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Fall 96 Newsletter


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CPSR Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 4: Fall 1996


In this issue: Star Wars, Down But Not Out, by Anonymous












This article takes a close look at the dream called Star Wars:  its conception, its promotion, the response it provoked, its current status, and ways to thwart it.

October 12, 1996 began like any other day, with intercontinental ballistic missiles housed in their submarines. It didn't have to be that way. On October 11, 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland an unprecedented opportunity arose. After intense negotiations, the Soviets offered President Reagan a grand compromise- the elimination within 10 years offal offensive strategic arms. If Reagan had agreed, October 11, 1996 could have been the last day with strategic bombers, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. What was so important to Reagan that it formed a non-negotiable obstacle to this historic opportunity? Ronald Reagan would not agree to keep Star Wars confined to the laboratory.

What a poor choice that was, given the sorry state of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which has suffered ignoble misadventures each time its components were tested or the feasibility of its mission was questioned.  The main accomplishment of the program has been corporate welfare for large defense contractors and government laboratories.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was created by Ronald Reagan. The publicly declared purpose was to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete". It would base US and the USSR’s security on defendable borders, ending our reliance upon testability derived from the balance of terror known as Mutually Assured Destruction. (MAD)In the years since, it has become the most expensive military project in history.

We need to analyze how such a terrible idea survived the most hostile reception scientists have mustered against any government program in United States history. Not only did the idea survive the initial response; it has persisted through a Democratic Congress and White House and is now firmly institutionalized. Apparently belief in Star Wars, as in Creationism, is a hallmark of a substantial part of America’s conservative society. Arguing against it can be exhausting because people interpret such challenges to their beliefs as tests of their faith and react with an obstinate stubbornness that logic or facts cannot dent.

The continuation of Star Wars despite its proponents obvious lack of logic and knowledge represents a crushing defeat of science in the realm of public policy. What makes a politician win elections is often a willingness to choose clout over truth. The continuing success of Star Wars proves that science has no clout, and is irrelevant to the success of politicians. For this reason it is imperative to finish off Star Wars and zero out its budget. Not because its budget alone will break the bank, but because the future political battles science must wage will be lost if politicians know the scientific consensus can be ignored with impunity. 


I remember exactly where I was on March 23 in 1983 when, in his made-for-TV speech, Ronald Reagan promised to develop technology that would render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. The press instantly dubbed the fantasy "Star Wars." Politically the announcement was a brilliant move. The Nuclear Freeze and Test Ban movement had been approaching critical mass, earning the support of conservatives such as the American Catholic Bishops. After the Star Wars speech, support for the Freeze movement stalled and soon dissipated. Polls taken after the Star Wars proclamation showed that a majority of Americans supported research on the missile defenses Reagan described. 


We now know that during a series of personal meetings Edward Teller had persuaded Reagan of the feasibility of such a missile defense system. Founder of the Lawrence Livermore defense laboratory, Edward Teller is otherwise known for his tireless efforts to design and champion the H-bomb. The book Teller's War: The Top-Secret Story Behind the Star Wars Deception, by William J. Broad, chronicles Teller's career, culminating in his campaign with Livermore to promote deceptively the ballistic missile defense system.

Although Reagan cited his "careful consultation with my advisors," Teller and Bob McFarlane were among the few people consulted who had had time to respond. When Reagan’s chief science advisor, Dr. George Keyworth, learned of the idea on March 19, just four days before the announcement, his reaction was "Give me some time. It's big. Give me time." In a 1985 interview he said, 

"Most people saw this speech very close to delivery, and most, myself included, incidentally had the same reaction: My God, let's think about this some more. Let's think about the implications for the allies. Let's think about the what the Soviets are going to think. Let's think about what's technically feasible. Let's think about what the scientists are going to think. Let's think about the command and control problems."

Other people who learned of the plan on March 19 were Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were the lucky ones. Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, was livid when on March 21 he heard about the initiative, because he considered it technically impossible and provocative. Paul Nitze, Arms Control Advisor, and Fred Ikle, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and other high-level nuclear policymakers weren't told about the program until the day of the speech. And it's a good thing Europe had television, because that is how important U.S. allies found out about this startling policy reversal.

