Physicists Question SDI Weapons

CRYSTAL CITY, VA.—The American Physical Society's report on the science and technology of directed energy weapons, released here at the society's spring meeting last month, is a scientific document with inescapable implications for defense policy. Its reception indicates that every action connected with such a report can be, and almost inevitably is, interpreted in a political light. Specifically, the report suggests that several of the fundamental assumptions of the Strategic Defense Ini

By | May 18, 1987

CRYSTAL CITY, VA.—The American Physical Society's report on the science and technology of directed energy weapons, released here at the society's spring meeting last month, is a scientific document with inescapable implications for defense policy. Its reception indicates that every action connected with such a report can be, and almost inevitably is, interpreted in a political light.

Specifically, the report suggests that several of the fundamental assumptions of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) are dubious enough to throw into question the validity of recent decisions to move rapidly to deploy simple forms of SDI. However, SDI supporters questioned whether the society's panelists were justified in interpreting their subject so broadly.

In fact the issue illustrated the extreme narrowness of the line that divides science from policy based on that science—particularly in an area as controversial as national defense.

The report concludes (see "Star Wars a Decade or More Away," page 11) that the amount of progress in directed energy weapons—which include intense lasers and energetic particle beams—is too little at present to judge the ultimate technical feasibility of such weapons in an overall SDI system. That makes questionable what panel member Jeremiah Sullivan of the University of Illinois termed "the general view, especially from SDIO, that directed energy weapons are the long-term hope.... The justification for early deployment of kinetic energy weapons cannot be the idea that [the more complex] directed energy weapons will come through in the long term."

Not surprisingly, SDIO supporters denied the validity of those statements. Louis Marquet, the organization's deputy director for technology, argued that the panelists had exceeded the scope of their task by commenting on aspects of the SDI program on which they had not been officially briefed.

Areas on which the panel had been fully briefed also caused disagreements. To enable the panel to prepare as comprehensive a report as possible, SDIO director Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson allowed members access to classified information—on the understanding that the report would be declassified before its release. The declassification took seven months.

During that time, SDIO representatives argued, several of the panel's conclusions had gone out of date. "We have made significant progress in the intervening period," according to a statement issued by SDIO. Panel members, however, argued that such progress still did not fill the gap between promise and reality highlighted in their report.

In reality, of course, scientific criteria are far from the primary considerations in developing defense policy, and the panel was careful to emphasize its own self-administered limitations, pointing out that its report did not examine questions such as manpower, costs and cost-effectiveness.

Gwynne is director of editorial operations for The Scientist.

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