Saturday, January 9, 2010

'How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete'

This review appeared first in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, May 21, 1986.

Jastrow’s Worthy Attempt To Vindicate ‘Star Wars’ Lacks the Laser Touch

How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete, by Robert Jastrow, Little Brown, and Company, $15.95, 175 pp.

March 23 marked the third anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s speech introducing the nation to his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This “Star Wars” speech was a watershed in official American thinking on nuclear weapons policy. Although technological and political conditions had for some time been pressing the U.S. defense establishment to abandon the dangerous and outmoded deterrence doctrine called Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, Reagan’s initiative caught many Americans by surprise.

What came as no surprise was the negative reaction to SDI by certain sectors of the elite -- the scientific community, the academy, the media, and liberal political circles.

Dubbed “Star Wars’ (initially by pro-SDI columnist David Wilson in the Boston Globe, but later co-opted as a pejorative term), certain groups -- the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Common Cause, the cabal of Carl Sagan — insisted that the Strategic Defense Initiative was a fantasy, much like George Lucas’s highly popular film trilogy.

The message Robert Jastrow wishes to impart in this book is that the Strategic Defense Initiative is far from fantasy and closer to reality than even the president and his advisors may imagine.

Jastrow, founder of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies and professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth College, tries to focus his arguments on the fact that much of the technology necessary for building a successful, effective space-based defense system is available now, “off-the-shelf.” Once a system built from these already- developed technologies is in place, he says, the United States can concentrate some of its energies on building more exotic defense systems — for example, X-ray lasers, particle beams, and free electron lasers.

The net effect of both the available and the developing systems will be to produce a near leakproof (Jastrow says 80% effective is a “conservative estimate”) missile defense system. By thus guaranteeing the invulnerability of American land-based ICBMs, we can maintain a credible threat to retaliate against any Soviet attacks. That, in turn, will prevent the Soviets from attacking in the first place. Ergo, stable deterrence is maintained.

That said, it must he noted that Jastrow has expressed his views quite poorly in this particular book. If he means to convince the opponents of SDI, he will quite probably fail; if he means to persuade those unconverted to either side of the debate, they will fail to pay attention.

Why? How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete is a badly written book. It suffers from redundancy and oversimplification. It seemed to me to be written for a reader with an eighth-grade education, yet few people at that reading level are likely to open a book on this subject in any case.

This is not to underestimate the necessity of transplanting difficult scientific concepts into terms understandable to laymen. But the tendency of Jastrow (or his editors, who are probably the real culprits) to “dumb down” the text throughout the book is unconscionable, as the following examples will indicate.

Redundancy: On pages 98 and 99, a discussion of “other technologies” for space-based defense boils down to this: Before 1990 or so, “it should be possible to build an effective defense against missiles with the off-the- shelf, mature and unexotic technology of the smart bullet propelled by an ordinary rocket.”

Page 100 begins a new chapter, but a paragraph nearly word-for-word the same appears: “This limited defense will be based on the off-the-shelf technology of the smart bullet. That technology is mature and unexotic…”

Oversimplification: Turning to the list of illustrations, a reader will find “The Land-Based Arsenals of the Two Superpowers.” Expecting to see a bar graph or chart showing the different numbers of SS-18s, Minutemen, or Titan missiles and silos — a meaningful measure of the nuclear balance or imbalance — one finds instead a photograph that shows how much bigger (and blacker) Soviet missiles are than American ones (which are painted white).

This type of imagery plays right into the hands of critics like Helen Caldicott, whose kooky psycho-sexual theory of the arms race posits that American and Soviet military leaders suffer from pathological “missile envy” based on size. It is hard to believe that Jastrow allowed this type of illustration to be used without qualification.

Because of these reservations, How To Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete is far from the definitive book on space defense that one would have hoped from the author.

His pamphlet by the same title (Orwell Press, 1981) does the same job more concisely and more persuasively. As disappointing as the book is, however, the points Jastrow makes cannot be ignored. They promise to be central to the “Star Wars” debate over the next decade.

There is no question in my mind that he portrays accurately the possibilities for anti-ballistic missile defenses in the twentieth centur3 Some details-such as his suggestion that space-based systems could defend against low-flying bombers and cruise missiles — are debatable, but the bulk of his analysis can withstand the scrutiny of even the Union of Concerned Scientists.

More important, perhaps, is his conclusion that an effective ABM system will result in severe restrictions in nuclear arsenals and perhaps their abolition.

Jastrow’s full body of work helps us to keep in mind President Reagan’s question, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” It is morally reprehensible to depend on more numerous and more destructive offensive weapons for the defense of our country; it is morally laudable to pursue the technology that will render these weapons useless.

Richard Sincere, vice president of the American Civil Defense Association, works for the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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