SDI research should not be given priorityTo the Editor:
I have just read the letter by Pitrelli and Theobald ["SDI ensures our retaliation" Nov. 22], and I feel compelled to point out how totally flawed their reasoning is.
Pitrelli and Theobald claim that the Strategic Defense Initiative does not have to "guarantee that no warheads will hit their targets on a first strike. Rather, the intention is that a high attrition rate on a Soviet strike would ensure that most of our retaliatory force would survive, so that the Soviets would realize that attacking the United States would be suicidal."
They go on to say that the Soviet Union will thereby never be able to blackmail the United States, nor carry out a "successful preemptive strike." Do these statements imply that the Soviet Union today or at some other point in the forseeable future could believe that they can effectively launch a surprise attack on the United States, Western Europe, (possibly China), and perhaps a country in the Middle East, knocking the entire fundament under the Triad and then sit back, cross their legs, and not expect devastating retaliation?
It seems absurd even to hypothesize. No statesperson in his or her own right mind would consider even the remotest chance of surviving an all out nuclear exchange and SDI does not change that one little bit!
A few weeks ago there was a debate at MIT that was intended to focus on the topic: "Can the computational requirements of SDI be met?" As an undergraduate student in computer science with a keen interest in loosely coupled distributed systems, I went to listen, hoping to be presented with an outline of some new and exciting theories about how the SDI scenario might be approached. I was disappointed. Nobody on the panel seemed to have a clear idea about what they were actually discussing, but some of them did seem to believe that, whatever it was, it would work.
Prof. Parnas, one of the panelists, brought up an interesting idea, though. If we go ahead and build a Star Wars-like system, it is important that the Russians think it will work. I assume this is also the opinion of Pitrelli and Theobald when they say that the system would make the Soviets "realize that attacking the United States would be suicidal." Parnas on the other hand raised the issue of our own confidence in the system. If our own military and political leaders do not have faith in the system, then what?
In other words, if the expected reliability of a "Star Wars" implementation was not very high on the American side, we cannot assume that any general, admiral or president would dismantle their offensive systems nor decrease their rate of buildup. On the other hand, our generals would see a Soviet reaction to SDI in whatever form that might take and surely -- judging from history -- plunge into another offensive buildup to counter this new perceived threat.
So what have we achieved? A defense system that cannot be properly tested in a realistic scenario and therefore probably cannot be counted on as fully reliable by those who must depend on it, and an offensive arsenal equal to or larger than what we already have. Are we winning?
Pitrelli and Theobald write about shooting down the SLBM's and ICBM's using high energy laser technology. They indicate that cruise missiles are easy targets (as long as it is not cloudy) since they travel slowly, and they suggest that battle station satellites are easily defendable (since they are in weightless condition).
They also write about how difficult it would be to thicken the nose cone of a Russian SS18 as a countermeasure, and they question a column by Alan Szarawarski where figures like one trillion US dollars are used to estimate the cost of an implemented "Star Wars" defense system. These ideas and numbers might all be right but chances are they are all wrong, and the bottom line is that everything is based on guessing.
All estimates are taken out of thin air. I have been following the SDI debate for a while, and I have seen renowned physicists (with all the stars on their collars) proclaim that the system based on lasers is physically impossible, and I have heard the exact opposite from equally "decorated" noblemen of the sciences.
As it was proposed to a highly non-critical (uninformed) American public, SDI was delivered in a "moral wrapping" under the pretext of being totally defensive. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems quite evident to me that any weapon capable of penetrating layers of the atmosphere with enough energy to cause damage to a missile travelling a few times the speed of sound, could also be directed against soft targets on the earth. Such targets could be anything from oil-refineries to ships and buildings; and although our good intentions would surely be proclaimed, I am not convinced that our adversaries would feel insecure if the Soviet Union had a system with comparable capabilities.
So I conclude the following about SDI:
O+ The implementation of an SDI-like system will be extremely expensive.
O+ SDI will not offer an "astrodome" like shield, "rendering nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete," as Reagan proposed in his March 1983 speech.
O+ And a system, if it works, will not be defensive.
Finally I would like to request that Pitrelli and Theobald read more than the "propaganda" offered by the proponents of SDI. I find it quite offensive that they end their article suggesting that those opposed to yet another escalation of the arms race and militarization of space are not informed. This is the particularly unreasonable after having themselves offered what cannot be but uninformed (guessed) statements on the feasibility of specific "Star Wars" "defense" scenarios.
I found myself agreeing with Pitrelli and Theobald's final point that suggested infeasibility of a proposed research project cannot be considered grounds for demanding its cancellation. My reasoning behind this statement is one based on a belief in the freedom of speech (research) that this country constitutionally offers on the first ammendment principles.
The demand for cancellation of research because of its proposed infeasibility cannot be justified. But: MIT is not a defense laboratory. Specific research favored by the DOD should not be given higher priorities over other research projects, and criteria for fundings for future projects should not be made to depend on the possibility that the research can contribute to SDI. This is what many fear is happening and is much of the reason for concern.
Surely scientists should study and develop high energy laser technology. In computer science, distributed systems are an important and interesting field, and there is very much yet to be discovered. We do not need SDI or special SDI funding to perform this research.
Nuclear weapons are different than conventional weaponry. Damage assessment after a nuclear exchange cannot be measured along a continuous curve. If nuclear weapons start exploding over New York City, over the Ninth Fleet, or in my backyard, it does not matter whether we can set up an effective shield of 87.93 percent. One bomb at any soft target is enough.
Hans Peter Brondmo '86->