For some time now, many have accepted the logic of nuclear defense. The strategic and moral superiority of a system that relies on killing weapons instead of people seems—on the face of it—undeniable. By suggesting we build such a defense. President Reagan altered the nuclear calculus in which our civilian population is currently held hostage to the whims of our enemy. Yet we have been told time and again by representatives from the Union for Concerned Scientists that faith in strategic defense systems is scientifically indefensible. Either, it is argued, our inventiveness is insufficient to deal with the complications of tracking and destroying a bullet in space traveling at 16,000 miles per hour, or Soviet countermeasures will make any defense futile. But Robert Jastrow’s latest book lays to rest scientific arguments against the strategic defense initiative. Meanwhile, the Union for Concerned Scientists can hope for another Three Mile Island.
Prepared in the form of a legal brief, Jastrow’s book refutes each of the arguments marshaled against the so-called Star Wars Defense. For those who argue that a defense can be neutralized by “shining” a missile, or spinning it, or coating it or launching it with a fastburn booster, Professor Jastrow demonstrates why each of these tactics entails significant drawbacks. To the argument that an offense can overwhelm a defense, Jastrow counters with an analysis showing that the Soviets would have to invest the impossible sum of $2 trillion to maintain their present offensive capability after a defensive system with an 80 percent kill ratio was in place.
Readers bewildered by the exotic array of proposed technologies will be glad for the lucid explanations of the most promising lines of development. It will come as a surprise to many that off-the-shelf technology can be deployed at this very moment to provide an adequate degree of protection against a Soviet first strike. As a primer on nuclear defense, Jastrow’s book deserves to be widely read—perhaps even by members of the Reagan Administration, who have not yet made an adequate case for SDI research and deployment.
For two generations obliged to live with the Damoclean sword of nuclear weapons, it seems incredible that a protective shield can now be erected in the sky. Even if the proposed defense system is imperfect, it is better than none at all, since a system that presents the Soviets with an unclear scenario about its counterforce strikes enhances the credibility of our deterrent. For Jastrow, the more fundamental consideration is that the new defense would actually protect lives rather than merely threaten massive retaliation. Some groups who oppose SDI will not be easy to persuade.
Some military officers whose careers are tied to missile deployment and procurement may be reluctant to support the new effort. And of course, many on the left will lament that a thousand schools could be built for the cost of a single satellite in a defensive shield. But the protection from nuclear fury offered by the new initiative is exactly what average people want. Their votes and Jastrow’s book may help us take a giant step towards a sensible national policy on nuclear weapons.
[How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete, by Robert Jastiow (Boston: Little, Brown) $15.95]