For general readers, a glimpse inside the `star wars' defense technology

Assured Survival, by Ben Bova. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 343 pp. $15.95. When Ronald Reagan proposed on Mar. 23, 1983, that the United States begin a program to create a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) able to ``intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reach our own soil or that of our allies,'' both a real and a figurative laugh went up in many quarters.

Such a venture was technically impossible, said some. Its cost would be wildly prohibitive, said others. It would increase the likelihood of nuclear war rather than decrease it, because it would upset the present system, known as MAD (mutual assured destruction), or the so-called ``balance of terror,'' which had played its part in keeping the world free of nuclear destruction for some four decades. The President's suggestion was thereupon dubbed ``star wars,'' suggestive of its far-out Hollywoodish character.

Of late, however, there has been a substantial change in the tone of commentary on SDI. Opposition on all the above grounds is still widespread, convinced, and vocal. But one senses that during the past two years more serious attention is being given to the general concept. The President (partly because of the reaction against the Soviets' having shot down the South Korean airliner on Sept. 1, 1983) won initial research funds. The British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, has given her approval. Those supporting the SDI effort have grown more vocal themselves. And the Soviet Union has done no laughing over the matter.

The author of this book, a former editorial director of Omni, president of the National Space Institute, and a one-time aerospace industry executive, believes that ``we have, almost within our grasp, the technical means to prevent a nuclear holocaust.'' Among such means he cites ``high-power lasers and other so-called `directed-energy weapons'; new computers that are smaller, faster, and more rugged than any previously developed; drone aircraft, and missiles that are `smart' enough to find and destroy even the most elusive and heavily defended targets on land, sea, or in the air.''

Although clearly a supporter of the effort to develop such a system, Bova agrees with those who say that it is almost certainly impossible ever to develop a completely foolproof defense against incoming nuclear missiles. Even with the most advanced system that technical and scientific genius and hard work can devise, if an enemy launches a sufficient number of missiles (with their multiple warheads), some will get through.

But, the author contends, it is not necessary to come up with a totally leakproof system; it is enough for the enemy to know that he is no longer in a position ever to hope to be able to strike a knockout blow; that enough of his missiles have been destroyed en route to enable his enemy to launch a devastating counterattack. In short, a new version of MAD would arise.

This book is divided roughly into three parts. One deals with the historical development of nuclear weaponry and the various steps by which the American-Soviet nuclear standoff came about. The second is the author's discussion of the technical difficulties and possibilities involved in SDI. The third, interspersed through the volume, consists of chapters on how nuclear war might begin. Included are fantasized discussions in Washington and Moscow of the problems raised and the author's own views on the political steps needed.

The history of the present nuclear situation is helpful to those of us who cannot easily recall how this all came about. The author's use of imaginative events and conversations is of less value. It tends to interrupt the purely technical discussion of SDI, and like all such imagined events, does not convey full verisimilitude.

The author is much stronger when dealing with the technical discoveries that have already been made and that would, in all likelihood, provide the scientific foundation for any successful development of an antimissile space defense. Many of these discoveries are as exciting as they are astounding and show the extraordinary capacity of the scientific community to overcome problems of the most complex nature.

And right there lies the main weakness of this book: It leaves one feeling that there is an enormous amount of further technical and scientific background which should have been included, but which has been inexcusably skimped on, owing to the space devoted to past nuclear history and to the author's penchant for constructing imaginary events. As a result, this is an interesting but flawed discussion of what seems to be emerging as one of the great issues of the end of this century.

Joseph G. Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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