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

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.

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.

It is clear from the portion of the debate documented in Senator Pressler's book that if the ultimate decisions on SDI will be political, the Congress has a way to go in cutting through rhetoric and coming to grips with the fundamental issues of strategic defense.

The best of the three books is Promise or Peril. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to President Carter, and members of the Ethics and Public Policy Center staff in Washington, D.C., have selected 35 essays, articles, and speeches that represent a true rainbow spectrum of opinion and commentary on strategic defense. The Union of Concerned Scientists, retired military officers, scientists, even three communists are found among the authors.

The book opens with a 1934 speech by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, debating the relative merits of investment in a massive British bomber force to match the strategic threat posed by the Nazi Luftwaffe vs. prudent research into air defenses - then widely believed to technologically impossible. Remove a few dated phrases and this speech could be given today in the House of Commons, or the US House of Representatives.

The book also juxtaposes three Soviet opinions. In a 1965 essay, Gen. Nikolai Talensky, a military historian and former editor of the Soviet journal International Affairs, writes that ``It is quite illogical to demand abstention from creating [antimissile systems] in the face of vast stockpiles of highly powerful means of attack on the other side. Only the side that intends to use its means of attack for aggressive purposes can wish to slow down the creation and improvement of antimissile defense systems. For peace-loving states, antimissile systems are only a means of building up their security.''

Similarly, the late Alexei N. Kosygin, chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers from 1964-80, is quoted as saying: ``Which weapons should be regarded as a tension factor - offensive or defensive weapons? I think that a defensive system, which prevents attack, is not a cause of the arms race but represents a factor preventing the death of people.''

Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, provides a contradictory view in an interview that appeared in Time magazine in September 1985. Similarly, during his trip to India in November, Mr. Gorbachev denounced star wars as a ``voracious monster'' based on a ``fundamentally inhumane concept.''

Among the dozens of voices in these three books, the clearest is that of James Schlesinger, former secretary of defense under President Nixon. Mr. Schlesinger wrote the foreword to Pressler's book and has an essay in ``Promise and Peril.''

In phrases that are calculated neither to confuse the layman nor offend the expert, Schlesinger offers a common-sense perspective on SDI and makes several specific points:

For better or worse, President Reagan has kindled in the American psyche a vision of strategic stability founded on advanced technology defense. The issue will not fade away and must be addressed intelligently.

The technical challenges of strategic defense are formidable, a fact often obscured by overly optimistic political rhetoric.

The US should avoid rhetoric and pursue a vigorous research program to determine what is technically feasible in strategic defense and what the costs are.

US strategic defenses of any form are unlikely to be effective unless their deployment is coupled with reductions in Soviet offensive nuclear missiles.

While research into strategic defenses proceeds, the US should use genuine Soviet concern over SDI to bargain for meaningful limitations on the growth of offensive nuclear weapons.

Almost lost amid the clamor over strategic defense are the words of the man whose March 23, 1983 speech sparked the controversy. President Reagan's challenge was straightforward. He asked scientists to apply their talents to making weapons of mass destruction obsolete. The President's speech didn't suggest how, set a budget, or outline a timetable.

It is this underlying theme that is missing from most of the heated and often sarcastic verbiage about strategic defense. Opponents and advocates are debating the feasibility, costs, flaws, or relative effectiveness of specific weapons concepts before the preliminary research has been completed.

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