At least Edward Teller had carefully considered the strategic implications. Explaining in 1986 why Star Wars must be built yet need not actually work, Teller said

"The hardware will work imperfectly at times. The software will work imperfectly at times. There is no war without danger. And that is why there must be no war. But the grizzly bears in the Kremlin are just as hungry as Hitler was; they are only more cautious. If we have defenses, then the grizzly bears will not hurt us. This will help preserve peace and give us an opportunity to find out to what extent we can trust each other."


To most technically aware people, the idea seemed absurd from the outset. Splendid defensive systems like the Great Wall of China and the Maginot line seem always to be trivially outflanked. But this system would depend upon and be vulnerable to the benefits of high technology, and like a sparkling new Apple III computer, would be totally obsolete just a few years after it was designed. Expecting any specific technology to permanently defeat technology's progress itself is a mistake.

Back then my mind whirled with wacky ways to render Star Wars impotent and obsolete, and I challenged my engineering friends to come up with more. Cruise missiles could already fly under it. Decoy missiles could diffuse the system's efforts. Pre-placed bombs could be smuggled in, cleverly disguised as shipments of cocaine. Nuclear mines could be placed on the floor of Boston harbor. The Soviet Union could just pretend they were building many decoys so we would go bankrupt building defensive systems in response. We calculated how many "sand-bag-and-hand-grenade" style anti-satellite weapons it would take to pollute popular orbits with enough space junk to destroy most of the large satellites. These fanciful ideas underscored an important truth. A defensive system that must be tailored to highly specific threats would be constantly playing catch-up and would never actually attain a working state. Mutually assured destruction would remain the basis of our defense. The massive investment in Star Wars would accelerate the arms race without altering the balance of terror.

More responsible criticism of Star Wars than my undergraduate irony rapidly emerged. Dr. David Parnas made headlines by resigning from the SDI Advisory Panel on Computing because he realized that the complexity of the computer software alone would make the system too untrustworthy to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," as was his panel's mandate. Other committee members (who were also chosen because of their interest in and dependency on the defense industry) were willing to ignore the given mission, which they regarded as nonsense from Ronald Reagan's speech-writers. Instead they focused upon trying to find another useful strategic defense mission that could be accomplished with untold billions and dreamlike technology. Because Parnas resigned at considerable hazard to his career and published an open letter explaining why, CPSR awarded him the first Norbert Wiener award in 1987 for his courageous efforts.

The scientific community leapt into action with a vigor unseen since the Vietnam war. The Physics faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign circulated pledges not to take SDI money. Cornell and many other physics departments followed suit. In October 1984, Scientific American published an article by Teller's old boss at the Manhattan project, Hans Bethe, and some of his associates explaining why the Star Wars system was not feasible. And in December 1985, following CPSR's lead, Scientific American published a detailed report by Herbert Lin on the unfeasibility of relying on software at that scale.

CPSR was in the vanguard of the debate, devoting much effort during its first few years to describing the intractability of the computational problem posed by the initial Star Wars system, and the basic problem of trusting the lives of the nation and the world to software that could not be realistically tested.

· In 1984 Cliff Johnson sued the Secretary of Defense over the unconstitutionality of a "Launch on Warning" defense posture. CPSR supports Dr. Johnson, and the suit is still before the courts.

· CPSR Board members Severo Ornstein, Brian Smith, and Lucy S uchman published a critique of the Strategic Computing Program in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Alan Borning represents CPSR at the meeting of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in Helsinki, Finland.

· In 1985 CPSR/Los Angeles published a set of question-and-answer cards on the reliability and risks of computation suitable for use in the Trivial Pursuit game.

· Members published articles on the computational problems of SDI in Abacus magazine and the Atlantic Monthly.

· CPSR/Boston organized the first debate on SDI software atMIT, attracting an audience of over 1300.


It seemed that everybody was taking a poll of what scientists thought, and the results were running about 90 percent against the feasibility of Star Wars. It was about the strongest resistance the scientific community could muster, but it wasn't enough.


Outside the Washington belt-way, there was a lot of fretting over the "true purpose" of the Star Wars system, in part because people didn't know how hastily conceived the SDI was. Many people deduced alternative rationales for it by observing how the system fit together with other weapons programs under development. Inside the beltway these alternative rationales did have their adherents who supported the SDI program because of their confidence in its applicability to a more aggressive stance.

