17 October, 2003: Paging Dr. Strangelove (again)

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I was struck by this letter in this week's Economist:

SIR-- I had occasion to speak confidentially with Edward Teller during Ronald Reagan's second term (Obituary, September 20th). As he was credited with authorship of the Strategic Defence Initiative (``Star Wars''), I asked him how it came about. He said that Reagan fashioned a bubble with his hands and said, ``I wish I could put a protective shield over the country -- to keep evil people from doing us harm.'' Teller told the president his vision was possible.

I asked Teller if it would work. ``Now? No,'' he said and I asked why. He gave a bored shrug: ``The technology doesn't exist.'' This was an astounding admission from the chief architect of Star Wars. Though it failed it is still credited with hastening the downfall of the Soviet Union. Teller displayed a profound lack of interest in the morality of launching a massive programme he knew would not work, and an overriding interest in the morality of defeating America's enemies.

Grant Stockdale
Washington, DC

As a quick reminder, SDI was announced in 1983, towards the end of Reagan's first term. Teller's great contribution to the programme -- apart from apparently convincing Ronald Reagan that it was feasible -- was the X-ray LASER, a nuclear-bomb powered device intended to be deployed in orbit which would be used to zap missiles as they climbed away from their launch pads.

Teller claimed that one such LASER could shoot down the USSR's entire land-based missile force, if it entered its field of view. The X-ray LASER consumed something like a billion dollars before it was finally aborted in 1992, and the only thing it managed to shoot down was the 1986 Reykjavik summit, after Teller's claim -- based on falsified test results -- that the device was `ready for engineering development'. (This review of Teller's memoirs is also instructive.) Unlike other SDI technology like `brilliant pebbles' (originally `smart rocks', satellites designed to maneouvre into missiles, destroying them), the X-ray LASER isn't even phyiscally realisable, let alone practical.

(Now, there's an argument that, by forcing it to increase defence spending to compete with US spending, SDI helped to bankrupt the USSR, hastening its demise. Well, maybe. In fact, according to this 1987 CIA report, Soviet SDI Response Options: the Resource Dilemma, SDI didn't provoke significant extra spending on ballistic missile systems by the USSR:

... to our knowledge, the Soviets have not yet initiated major new weapons procurement programs in repsponse.

The Soviets apparently have proceeded on the assumption that they could delay responding to SDI with major new weapons procurement programs or the acceleration of ongoing programs until at least the early 1990s, when such responses could be incorporated in their 13th Five-Year Plan (1991-95). They will be making key decisions supporting this plan during 1988-90.

-- by that time, there was no USSR any more. So much for SDI bankrupting it....)

But that was all a long time ago. Today the missile-defence debate is about `rogue states', by which is meant those which preemptively invade other sovereign states... I'm sorry, that came out all wrong. What I meant to write was, those which develop ballistic missiles and warheads to defend themselves against states which preemptively invade other states. Of course, what I really should have written is `North Korea'.

It's well known that missile defence doesn't work, and is very unlikely ever to work. (The North Korean government knows this too.) There's a good report on the subject from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which explains why relatively easy-to-build countermeasures can be used to fool a hit-to-kill system of the type the Americans are building. (The description at the end of the report on the British Chevaline system gives an idea of what is feasible. It features, for instance, numerous light decoys which are powered by rockets so that even when the decoys reenter the atmosphere, they still travel at a velocity like that of a real warhead. The system was built at enormous cost to keep Polaris effective against anti-ballistic missiles around Moscow; those ABMs had nuclear warheads and were substantially more capable than the type currently being built for NMD. Countermeasures sufficient to deceive the proposed system would be much easier to build. Of course, for a `rogue state' bent on blowing up a city somewhere, this may be too much effort. As an old sketch runs,

We had that bomb dispatched to Moscow as soon as we got Alert Condition Red. They thought we had no way to deliver the bomb, but they forgot we have an excellent postal service.
(Peter Sellers, I think, but I may be wrong)

-- the Royal Mail may be in decline, but I understand FedEx still does OK.)

Even a working missile defence system would have other serious problems, since missiles built by North Korea will probably lack the expensive environmental sensors that keep US warheads from detonating unless they arrive on target after the right sequence of accelerations and changes in atmospheric pressure.

Apparently, Teller knew this all along. He was, after all, a smart man. And the fact that ballistic missile defence is a waste of money is hardly new or secret. So what's the point of spending $25.6 -- $48.8 billion on it (on top of the sums wasted on SDI)? It's hardly as if the US has trouble outspending North Korea in defence. Is NMD -- like the space programme -- just a way to hide a subsidy to the aerospace industry, or is there something else going on? If so, what?

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.