Ending Missile MADness


The post-Hiroshima nuclear era has changed the nature of warfare. The advent of strategic nuclear weapons, especially those carried by ICBMs, has led to today's balance of terror, resting on the thesis that the only defense against nuclear destruction is to hold the opponent's population hostage by the threat of massive retaliation in kind. This philosophy goes by the ironic acronym of MAD—Mutual Assured Destruction.

Advocates of liberty have long been divided over US defense policy. Some, repulsed by the immorality of threatening the annihilation of civilian populations, have argued for steps toward unilateral disarmament. Others, though troubled by the moral issue, have urged continued reliance on MAD, because no alternative that would assure US survival seemed to be available.

But this cruel dilemma now appears to be resolvable, thanks to a series of stunning breakthroughs in applied physics. Research and development at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland AFB has led to the development of high-energy lasers and particle-beam weapon designs. If planned development programs succeed, the result would be "death ray" weapons that could destroy not only incoming nuclear warheads but even the ICBM itself, shortly after launch.

The strategic implications of these developments are enormous. "This is the only new strategic concept to present itself in a number of decades, and the only one which merits the words…potentially decisive," says a study recently completed for the Army. For if ICBMs are no longer invulnerable but can be safely destroyed by a defender, then the balance of terror will be shattered.

High-energy lasers deliver destructive energy at the speed of light—about 50,000 times faster than rocket interceptors. The precision of such a laser beam is so fine that the concentration of destructive energy on a target is over a million times greater than that of a nuclear weapon. Particle-beam weapons—massive accelerators of protons, electrons, or neutral particles—will operate with similar energies, at velocities a large fraction of the speed of light.

Mounted on orbiting satellites, such weapons could be aimed and fired at ICBMs detected by other satellites at the time of launch. Firing such a death ray while the missile is still in its boost phase means that the resulting debris will fall either in the ocean or in the aggressor's own territory. And in many cases—such as a direct hit by a charged particle beam—the beam will simply destroy the missile without setting off its nuclear warhead. The beam itself is not a weapon of mass destruction but rather of highly discrete—even pinpoint—destruction. It is inherently defensive, not offensive.

A Lockheed study has shown that a system of 21 orbiting laser-armed "battle stations" could cover the earth's entire surface if the laser range were 5,000 kilometers. (406 such stations would be needed if the range were only 1,000 kilometers.) Such a system could handle the simultaneous launch of 1,000 ICBMs directed against the United States. Using space-shuttle cost figures of $150 per pound of cargo delivered to orbit, the cost of launching the 21 battle stations has been estimated at $750 million to $1.5 billion—a fraction of what is being spent each year to maintain the US ICBM arsenal.

What we have, then, is a feasible way out of the present MADness. The ability to destroy enemy ICBMs with very little risk to the US population, and with much-reduced risk to enemy populations, provides a morally sound solution to the balance-of-terror problem. No longer must we threaten to annihilate the population of the Soviet Union; we need only assure its leaders that if its missiles are launched they will be destroyed before they get very far out of their silos or submarine launch tubes.

All of this, of course, presumes that what is now a very promising set of technology programs can, in fact, be converted into operational weapons systems. The leading ballistic-missile defense project is the Army's "Sipapu" (sacred fire) neutral-beam weapon program. It is now "at a point where weapons packaging designs could be initiated," says the Army, and according to some officials could be ready for launch in three to five years as an antisatellite weapon. Its use for ballistic-missile defense requires much larger power sources, such as a compact space nuclear reactor planned for late 1980s' deployment.

The Soviet Union is also working on beam weaponry and apparently has a several-year head start. Although intelligence experts differ, some expect the Soviets to be testing a particle-beam weapon by 1983, compared to a 1986 date for the United State's program, on its present schedule. If the Soviets achieved an operational capability in this area first, they would be able to threaten the use of their ICBMs with impunity. If the United States can catch up with or surpass the Soviets, however, their ICBMs will be neutralized, and Soviet nuclear blackmail will become impossible.

But achieving success in this endeavor is not guaranteed. Though the technology looks very promising, it is not certain that the weapons will work as planned. Continuing to sink billions into the MX and Trident ICBMs instead of developing the new weapons could permit the Soviets to succeed first. Or our arms-control negotiators could bargain away certain key ingredients—by agreeing to treaty proposals to ban space-based nuclear reactors (needed for power supplies) or antisatellite weapons (needed to defend the battle stations against Soviet killer satellites—already tested in space 16 times).

An effective defense against ICBMs will make further SALT agreements irrelevant by rendering strategic nuclear weapons obsolete. As such, it is the key to ending the terrible specter of nuclear destruction. Now that such a capability is close at hand, every effort must be made to ensure its successful development.