Recall that in the early 80’s Reagan was deploying 50 MX "Peacekeeper” missiles (now mothballed) in ordinary silos where they would be sitting ducks in a Soviet attack. Since the MXs' vulnerability would make them useless to deter a Soviet first strike, it would make sense to deploy the highly accurate missiles only if their real purpose were to effect (or credibly threaten) a first strike nuclear attack by the United States.

The leaky Star Wars shield would similarly fail to deter a Soviet first strike, but it seemed that it might be able to mop-up the missiles that remained after a U.S. first strike on the Soviets. Star Wars could also help destroy the Soviets' early warning system by functioning as an effective (if illegal) anti-satellite weapon. With Star Wars supplying both anti-satellite and effective mop-up capabilities, plus the existing fast submarine-launched missiles and the substantial overkill capability in land-based missiles, the United States would have a credible first strike attack capability. Of course nobody was talking about nuclear winter back then. While not too many people in the U.S. media dared to point out that it looked as if we were angling for a crediblefirst-strike capability that was a popular explanation around the world, especially inthe Kremlin. (Communists, to their credit, have never understood the importance of corporate welfare.)


Ronald Reagan's speech marked a turning point in my life. I'd been supportive of the anti-nuclear and peace movements since my formative years. But this new call to arms seemed aimed at me, a computer hobbyist and engineering student. I knew then it was time to get organized. Not everybody understood the intractable nature of the problem Star Wars purported to solve.

First I helped a small University of Michigan campus organization known as CAWS (Campuses Against Weapons in Space) sponsor a debate between leading proponents and opponents of Star Wars. Shortly thereafter I was delighted to discover CPSR and joined the Ann Arbor chapter that Melanie Mitchell was operating. She circulated a pledge (derived from the Cornell Physics faculty's) not to work on Star Wars to Michigan's faculty and graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science.


The lack of direction, accountability, and accomplishment in the SDI program is almost unprecedented. By 1992 the Associated Press reported that the SDI organization had already spent over 7.7 billion on projects that either "never got off the ground," or were being "cast aside as unneeded, unworkable, or unaffordable." These projects included:

  • A billion dollars for a surveillance satellite to detect and track hostile missiles, a project now dead.
  • At least 1.2 billion for a ground-based laser to zap missiles in flight by bouncing laser beams off relay and "fighting" mirrors stationed in space, now mothballed indefinitely.
  • At least 1.8 billion for Teller's dream of an atomic bomb-powered X-ray laser and other "nuclear-directed energy" weapons in space, now dead because of the obvious unpopularity of orbiting lots of atomic bombs and the problem that X-ray lasers don't seem to work.
  • Half a billion for a pop-up "probe" to help interceptors distinguish warheads from decoys, now mothballed.
  • Another $623 million for a guided rocket to intercept hostile missiles inside or outside the atmosphere, now mothballed.

Moreover, now that Presidents Bush and Clinton have scaled back the program, and Clinton is stressing the importance of obeying the law as ratified in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) and START treaties, at least half of the more than 40 billion dollars borrowed from our children for the SDI program can be added to the tally of disgraceful waste.

The SDI organization had few successes among a string of embarrassing tests that either failed or were simply falsified. The program failed to produce a large-scale strategic missile defense system or even a feasible design for one. The paucity of high-quality basic research funded by the program that was published, and the few spin-offs that have emerged suggests that the basic research fraction of the 40 billion was carelessly spent. Had 40 billion been spent on carefully peer-reviewed university research, or by bottom-line-conscious corporate developers, the accomplishments would be readily apparent. (Lawrence Livermore Lab's idea of a spin-off was to get farmers to use SDI designed linear accelerators to kill bugs.)

Poor planning has caused the program to discard most of its previous work and embark upon a radically different system design about five times so far. These changes were prompted by arguments from such outsiders to the program as David Parnas and the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) or the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that debunked each system architecture in turn. The design has shifted from the High Frontier; to Star Warswith space based chemical lasers to SDI with A-bombs in space powering mythical X-raylasers, to Smart Rocks, to Brilliant Pebbles, to Ballistic Missile Defense. One could spend a lifetime describing the intricacies of each version, but all share the same basic strategic and technical inadequacies when placed in confrontation with an adaptable superpower, or a weak terrorist threat. The Star Wars program's leadership has been consistently defensive even though the system hasn't been. No SDI system architecture has stood up against external critics for long before going back to the drawing board.

