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The great debate on SDI. Three books present more than 50 essays, speeches, and analyses that give both `facts' and a spectrum of opinion on the promise and prospects of space-based defense

By Fred Glaeser / December 23, 1986

Empty Promise: Growing case against Star Wars, by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Boston: Beacon Press, 238 pages. $19.95. Star Wars: The Strategic Defense Initiative Debates in Congress, By Sen. Larry Pressler. New York: Praeger Publishers. 179 pp. $19.95. Promise or Peril: The Strategic Defense Initiative, edited by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 479 pp. $22 hardcover, $14 paperback. Public discussion of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative is beginning to take on the trappings of a religious debate. Opinions for or against are, all too often, presented in such absolute terms as ``impossible'' or ``invulnerable'' while audiences are being asked to accept weighty analyses on faith, largely unsupported by fact.

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As the volume of the ``star wars'' rhetoric grows in both quantity and intensity, people on all sides of the issue seem more and more to be talking at each other rather than to each other.

Three new books provide a generous sample of both sides of the debate. What is encouraging, however, is the emergence of more objective discourse on the issue, a welcome relief from the stridency of much of the debate to date.

A careful reading of the more than 50 essays, speeches, and analyses presented in these books yields a small list of ``facts'' that are widely accepted across the spectrum of opinion regarding SDI:

There is never likely to be a 100 percent effective defense against nuclear weapons.

Effective defenses, if feasible, will not be available before the end of this century (except, possibly, for some elaborate technical demonstrations).

The Soviets have, at worst, broken the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty or are, at best, deliberately ``creeping out'' from under its provisions.

The Soviets have the only operational ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in existence (although its potential effectiveness is subject to debate). They also have a massive BMD research program underway.

The Soviets are appalled that the United States is moving toward strategic defense and fear America's proven ability to master vast technical challenges.

The SDI debate will continue in the US - and politics rather than technology will ultimately decide the issue.

The Union of Concerned Scientists' Empty Promise is the least helpful of the three books. The group is emphatically anti-SDI and the writers' bias warps their arguments.

Given the recent misuse of ``science'' to generate unsubstantiated fear about nuclear winter, the public is unlikely to accept the equally unsubstantiated assertions of self-proclaimed scientists opposed to SDI.

An essay by Jonathan B. Tucker, a former editor of High Technology magazine and presently a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a case in point. Mr. Tucker makes an excellent case for the negative effect that military security classification has on the free interchange of ideas that is fundamental to US science. But in the same essay he tiptoes around the issue that many researchers oppose SDI because it will divert research funds from projects in which they are personally interested, and that Pentagon money is somehow ``tainted.''

``Empty Promise'' does contain two objective essays, however. Robert Zirkle, another PhD candidate at MIT, provides an excellent summary of the command, control, and communications structure that supports our current strategic forces. He then outlines several of the larger tasks facing the architects of SDI.

Similarly, Greg Nelson and David Redell, of Digital Equipment Corporation, describe the challenge of writing the software programs for SDI computers. They characterize it as a task ``far more complex than any previous computerized weapons system and ... well beyond the current state of the art.''

Sen. Larry Pressler's Star Wars is a collection of congressional commentary on antisatellite weapons and SDI. It is an unremarkable book largely because it is so predictable. The congressmen, with a few notable exceptions, line up mostly by party affiliation - Republicans ``for'' and Democrats ``reluctant'' - with some cross-over by moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.