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STAR WARS. Will it work? The challenge of mission control

By / November 7, 1985

Griffiss Air Force Base, N.Y.

If a ``star wars'' control room is ever built, it may resemble this secure Air Force lab. The lights are soft, the walls sound-absorbing, and the computers look like a new generation of video game. In a nuclear attack, such a center would have to watch thousands of objects: missile boosters, warheads in space, strips of foil chaff, decoy balloons. Still-unknown electronics would handle the task; today's technology, fast as it is, would simply crash.

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Designing this battle-management equipment will be ``horrendous,'' says one scientist here. And it is such mundane-sounding problems that may determine the viability of ballistic missile defenses.

Lasers of gigawatt power and railguns are impressive technology. But if no control system tells them what to do, space-based weapons are nothing but man-made asteroids wearing American flags.

Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) officials say the highest technical obstacles to missile defense include:

Computers. Computing hardware powerful enough to run a space defense now seems feasible, but scientists aren't sure if they can write the programs -- or software -- needed to make the hardware run.

Command and control. The various parts of a missile defense must be able to talk back and forth and work together, even in the face of massive attack.

Target spotting. A missile roaring out of a silo is as easy to see as a 10-story burning building, but cold warheads coasting through space are extremely difficult for sensors to ``discriminate.''

Power. A space-based weapon platform might require the energy of ``10 Hoover Dams in 1 second,'' says John Bosma, editor of the newsletter Military Space.

Transportation. The cost of putting things in orbit must be reduced 90 percent if space-based defense is to be affordable.

The men and women working on SDI say their job is to stand up sometime near the turn of the decade and say of these problems: ``Yes, we think they can be solved,'' or ``No, it's beyond us. Sorry.'' To make that decision, they must have some idea of what the entire missile defense might look like -- a task taking much of their attention right now.

In essence, SDI's system is being shaped by a brainstorming competition. Last year, 10 teams of companies won contracts to draw up an SDI ``architecture,'' or overall plan. This summer, companies such as as Martin Marietta, TRW, and Boeing were picked to polish their plans further, in the competition's second phase.

Those who've seen the closely held studies say three schemes for an initial missile defense system are emerging.

The first is multilayered, using weapons such as homing rockets on platforms in space and on the ground.

The second is less ambitious, featuring ground-based rockets and surveillance sensors that would be popped into space on notice of attack.

The third is a completely ground-based defense intended to protect Europe against intermediate-range nuclear missiles such as the Soviet SS-20.

None of these initial plans involve lasers or particle beams to shoot things down. Research in these exotic technologies has given the SDI program an otherworldly sheen and helped earn it the nickname star wars, but directed-energy weapons are still more prospect than fact.

Lasers and particle beams might be added to a defensive system after initial deployment, say SDI officials, particularly if the Soviets keep building new missiles. Eventually, the US might field a complex screen with directed-energy beams, kinetic-kill weapons, and as many as seven layers, according to SDI plans.

``It may be necessary to have directed-energy technology available in 2005, or 2010,'' says Navy Comdr. James Offut, with the SDI systems office.

The design of the SDI system is still evolving -- the company studies are more plans to make plans than plans in themselves. It's clear, however, that SDI is considering defenses more limited than a complex umbrella intended to be 90 percent effective.

``You can contribute to deterrence, to stability in the strategic sense, by constructing defenses less than thoroughly reliable,'' says Commander Offut.

For any US missile shield to be at all reliable it must have stalwart computers. And the computers must be fast -- so fast they would be to today's technology what an F-16 is to a biplane.

The Pentagon is counting on new semiconductor-chip design and new ways of linking computers together to provide this raw processing power. Even critics admit these approaches hold promise.