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OTA report raps Pentagon SDI study.

OTA report raps Pentagon SDI study

Although "Star Wars" research has yielded some impressive achievements, major questions remain unanswered about the feasibility of such a ballistic missile defense system, says the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in a report issued June 7. One subject given "little analysis" by the Pentagon is the threat of Soviet space-based antisatellite weapons that might attack the system. Defending against these weapons would necessitate a race for the military control of space, the report says.

The OTA warned that Soviet nuclear antisatellite missiles could pose a significant threat to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), especially if the system came under attack before it was fully operational. The Soviets might choose also to respond to SDI satellites with orbiting antisatellite weapons that are less complex than the SDI satellites. This might require the United States to deploy its own antisatellite satellites first, driving a race to control specific regions of space, according to the report.

The possible implications of Soviet deployment of a ballistic missle defense similar to SDI have not even been examined, OTA says, but the assumption of the Defense Department's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) has been that the United States "could and would maintain a consistent lead over the Soviet Union" in SDI technology. Such a commitment would require the United States to replace the first phase of SDI deployment, costing $75 billion to $150 billion, "soon" after it is deployed, says OTA.

The effectiveness of many other potential countermeasures to SDI has not been sufficiently studied by the Pentagon, the report says, even though such studies are essential to understanding whether the SDI program can work.

Responding to the OTA report, the SDIO says its analyses and recent experiments indicate each stage of SDI "could operate effectively," even in the face of Soviet countermeasures such as direct attacks on the system.

The wisdom of building SDI will be a certain issue in the 1988 presidential campaign: George Bush supports the plan while Michael Dukakis said this week he would replace SDI with a "conventional defense initiative."

The OTA study, mandated by Congress two years ago, notes "there may always be irresolvable questions" about the dependability of the software that drives the ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. "In the OTA's judgment, there would be a significant probability . . . that the first (and presumably only) time the BMD system were used in a real war, it would suffer catastrophic failure."

The SDIO statement terms this the "most disappointing chapter" in the report, and says the OTA conclusions on this pointare "primarily based on extrapolation from past experience as opposed to the potential of newer technologies becoming available." OTA Project Manager Thomas KAras responds that even though there were widespread opinions about SDI among the computer experts on the project panel, they all agreed no one should expect dramatic advances in software soon. "I would be very surprised if the SDIO could come up with some magical new techniques that weren't addressed in the [OTA report] appendix," he says.

The OTA and SDIO agreed on some points, such as the technical possibility of deploying a first phase of SDI between 1995 and 2000, and the impossibility of following such a deployment schedule if Congress continues to provide less money for SDI than the Pentagon asks.

The report released last week is a declassified version of one vgiven Congress last August. The SDIO originally cleared 12 chapters for public release, says Karas, but the Pentagon then decided to withhold declassification on three chapters dealing with counter-measures to SDI.
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Title Annotation:Office of Technology Assessment, Strategic Defense Initiative
Author:Vaughan, Christopher
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 18, 1988
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