Reagan's SDI Vision 'Alive and Well,' Despite Critics on the Left

By Kevin Mooney | August 7, 2008 | 6:49pm EDT
( – Policy advocates connected with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have long argued that counter-measures and decoys could be used to overwhelm a ballistic missile defensive system.
But technology has not stood still since the early 1980s when President Reagan called on the scientific community to begin work on a space-based shield that could render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” proponents pointed out in response.
The UCS raised the specter of countermeasures 25 years ago as a rejoinder to President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and it has done so again in subsequent studies critical of President Bush’s missile defense programs.
Countermeasure can take many forms. Once the boost phase is completed and the booster rocket has fallen away the vehicle that normally deploys, warheads could deploy balloon-type objects that are essentially hollowed-out spheres, some military strategists have suggested.
Shortly after Reagan delivered his speech in 1983 Kurt Gottfried, a UCS member and Cornell University physicist, argued against deploying an SDI system on the basis that it would be highly vulnerable.
“It’s a Pandora’s box of unprecedented magnitude,” he said.
In an article marking the 25thanniversary of Reagan’s SDI speech this past March, the UCS characterized the former president’s anti-missile initiative as being both “seductive and audacious.”
Once again, the UCS suggested that countermeasures could be used to penetrate and defeat U.S. defenses in the March report.
But James Dellinger, executive director of Greenwatch, a project of the Capital Research Center (CRC) told that UCS’s criticisms of missile defense should be “carefully weighed” since the organization is well-funded by left-leaning foundations that have a “partisan view of science.”
Tax reports show The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, for example, has given the Union of Concerned Scientists $3.09 million since 2000.
Outspoken UCS opponents of Reagan’s proposed missile shield back in the 1980s included the late Carl Sagan, a Cornell University astronomer and noted author, who helped craft several unmanned space programs for the U.S.
Sagan traveled to Atlanta, Ga., Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., in October 1984 where he campaigned on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
“Star Wars is a policy that sounds good in a speech,” Sagan said in his campaign stops. “But what sounds good on paper would be a disaster in practice.”
The missile defense system the Bush administration has fielded lacks the space-based component President Reagan envisioned but remains just as unworkable, the UCS contends.
The ground- and sea-based systems that are already deployed have demonstrated their effectiveness in flight intercept tests at least 80 percent of the time since 2002, U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) claims.
Even so, these same tests are “highly scripted” and include “artificialities and limitations” that should raise questions about the system’s usefulness, the UCS maintains in its reports.
Moreover, “unsophisticated countermeasures” already within reach of countries like North Korea could defeat the ground and sea-based interceptors now in the field, the UCS officials have argued.
A 2004 report for instance, claimed President Bush’s missile defense program would prove to be “ineffective against a real attack.” In this same document the UCS also accuses the administration of making “irresponsible exaggerations” and concludes “there is no technical justification” for fielding and deploying anti-missile components.
UCS arguments overlook technical advances
But missile defense proponents disagree.  
Reagan’s vision of a protective shield “is alive and well” and remains the motivating force behind those who are working on the program Jeff Kueter, president of the George Marshall Institute (GMI), said in an interview.
The advances that have occurred in just the past few years under President Bush indicate that the ground- and sea-based systems already online have the ability to navigate their way through at least some countermeasures,  some national security experts observe.
There is a certain tendency on the part of missile defense critics to fall back on what Baker Spring, a national security expert with the Heritage Foundation, calls “the fallacy of the optimal threat assumption.”
“It is not correct to assume counter-measures would work in every instance,” Spring said in an interview. “We should not be dissuaded from putting a missile defense in place based on the assumption that we can’t defeat counter-measures. That’s giving these critics a great amount of leeway.”
Moreover, he said, the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is keenly aware of the challenge connected with counter-measures and has already taken meaningful steps.
This is an important point to pick up on because the UCS is continuing to advance criticisms that do not account for recent progress, Kueter observed.
“Undoubtedly there will be counter-measures, and there will be this cat and mouse,” he said. “But for the UCS and others to say this system does not have the ability to overcome countermeasure is on its face flawed, because they are not privy to any developments related to missile defense that have been classified since the year 2000.”
When asked if the U.S. Defense Department officials felt confident of their ability to thwart counter-measures, Chris Taylor, a spokesman with MDA said “yes” but would not elaborate on the particulars.
Countermeasures defeated in new test
However, he did point to a recent test involving the Sea-based X-Band Radar (SBX) with other radar sensors aimed against a long-range ballistic missile that dispersed counter-measures over the Pacific Ocean back in early July.
The test showed existing technology can be used to discriminate between actual warheads and nearby decoys, according to Riki Ellison, president and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), based in Alexandria, Va.
“This achievement affirms the current technology’s ability to track and discriminate between countermeasures and decoys of future ballistic missile configurations,” Ellison noted in a press release.
“This test marks an important achievement as it enables the capability needed as a hedge against the next generation of ballistic missiles.”
Before the end of the year, the U.S. is expected to organize a similar exercise that will pit GBI interceptors from the Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) in California in a similar scenario to seek out and destroy a ballistic missile hidden in the midst of decoys and countermeasures, Ellison said.

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