A Safety Net Full Of Holes

It seemed like a good idea at the time. In a speech on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan described his vision of "intercept[ing] and destroy[ing] strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil ... an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history." Nicknamed "Star Wars," the defense shield would replace the terror of mutually assured destruction (MAD) with the promise of demolishing any missiles coming America's way. From the start, though, many physicists and military officers warned that Star Wars was technologically impossible. Now, $30 billion later, there's evidence that the Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDIO), as the Star Wars command is known, saw the flaws all along--and knowingly masked the program's failures and overstated its progress just to keep the money rolling in.

Engineer Aldric Saucier, who was fired from the SDI program last month, described in an op-ed piece in The New York Times last week a conspiracy within SDIO worthy of an Oliver Stone movie. He accused SDIO of "systematic illegality, gross mismanagement and waste, abuse of power and the substitution of political science for the scientific method." He said SDI officials took money allocated by Congress for one program and spent it on another, and falsified data about the efficacy of such marvels as the X-ray laser in order to keep the dollars gushing in. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Saucier detailed allegedly false statements made by SDI officials about the effectiveness and cost of various systems, leading to underestimates of between $222 billion and $1 trillion. He charged that SDIO kept expenditures off the books, destroyed or hid thousands of scientific reports and data, and deliberately covered up fatal flaws in the systems. Saucier, chief scientist for Advanced Technology and Architectures for the army's Strategic Defense Command, concludes that Star Wars will never provide an impenetrable umbrella against nuclear missiles.

Pentagon scientists criticize Saucier's work and even question his sanity. SDIO will not comment on his allegations, however, until the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistle-blowers' charges, finishes its inquiry into Saucier's firing. As far as SDI goes, however, Col. Simon P. Worden, the program's deputy for technology, calls it "one of the best-managed" advanced technology programs in all of government.

Doubts about SDI are not exactly new, however. From the beginning, Defense Department advisers such as physicist Richard Garwin of IBM have pointed out that a perfect nuclear shield either defied the laws of physics or relied on weapons that could be easily neutralized by Soviet countermeasures. Defensive battle stations in space would be easily shot down. Missile killers designed to pop up into space when an enemy launches ICBMs couldn't get aloft high enough and fast enough to intercept the missile before it spewed out multiple warheads. Claims for SDI, says physicist Theodore Postol of MIT, have "proven to be false and made without technical or scientific merit." Exotic new lasers, neutral- and charged-particle beams and electromagnetic rail guns, he says, all failed to live up to their billing.

This isn't news to some of the hot young physicists hired to build a nuclear shield. Elliott Kennel, a former air force nuclear engineer who worked on SDI in the mid-1980s, describes how, " by 1987, many of us cocky whiz kids had realized that the game was over. We had tried very hard to fulfill the technical requirements of President Reagan's vision of an 'impenetrable shield' and failed."

And so quietly, secretly, SDI did what might charitably be called "evolve." According to a report from Congress's General Accounting Office, released last week by Rep. John Conyers, SDI lowered its sights in 1987 to discourage, not block, a massive Soviet missile attack. Taxpayers may not have realized it, but the billions of dollars were not going to buy Reagan's popular perfect defense. SDI switched course again in 1990 with the introduction of Brilliant Pebbles, a program to develop an armada of hundreds of small orbiting interceptors that would swarm toward incoming missiles and destroy them by impact. In 1991, SDIO conceded that Pebbles could protect America only against limited (up to 200 warheads) ballistic-missile attacks from anywhere (read: crazed Saddam-type dictators). Changing goals as it went along was central to what Saucier calls the main point of SDI: "to keep the research-and-development money flowing." That required secrecy. "If you keep all the technical data under wraps," says Kennel, "it's easy to keep it funded."

In fact, SDI has scored a few successes. In a 1990 test, a ground-based interceptor destroyed an unarmed missile. Of course, the defenders knew when the missile was coming and from where; deliveries from Baghdad would not be publicized beforehand. The Defense Department denies that SDI's goals have changed. Rather, it says that from its inception SDI was meant to "direct a research program that will provide the basis of an informed decision regarding the feasibility of eliminating the threat posed by ballistic missiles." Moreover, the Pentagon disagrees that deploying a space- and ground-based defense system poses significant technological challenges. The complexity of the software required to coordinate Star Wars, for instance, is no more daunting than programs that control nuclear reactors, it says. And in any case, argues SDIO, the system could operate with "minor errors or weaknesses." Of course, a missile defense that "doesn't work perfectly has failed completely," says John Pike of the prodisarmament Federation of American Scientists.

How does the Star Wars calculus change now that the West has won the cold war? The new justification for SDI is that emerging nuclear powers may not be deterred by mutually assured destruction. Even a single nuke from a martyr-minded nation could bring a holocaust. Star Wars has a better chance against a small barrage than a huge one, but that does not necessarily justify space-based missile killers. Infrared warning satellites spied every Scud that Iraq launched during the Persian Gulf War. Those satellites, teamed with 100 ground-based interceptors located in Grand Forks, N.D., argues IBM's Garwin, " would be simpler and more effective than ... space-based interceptors." In part, that's because the Pebbles must hit a missile dead-on in order to destroy it. Large antiballistic missiles (ABMs) might be more effective. Don't count Brilliant Pebbles out of the budget yet, though. Last week President George Bush nominated TRW executive Daniel Goldin to head NASA. Goldin worked on the Brilliant Pebbles contract at TRW.

The perceived success of ground-based defense in the gulf war ratcheted up the SDI budget. Says a congressional aide who has followed SDI for seven years: "The TV images of the Patriot were worth $1 billion to SDI." That's how much additional funding Congress voted for SDI last year, after three years of flat or declining appropriations. Yet a study by MIT's Postol questions the Patriot's performance. Writing this year in the journal International Security, he argues that the Iraqi Scuds fell apart, as they homed in on their target, with no help from the Patriots. When Patriots that sped toward the fragmenting Scuds fired their warheads, the fireballs that resulted were mistaken for hits. His analysis of videotapes shows that Scuds flew by untouched. The army contends that Patriots were 80 percent successful in Saudi Arabia and 50 percent successful in Israel.

Since Saucier went public, says attorney Jeff Ruch of the Government Accountability Project, "people have been coming out of the [SDI] woodwork" with similar charges. Three congressional committees are launching inquiries into the allegations. Saucier has been reinstated in his job at SDIO pending review of his charges. Still, no one believes that a whistle-blower can bring down Star Wars. President Bush has requested $5.4 billion for SDI next fiscal year, compared with $4.1 billion in 1991-92. Yet SDI competes for scarce dollars with other defense programs. In an era of shrinking budgets, says a congressional aide, "the people who are going to kill SDI are in the Pentagon."