The most recent test of the program's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile against a target ballistic missile at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico wasanother failure. "An intercept was not achieved" is how it is described on theofficial BMD web site at They don't highlight the fact that the only successful intercept so far was the 1984 test that was rigged for propaganda purposes, by artificially heating the warhead and adding a beacon to it. It is claimed that this propaganda effort demoralized the Kremlin, but it also gave false encouragement to Congress which devoted billions more to the effort.

Not all of "Star Wars" waste can be attributed to incompetence- there havebeen many accounts of fraud and deception. In his New York Times article of March 9, 1992,former senior scientist for the Army Strategic Defense Command Aldric Saucier wrote

"…the project steadily sacrificed real defense needs and actual weapons production in favor of extending the profits of contractors for as long as possible. The revolving door between the Pentagon and S.D.I. contractors enriched a long list of military officers who left for greener pastures in the private sector.

Star Wars is largely a paper program producing research and development studies. The reports are a shameless waste. Multiple contractors are assigned to do the same work – and then to do it again and again. As a rule, the studies are not read. They get stored at different locations outside the Pentagon until room is needed for new ones. Then they are sometimes destroyed without the notice required by law."

He explains that the widespread destruction of expensive Star Wars research findings happens because of a lack of storage space. So we can deduce that by the SDI organization’s own estimation their research reports aren’t even worth the storage space for the paper they are printed on. It should also be noted that SDI military officers didn’t always wait for jobs in private enterprise to show them to greener pastures. In May of 1992 Rep. John Conyers said "What we are discovering now is that ‘Club SDI’ has some pretty attractive travel benefits for its officials."The 1991 budget for travel to Hawaii alone by top SDI officials was $118,817, which included posh Maui hotel stays when adequate military VIP lodging was available.


The November, 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on "Emerging MissileThreats to North America During the Next 15 Years" predicts that there are no such threats for the next fifteen years. One might expect that this would reduce the interest in developing the Star Wars system, but it hasn't.

President Clinton renamed the SDI organization the Ballistic Missile Defense program (BMD) and, to comply with treaty provisions, has reduced the scope.

Congress has attempted to accelerate and broaden the program, endangering existing treaties and progress on disarmament. For that reason the defense authorization conference funded all anti-missile systems for 1997 at 3.7 billion dollars, which was 900 million above the administration's request.

Effort on defending the continental United States by improving our single allowable ABM site continues. The National Missile Defense (NMD) effort which is beingfunded at $508 million in the 1997 fiscal year ($168 million above the administration's request to improve chances of a 2003 deployment date.)  The schedule of the NMD is called the 3+3 deployment option, in which we spend three years creating the option to deploy an NMD system within another three years. At the end of the first three years, we evaluate the threat and choose to begin deployment of the system or simply to maintain the ability to deploy such a system within three years. This plan enables us to spend prodigiously developing a system we'll never need, which is why some have dubbed it the"3 + infinity plan".

The failure of U.S. forces in the Gulf War to destroy impressive numbers of incoming Scud missiles or even their mobile launchers despite heroic efforts has made improving or developing new weapons for Theater Missile Defense (TMD) a bipartisan priority.  In fact, according to the IEEE Spectrum article in August 97, (p. 68) thePatriot missiles most likely failed to destroy a single one of the Scuds, even though theyhad a perfect record in tests! Basic reason: the Iraqis modified the Scuds to increase their range, which drastically affected aerodynamic characteristics the Patriots were depending on. This shows one example of the huge gap between the test range and thebattlefield.

The crucial question now is whether the U.S. will violate the ABM treaty or create a situation where progress in disarmament will cease. We are perilously close to this situation. India is refusing to sign the test-ban treaty and on October 31 of 1996, Russia put off signing agreements on missile systems having declared opposition to the BMDO "Upper Tier" programs which violate the traditional reading of the ABM treaty because they could be used as a defense against strategic missiles.

