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Has DOD exaggerated SDI's promise?

Has DOD exaggerated SDI's promise?

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- also known as the "Star Wars" program -- costs as much annually as the total research and development budget for all the U.S. armed services combined and stands to become the largest military research program ever undertaken, according to a newly released report. Interviews with people leading SDI research, however, cast serious doubts on the validity of recent Department of Defense (DOD) claims about the program's progress, feasibility and goals, according to the report. This staff study was commissioned by senators William Proxmire (D-Wis.), J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.). Proxmire is a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee; Johnston and Chiles are members of the budget committee.

The senators publicly released a 64-page unclassified version of the study on March 31. Based on interviews with more than 40 scientists, engineers, defense experts and military officials "deeply involved in the program," most of them unnamed, the report concludes that technological obstacles to an effective defense against incoming ballistic missiles "are much more complex than originally envisioned." Contrary to claims by administration and SDI officials the study finds, "the program's scientists and military planners . . . have not concluded that SDI is militarily and economically feasible. They presently have little idea whether it is."

Moreover, the study says, "SDI research has not progressed nearly as rapidly as has been portrayed by senior administration and SDI officials." Such exaggeration, according to key SDI scientists interviewed for the report, undermines the credibility of program researchers and is generating resentment among program scientists. One researcher told the Senate study team that the situation" is driving good people out of the program."

Finally, the study says, there have been a number of major shifts in program priorities in the past year or two--especially in the beam-weapons program (SN: 7/21/84, p. 42). These changes include; a dramatic deemphasis of chemical lasers; diminished interest in neutral particle beams and X-ray lasers, except for use in discriminating between warheads and decoys in midcourse trajectories; and promotion of the induction linac free-electron laser as the top-priority candidate for shooting down missiles in their boost phase.

Such changes indicate that SDI research "is still at a very early staeg," according to Douglas Waller, James Bruce and Douglas Cook, the study's authors. And that suggests that DOD's early-1990s timetable for selecting what research technologies to develop for an operational ballistic-missile defense system not only is arbitrary but also may lead to potentially bad and costly choices, the Senate analysts conclude.

Though DOD expects to issue a written response to the critical Senate analysis, that response was not available at press time.
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Title Annotation:Department of Defense, Strategic Defense Initiative
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 5, 1986
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