REMEMBER those bumper stickers you used to see on old Volvos and Volkswagens at the end of the Vietnam war - the ones that said, simply, ``Question Authority?'' The Defense Department has been providing many innovative and expensive reasons to remember and follow this maxim, but none are as clear as The Great Soviet Laser Hoax.
Since the first year of the Reagan administration, the Department of Defense (DOD) has annually issued a pamphlet titled Soviet Military Power (SMP), which hypes Soviet weapons systems in order to justify greater US weapons spending. SMP features lurid depictions of secret research and development of Soviet space weapons at isolated sites in Russia. The most intriguing is the huge space laser at Sary Shagan in Kazakhstan.
Soviet Military Power described the laser threat as ``by far the largest in the world,'' and ``three to five times the US level of effort.'' But by 1984 the menace had become palpable. ``By the late 1980s,'' said DOD, ``the Soviets could have prototypes for ground-based lasers.'' Even now they ``have two ground-based test lasers'' for use against satellites.
In the 1985 edition of SMP the Soviets had over 10,000 scientists working on laser developments, over a half-dozen R&D facilities and test ranges. The most important of these was the anti-ballistic missile and directed-energy test site at Sary Shagan. The lasers there could (in 1985) ``interfere'' with US satellites, and could be deployed by the late 1980s. SMP now referred to this weapon as ``the strategic defense laser.''
The 1986 SMP focused directly on Sary Shagan lasers: ``Facilities there are estimated to have several lasers for air defense, lasers capable of damaging some components of satellites in orbit,'' and ballistic missile defense lasers. SMP also said the USSR ``has ground-based lasers'' with a limited ability to attack satellites.
The 1987 SMP signed by Caspar Weinberger described Soviet antisatellite lasers in similar language. To provide guidance for congressmen wondering how to meet this threat, Weinberger added: ``The Soviet laser weapons program would cost roughly $1 billion a year in the US.''
What Weinberger and others in DOD did not predict was that in July 1989 a team of American weapons scientists and congressmen, including a member of the House Armed Services Committee, would be given a five-hour tour of the Sary Shagan facility.
The Soviet Academy of Sciences arranged for a Sary Shagan visit by a group chosen by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, D.C. They allowed photographs, and videotapes.
A Pentagon spokesman has confirmed to me and to NRDC scientist Tom Cochran that the facility, buildings, and lasers they saw at Sary Shagan were the same reported on in Soviet Military Power since 1982.
What did they find? Well, one of the lasers was a tabletop device, an array of ruby lasers with an output of 100 watts. The other was a carbon dioxide, infrared laser with an output of 20 kilowatts, of which only one or two kilowatts went into the laser beam.
At a news conference after they returned, the US scientists indicated that a laser at White Sands in New Mexico has an output 1,000 times greater than the largest at Sary Shagan, and is itself too small to down a satellite. Moreover, the computer at Sary Shagan was an aged, 1960s model - too slow to track satellites, let alone an incoming ballistic missile. The Soviet technicians at Sary Shagan assured the US team, convincingly, that they had never successfully tracked a satellite. But they were working on it.
Frank von Hippel, a Princeton physicist, says that a two-year college in America could produce the same laser. John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, concluded that the ``laser gap'' of the 1980s was in fact a gap in America's favor. Tom Cochran surmises that the facility was at one time engaged in anti-ballistic missile research, but was abandoned or fell into disrepair in the early 1970s.
The Pentagon might have shown embarrassment or contrition at having been caught in a distortion of truth. But no. There is, it seems, a valid reason for the inconsistency between what Soviet Military Power described all those years and what the US scientists found at Sary Shagan.
The Soviet laser could indeed damage sensors at the back of a telescope in a US spy satellite, the defense spokesman explained, if it were focused at the exact time the laser was tracking the satellite ... if the laser could track satellites, that is. The satellite's telescope would be looking down the laser beam. Some attack. Some anti-satellite capability. Some threat.
Things began to change when Frank Carlucci took over. Suddenly, US and Soviet military lasers were ``generally comparable,'' and in advanced laser weapons concepts such as free-electron lasers the Soviets were ``slightly behind.''
The disinformation was larceny - the diversion of funds from other public needs to fund a laser project to meet a threat that wasn't there. How much of the rest of Soviet Military Power was smoke and mirrors?