President Clinton is attempting to avoid breaking the ABM treaty by pushing the definition of the allowable "theater" defenses too far, as the congressionally mandated Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program and the Navy Upper Tier system could do. Clinton and Yeltsin agreed on a concrete distinction at Helsinki inarch between theater and strategic missile defenses.  This administration policy is described in the National Security Council Fact sheets at their rationale for a Theater Missile Defense (TMD) is explained:

"Since 1993, moving to enhance U.S. security, the Clinton Administration has requested almost $6 billion from Congress for research, development and procurement of effective TMDs, such as the Patriot, PAC-3 and Navy "Lower Tier," designed to shoot down short-range missiles armed with conventional, chemical, biological or nuclear warheads. Patriot is in use now and the PAC-3 and Navy Lower Tier will be fielded in 1998."

The commitment to the ABM treaty is reaffirmed by the National Security Council (NSC) which also says that the administration will not do anything to jeopardize it or the START and START II treaties. Nevertheless, the NSC describes Congress's NMD bill, the” Defend America Act" as resurrecting "much of the Reagan Administration’s old, discredited 'Star Wars' concepts, including the rejected space-based missile defenses."

In an unusual action, 41 members of congress including Strom Thurmond have sued the administration for dragging its feet on THAAD and the Navy Upper Tier. Clinton administration officials have testified before Congress that the Defense Department has not structured and will not structure the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Navy Upper Tier programs to meet the milestones mandated in the Ballistic Missile Defense Act of 1995, which these 41 members of congress interpret as a violation of their law.

It is to the administrations credit if they are guilty of delaying these destabilizing programs, especially when the programs could interfere with START II ratification. The NSC does mention that these programs are an administration commitment, however, and claims that the first THAAD battery will be deployable in 1998.

Ray guns are still part of Reagan’s legacy. Plans are afoot to mount a 10,000pound megawatt chemical laser in a Boeing 747 where it might be able to shoot down missiles in the boost phase from hundreds of kilometers away. This plan would violate existing treaties.

If we are going to make changes to the welfare system in this country, insisting that people, who have been on the dole make a transition to productive work, shouldn't we be doing the same for Star Wars? This program has been little more than a corporate welfare program for the military-industrial complex. They have been milking the system, sowing confusion, and pleading poverty long enough.

While some of Clinton's objectives for the BMD Organization may be feasible, the organization itself has lost any credibility it may have had in the past. The BMD Organization should be liquidated and any necessary programs within it transferred to the aegis of more accountable and effective leadership. The weapons programs should be transferred to the Army, Navy or Air Force: they look stellar in comparison, as they have a history of solid accomplishments, and many officers who loathe weapons that don't work or don't have a credible mission. Any basic research should be transferred to the National Science Foundation. New leadership would be able to cut some wasteful spending, and subject basic research to peer review.

We must continue to remind congress of the history of the Star Wars program. Debate on the house floor has been simplistic and emotional. GOP SDI promoters in 1995 seemed unaware of the rigged tests in the Reagan administration, but they were enthusiastic because of a lecture Edward Teller gave them. Their proposal to revive "Star Wars" was narrowly defeated only because a few GOP "budget hawks" joined the Democrats to oppose it because of its cost. In 1996 the President vetoed the military authorization bill because it would force the creation of costly and useless "Star Wars" defense that would violate the 1972 missile treaty and derail new arms control efforts. He said the bill would put America on a collision course with the ABM treaty.

We must not lose sight of the fact that the best solution is to make new, verifiable treaties, to create a cooperative international security policy, which would increase security for the whole world and save money too, as described in the Summer 1992 CPSR Newsletter by Randall Forsberg. By pushing the envelope and developing all the weapons possible under existing treaties, we are delaying the day when true cooperative security can be accomplished.

The Edward Teller quote came from an 1986 IEEE publication, "The Institute".

Quotes about how top Reagan administration officials were sand bagged by the Star Wars speech were originally reported in the Detroit Free Press cover story on Nov 17, 1985.

Info on rigged Star Wars testing was in Aviation Week, Sept 21, 1992 v137 n12 p22(2) The GAO alleges results from 4 of 7 SDI flight tests, Brilliant Pebbles, Eris, Leap, and Kite, were exaggerated to mislead congress.

The list of canceled star wars programs can be found in the Seattle Times, May 25,1992.

NYT, Oct 31, 1996: v145 pA6(N) Russia balks at signing missile agreement due to Navy Upper Tier.

Detailed fairly current information is in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept 1995 (v51 n5 p49)


End of Fall 1996 CPSR Newsletter

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