The political left’s deconstruction of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” into an ICBM closing on a child’s bedroom window is only the most memorable of the assaults on the Strategic Defense Initiative since it was announced by President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983. But the ever-shifting tactics also point up the failure of an anti-SDI strategy to emerge. As Dr. Robert Jastrow, founder of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, stated recently, it may be that the debate about SDI feasibility is over—the wrangling now being about which systems will work best. Like the nuclear genie 40 years ago, the new defensive weapons that intercept and kill nuclear missiles at the speed of light are out of the bottle and with us for the duration. Can the nuclear era ever be the same again?

Lasers beamed from satellites or satellite mirrors, for example, could burn through the metal skin of targeted missiles in “zero time.” At one-third the speed of light, particle beams could disrupt missile guidance systems. Other SDI options include pellet clouds placed in missile flight paths, chemical lasers, electric rail guns, and submarine pop-up missiles carrying laser weapons into space. Such weapons may seem “Star War” toys to a freshman congressman or a scribe of a Bishops’ Pastoral. But a rapid advance of information technology—computerized systems for surveillance, sensing, target acquisition and discrimination, tracking, and battle management—has moved the SDI far along in a short time. Exaggerated early claims by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Office of Technology Assessment about the impossible SDI quantitative requirements have since been withdrawn by those organizations. In fact. Dr. Jastrow estimates that as few as 45-90 low-tonnage satellites would constitute an adjustable system that the Soviets could never saturate by multiplying their missiles.

Critics most often attack SDI on the point that the “leakage” even of a few enemy warheads nullifies the concept. But as Alun Chalfont’s well-argued volume points out, SDI was never an attempt to create a leakproof umbrella. The aim of SDI’s is not to “win” but to maximize deterrence by destroying enough Soviet missiles so that their first strike would not eliminate the United States’ major retaliatory weapon—its land-based ICBM’s. This would effectively render impotent any Soviet nuclear blackmail based on a first-strike capability.

Soviet reactions confirm that the SDI will work. Chairman Gorbachev’s all-or-nothing focus on SDI at Reykjavik in October 1986 should have removed any doubts about which American strategic program the Soviets fear most and would like to kill. But for long years leading up to Reykjavik, the Soviet Union has made significant advances towards its own SDI. It has the world’s only operating antiballistic missile complex, ringing Moscow, with mobile missile sites added in violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty. In September 1986, U.S. intelligence revealed a gigantic laser weapon facility at Dushanbe near the Afghanistan border. In 1987, the probable control center of a Soviet nationwide ABM defensive system, a large phased-array radar facility built at Krasnoyarsk deep in Siberia, will go on line, in violation of the 1972 treaty. The Soviet Union has an operational orbiting anti-satellite system, to which an operative space-based anti-satellite laser system may be added before 1990. In strategic defense, the classic Soviet dual maneuver is apparent: diplomatic and propaganda actions to slow down and paralyze the U.S. while accelerating the development of their own system behind a screen of deceptions and treaty violations.

While the SDI has won its case intellectually and enjoys support in polls, the Soviet strategic defense initiative is not generally known to the majority of Americans dependent for all they know on the anchormen. Those tycoons of the cutting room prefer to award prime time to Sandinista evangelists or Soviet Americanists coached to resemble smiling Ohio politicians, or worse still, to the Sagan-Caldicotts whose formidable arguments include the moral equivalence of Moscow and Washington.

For the “peace” and protest movements whose principal message is the horror of war, Chalfont argues that at least a cautious welcome was to be expected, to a strategy whose leading idea is to defend, not merely avenge, a free society. Lord Chalfont’s comprehensive and concise book is an SDI primer on the nuclear dilemma and the present suicide pact of MAD, as well as the political and the strategic dimension, the technology and feasibility of a strategic defense, the Soviets’ own SDI program, the Initiative in the context of arms control, and the larger implications of a new strategic concept for the United States, NATO, and the world. Written by a leading European spokesman in defense and international affairs, Chalfont’s book is an eminently commonsensical contribution to the health of the West.


[Star Wars: Suicide or Survival?, by Alun Chalfont (Boston and New York: Little, Brown and Co.) $16.95]