Don't Trade SDI—For Anything
Reykjavik was a failure, according to the media: in rejecting Mikhail Gorbachev's demand that the United States give up the Strategic Defense Initiative in exchange for the phase-out of land-based nuclear missiles (ICBMs), President Reagan missed the chance of a lifetime. Yet in contrast to the cries of failure from media commentators, public-opinion polls since the summit in Iceland have shown strong support for the president's decision.
For instance, a mid-October Harris survey asked respondents to choose between an agreement to eliminate all strategic missiles and proceeding with Star Wars. Only 36 percent opted for wiping out the missiles; 55 percent backed Star Wars.
But really, it's not so surprising to find popular support for relying on technology rather than pieces of paper to reduce the threat of nuclear annihilation. Several years of debate over SDI seem to have made Americans increasingly aware of their government's deliberate failure thus far to defend them against nuclear attack—with anything other than the threat of launching Armageddon. They have also seen repeated evidence that the Soviets will ignore arms-control treaties when it suits them.
The question is whether ordinary Americans' gut feelings are correct in this case. A lot of opinion makers contend that the greatest value or even the only value of SDI is as a bargaining chip to achieve real cuts in nuclear weapons. If so, then Reagan did blow it, unless he's just holding out for more concessions from Gorbachev & Co.
The argument for SDI as bargaining chip, however, depends on two key assumptions. The first is that a negotiated agreement to scrap, say, all U.S. and Soviet ICBMs would actually achieve that. The second is that SDI is unlikely to be effective, or effective at an acceptable cost, as a defense against nuclear attack.
The first assumption was challenged recently on the Wall Street Journal editorial page by nuclear-strategy experts Sam Cohen and Joseph Douglass. They pointed out a crucial fact that arms controllers have known all along but that hardly anyone else realizes: we really don't know how many missiles the Soviets have; we don't know where they are located; and we don't know how many warheads the missiles have.
The Soviets publish no figures on the number of weapons they've built. All arms control discussions utilize estimates made by U.S. intelligence agencies based on what they can observe via satellites and other forms of technical data collection. These "national technical means" of collection measure things that can be observed, such as numbers of missile silos. As Cohen and Douglass point out, they do not and cannot measure the actual number of missiles produced and concealed in other locations. And, given the Soviets' historical reliance on deception and concealment, it is hopelessly naive to assume that the missiles that they allow us to see are all that exist.
The implications for arms-control agreements are very clear—but seldom acknowledged. If we go into negotiations with the "information" that the Soviets and we each possess, say, 5,000 strategic missile warheads, and we agree to the publicly observed scrapping of the entire lot, how likely is it that there would really be zero deliverable warheads left in the USSR? In such a situation, even the possession of 100 covert missiles would give the Soviets absolute strategic superiority. It is hard to imagine any form of on-site inspection that would enable U.S. observers to scour the entire land mass of the Soviet Union to make certain that no hidden missiles were left.
It becomes clear that, the greater the alleged reduction of offensive nuclear weapons, the more crucial will be the ability to defend against secretly retained missiles. So it could be suicidal to give up SDI in order to get a missile-reduction agreement that is likely to be false.
Given the Soviets' predilection for deception and cheating, the more reliable way to blunt the lethal threat of nuclear arms is to reduce their usefulness as offensive weapons. That, of course, is precisely what SDI aims to do. Even a crude first-generation defensive system, protecting only U.S. missiles (which are the Soviets' priority targets), would be able to intercept 50 or 60 percent of any attacking warheads. That's the equivalent of a 50 to 60 percent reduction in the effective size of the Soviet force.
But is it doable? Lots of people, including a number of outspoken scientists, insist it isn't. In fact, this second assumption of the SDl-as-bargaining-chip argument is vulnerable also. The basic elements of a first-generation, ground-based system to defend missile sites already exist and could be deployed right now (for example, the kinetic energy interception system demonstrated in 1985's Homing Overlay Experiment and the High Frontier project's proposed Swarmjet missile-silo protector). The cost would be as little as $5 billion a year for four years—just two percent of the defense budget. To preserve their present strategic position, the Soviets would have to double their nuclear arsenal, at a cost they can ill afford. So it's no wonder that Gorbachev is trying so hard to stop SDI in its tracks.
For our government to sign away the ability to intercept and destroy offensive nuclear weapons would be to default on its primary function—that of protecting the lives and liberties of the citizens. Yes, nuclear weapons are terrible. Yes, we must strive to get rid of them or, if that is unrealistic, at least to reduce their numbers and destructiveness. But we dare not ignore the nature of the opponent that we face. Defensive systems cannot be a bargaining chip. They must become our primary form of protection in a dangerous and risky world—a world that may be even more risky in an era of negotiated arms reductions.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Don't Trade SDI—For Anything".