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SDI: at what cost?

SDI: At what cost?

An open letter to Congress criticizing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), signed by more than 1,600 scientiss and engineers--all current or former employees of federal laboratories or of defense contractors--was handed to Senators J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.) on June 19. The letter charged that SDI's stated goal--to render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete--is not feasible in the foreseeable future and risks jeopardizing arms control negotiations. However, it is the program's cost, in terms of both researchers and dollars, that the researchers appeared to object to most.

Explains Novel Prize-winning physicist Robert Wilson, head of radio physics at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J., and one of the signers, "We're all in favor of a very strong national defense. And we think that our proposal will strengthen that defense, not weaken it." According to Pierre Hohenberg, head of theoretical physics at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., the signers of this letter don't want the United States to abandon SDI. Rather, "we are asking for a scaledown" in its size, to a level appropriate to exploratory research, not development, he says.

The scientists didn't recommend a specific dollar value for that scaledown. However, says group organizer Daniel Fisher, also of the Murray Hill Laboratory, one should compare the administration's SDI budget request of $4.8 billion for the coming fiscal year with, for example, what the administration would offer the National Science Foundation -- $1.5 billion. Considering that the foundation is one of the federal government's largest supporters of basic research budget of $2.75 billion "is more than certainly adequate."

This is not the first such plea from researchers to reevaluate government spending on SDI. One month earlier a group of more than 6,900 academic physicists, mathematicians and engineers -- a group that includes 57 percent of the combined faculties of the 20 top physics departments in the United States -- pledged to boycott SDI funds. The signatories are not necessarily opposed to DOD support. According to a 28-page background paper circulated with their SDI-boycott pledge, many of the faculty members who signed "ordinarily accept other types of military funding." David Wright, an organizer of the academic SDI boycott and a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says studies into ballistic-missile defense technologies per se are not the issue. It's SDI's size, he says, and its "undeliverable" goal of erecting a protective shield over the United States.

Many members of Congress are also becoming skeptical of the program's costs. On May 13, a group of 44 senators signed a letter asking the Committee on Armed Services to hold SDI's budget for next year to 3 percent real growth over fiscal year 1986 spending. When the Senate committee voted on June 20, it recommended a 31 percent increase--far less than the 75 percent growth President Reagan had asked for. The House Armed Services Committee is now considering a 24 percent increase for the program.

In a nonclassified version of DOD's report to Congress on SDI, issued June 26, the agency states that "congressional budget reductions have had an adverse impact on SDI research and forced major program changes." Specifically, the report says, "We have been forced to reduce the effort on certain major technologies such as space-based lasers [SN: 2/15/86, p. 106] prematurely." This may significantly increase program risk, delay completion of research investigations and increase total program costs, according to Lieut. Gen. James Abrahamson, who directs the SDI program and testified before Congress last week.
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Title Annotation:Strategic Defense Initiative
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 5, 1986
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