles. In short, they build more weapons.

What does the United States do when our SDI system designed to knock out 10,000 warheads faces 100,000? Calling upon technology, we upgrade our Star Wars defense to Version 2.0. We build more weapons.

Eventually, the Soviets will figure out how to build their own SDI. If, then, we could negotiate a treaty insuring both SDI's would only be used defensively, we might have a successful counter to one type of nuclear threat. Unfortunately, it is impossible to imagine a SDI system that could not be easily software-upgraded to knock out the other country's SDI. SDI satellites are sitting ducks compared to missiles.

Charles Zraket SM '53, executive vice president of the Mitre Corporation, describes multiple SDIs as, "The worst crisis-instability situation. It'd be like having two gunfighters in space armed to the teeth with quick-fire capabilities."

The cause of the instability is simple. It would be unacceptable for one country's SDI to "go down," because that would leave the other country free to launch a first strike under its protective SDI umbrella.

An SDI vs. SDI attack would thus be perceived as the opening move to a first strike, and would thus require instant SDI vs. SDI retaliation. An SDI vs. SDI attack would also be required in the event of enemy missile launch, to preserve the ability to retaliate.

Even a software upgrade could be perceived as an opening maneuver leading to a first strike.

Even worse, true SDI software would have to be programmed to react to situations where things go wrong, even if the problems are with the other country's SDI.

A human decision of how to respond to a mistake would undoubtedly consider political circumstances on the ground -- even statements in Pravda! But time requirements would preclude human involvement; the software would have to decide whether to attack using incomplete information in situations for which is was not tested.

To be "safe," each country would need an "SDSDI" to protect its SDI. But then, all the arguments of the previous paragraphs would still apply, at a higher defensive level.

Boeing, Rockwell, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas might be content to build SDSDI's and SDSDSDI's, but the result would be decreasing stability, not increasing deterrence. Technological development unbridled by political concern would cause the complexity of retaliatory policy to surpass the capabilities of policy makers, and certainly make "SDI control" an even more difficult problem than arms control is today. Why not solve the easier problem?

(Editor's note: Rich Cowan is a member of MIT Student Pugwash.)