The Case For Strategic Defense
December 1 1990 by Chief Executive
Imagine a country in the Middle East. A ruthless dictator, say Saddam Hussein of Iraq, gains control of a nuclear missile. He threatens to use it against an American city if the U.S. does not meet a catalog of demands, in effect permitting Hussein control of the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. It is not much of a deterrence, in such a circumstance, for an American president to threaten massive retaliation against the dictator. Our leaders simply could not afford to take the risk of several hundred thousand lives being lost.
In such a grim but not impossible contingency, when offensive threats are ineffective, would it not be ideal for the U.S. to have some form of missile defense that could intercept nuclear warheads fired at American targets? Surveys show that most Americans believe the U.S. possesses such a nuclear defense, but in fact we do not. Ironically, the technology exists today for America to deploy a shield that could easily block a single or several missiles fired by a hostile dictator.
Recently, scientists at the Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories, who are working on the technologies of nuclear missile defense, conducted a test. A ballistic missile was fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It differed from an attack missile only in that the warhead did not contain nuclear explosives. The rocket was fired at the usual speed of 12,000 miles per hour. As the missile shot up into the atmosphere, radar sensors monitored its flight from a missile test range on the Kwajalein atoll, several thousand miles away in the Pacific Ocean. As soon as the trajectory of the missile was determined, a projectile was fired that successfully “homed in” on the missile, shattering it into countless pieces which rained harmlessly into the water. The defense scientists watching the experiment burst into delighted applause, because for the first time, under realistic conditions, scientists proved that it was possible to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aimed at the U.S.
Ever since President Reagan’s speech in March 1983 announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as a means to “make nuclear weapons obsolete,” the program has been surrounded by controversy. Critics charged that SDI was technologically impossible, and moreover, it would lead to a destabilizing arms race in space. Nobel laureate Hans Bethe and popular scientist Carl Sagan echoed these views. But despite Soviet and domestic dove opposition, the U.S. proceeded with missile defense research, spending approximately $3 billion a year since 1983. The results have been spectacular: the Soviet Union returned to the bargaining table over the missile defense issue, and the result was sweeping nuclear reductions agreed to by both sides.
The key to strategic defense is the tremendous vulnerability of the fast-moving ICBM. Missiles conjure up images of frightening force and speed. In reality, however, a small rock or even an ice cube placed in the path of an ICBM would destroy it on impact. The reason is that ICBMs are built much like aircrafts-they are thin and fragile, with outer coverings of anodized aluminum and carbon. The electronics are so complicated that the slightest disruption causes a breakdown in the set of reactions that produce explosion. Missiles are built with highly sensitive brains to reduce the risk of accidents as they are transported and lowered into their silos.
American scientists have made dramatic advances in the technology needed to shoot down missiles in all phases of their flight. The greatest progress is in the area of non-nuclear projectiles. These “smart rocks” carry sensors that detect the path of the incoming missile; then they are fired like pellets into the missile’s path. If even a single pellet punctures the outer skin of the missile it is disabled and falls like a lead balloon to earth. In the last couple of years, microcomputer technology has converted smart rocks into so-called brilliant pebbles. In short, it is now possible to fire much smaller projectiles, with much more sophisticated sensor equipment, to paralyze attacking missiles in a much shorter space of time.
Scientists have also registered impressive progress in laser technology, which is especially useful for the first or “boost” phase of a missile’s flight, when it is first launched from enemy silos. Advances in this area include the construction of space platforms for the lasers at lower cost, the development of optical systems to locate and target ICBMs, and various types of lasers and particle beams, which can be used to incinerate attacking missiles.
Perhaps SDI’s greatest obstacle is not technical but political. In an era of good feelings with the Soviet Union, should the U.S. invest in any missile defense at all? One reason to do so is that, despite undeniable political and economic reform in the Soviet bloc, Gorbachev has not yet insisted on military reform. It is in the American interest to encourage political reform, while remaining in a state of military preparedness.
As more than a dozen countries work assiduously to acquire nuclear bombs, proliferation becomes an increasing problem. The U.S. desperately needs some defense against missiles that might fall into the hands of despots of the Khomeini-Khadafy-Hussein stripe. Otherwise we are vulnerable to nuclear blackmail, or alternatively a crippling blow to American cities and the American way of life.
Dinesh D’Souza is a research fellow in social policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was senior domestic policy analyst in the Reagan Administration. His study, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on the American Campus, is scheduled for publication later this year.