President Reagan's 'Star Wars' Plan Is No Mere Bargaining Chip In Arms Talks

By Andrew Pakula

WHEN PRESIDENT REAGAN introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative two years ago, he claimed that the proposed technology would provide a protective shield against missiles, that it would be shared with the Soviets, that it would render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" and that it could be used as a bargaining chip in arms control negotiations. As we examine the 'Star Wars' issue today, we discover that there is a great discrepancy between myth and reality, between illusion and truth. In fact, 'Star Wars' is the most dangerous and destabilizing idea yet in the malignant process of nuclear escalation.

In a recent testimony Fred Ikle, Under secretary of Defense for Policy, told the US Senate that at least in the first phase 'Star Wars' would defend American missile bases, not population centres.' Ikle also admitted that 'Star Wars' would not make nuclear weapons obsolete, but would force the Soviets to rely on long range bombers, cruise missiles and sub marines. Asked about the possibility of 'Star Wars' technology being shared with the Soviet Union, Ikle said that this would be "unlikely." According to Ikle the Strategic Defense Initiative "is not an optional program" but is "central" to US military planning. In other words, 'Star Wars' is no mere bargaining chip to be abandoned casually.

Ikle's testimony demonstrates that the presentation of 'Star Wars' is quite different from the reality. It is difficult to say whether the discrepancy represents an attempt at social influence intended to promote a potentially unpopular policy or whether it reflects what George Kennan calls 'nuclear delusion' at the very top rung of the political ladder. The two interpretations are aspects of the same psychological process and the distinction between them is not at all clear.

The technical problems of 'Star Wars' center on feasibility, vulnerability and reliability. A significant proportion of American physicists and engineers believe that a functional 'Star Wars' defence system is simply not feasible in the foreseeable future. That being the case, the $26 billion currently proposed for the system will simply be wasted. Moreover, we know that military budget estimates tend to be exceeded, often dramatically.

Given the delicacy and the required high accuracy of the proposed space weapons, it is likely that they would be highly vulnerable and could be disabled using a less sophisticated and less expensive technology. Possibly the Soviets, faced with the reality or the perception of being at a disadvantage, of losing the deterrent power of their arsenals, might feel compelled to take the dangerous course of destroying the 'Star Wars' equipment.

In mechanical systems reliability decreases with complexity and performance deteriorates over time. Even if the highly ambitious goal of a 90% 'kill rate' of incoming missiles is achieved, the remaining weapons would still wreak enormous damage, probably enough to trigger nuclear winter and its horrendous consequences. Given that nuclear warfare allows very little time to think and react, equipment failures in space would greatly increase the probability of accidents and of accidental nuclear war. One shudders, for example, when considering the consequences of a US laser weapon's going awry and destroying a Soviet airliner over Soviet soil. In general, 'Star Wars' reflects an attitude that technology is a panacea for all our problems. And as Gandhi had warned, the application of technological knowledge without wisdom is a perilous course indeed.

To the Soviets the 'Star Wars' project appears as offensive, not defensive. It is their stated, and not unreasonable, position that space weapons would allow the US to launch a first strike with relative impunity while destroying much of the Soviet potential for retaliation. It must be remembered that the US is the only nation to have used atomic weapons in war and that, unlike the Soviet Union, it does not formally endorse the policy of no-first-use. While the endorsement of such a policy by either side may not be entirely credible, the failure to make such an endorsement carries a great psycho logical threat.

Creating an anti-missile defense in space "would be one of the most threatening prospects I could imagine", and would "cause deterrence to collapse." Are these the words of a Soviet politician or of some misguided peace activist? No! These words were used not so long ago by, respectively, US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and by a White House source in commenting on how the Americans would react if the Soviets were to develop and deploy an anti-missile defence in space. What a remarkable feat of logic! The plan which is considered defensive and peace-promoting when proposed by the United States magically becomes offensive and highly "threatening" if the Soviets are considering it. It is not at all surprising that the Kremlin considers 'Star Wars' highly threatening and a barrier to negotiations.

Much has been made of the fact that the first stage of 'Star Wars' involves only research and development. Mot unlike other arguments used to support the 'Star Wars' plan this one is something of a diversion, not as relevant as it is made out to be. Research or not, the Soviet view is that in order to find a suitable response they need to react to 'Star Wars' immediately.

The Soviets' likely response will involve a) shifting their emphasis from ground-based missiles to warheads based on bomber planes, submarines and cruise missiles; b) increasing their overall fire power, so that the 10% or so that gets through the Strategic Defense will be able to cause unacceptable damage and c) developing the technology to counter the 'Star Wars' weapons. In the worst case scenario, the Soviets, faced with the possibility that their retaliatory potential will be seriously compromised, would consider striking first before the 'Star Wars' defences are in place.

The spring of 1985 is a time of hope and opportunity. The Geneva arms-control talks appear to be going reasonably well, and the change in Soviet leadership offers a unique opportunity for a rapprochement between the super powers. The 'Star Wars' project threatens to poison the atmosphere and to aggravate the factors which fuel nuclear escalation: mistrust, a diabolical image of the enemy, angry rhetoric and ritualistic, non-constructive communication. It is destabilizing and inconsistent with constructive conflict resolution. It is anathema to global security.

The 'Star Wars' project was born out of the belief that all problems, be them political, moral, economic or ideological, can be solved with high technology. A central, although not explicitly stated, rumour has it that President Reagan is among the very few Washingtonians who think that SDI will work.

American objective of 'Star Wars' and other advanced weapon technologies is to strain the Soviet economy and consequently to weaken and destabilize the Soviet Union. It is felt that the USSR cannot win a race based on economic and technological strength. History and common sense suggest that this is an unsound and dangerous strategy.

The Strategic Defense Initiative was introduced unilaterally by the United States, apparently without consultation with NATO allies, and yet Washington is calling for NATO solidarity in promoting the plan. Several Western governments, especially Great Britain, West Germany and Canada, support 'Star Wars' with apparent enthusiasm. Have they really considered the issues? Or have they, in the words of a recent Toronto Star editorial', been "sold a bill of goods?" It is critically important in considering this issue that we separate myth from reality, that we distinguish wishful thinking and illusion from the living truth. 'Star Wars' is simply one of the most dangerous ideas ever conceived. Notes

' The truth about 'Star Wars', Editorial, The Toronto Star, February 23, 1985. ~ Star Wars and the Soviets, Editorial, The Toronto Star, March 25, 1985.

Andrew Pakula is a member of the National Steering Committee of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

Peace Magazine May 1985

Peace Magazine May 1985, page 26. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Andrew Pakula here

Peace Magazine homepage