Richard Garwin, Who Helped Design the H-Bomb, Takes Aim at Reagan's Vaunted 'Star Wars' Weaponry

updated 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In March 1983 Ronald Reagan proposed to "change the course of human history" by developing space weapons that could protect the U.S. from missile attack. Proponents of the idea applauded the President for taking the military "high ground" in space; critics derided it as a far-out "Star Wars" stratagem that would dangerously destabilize the current balance of terror. Seventeen months later space weapons are still in the news. Earlier this month U.S.-U.S.S.R. talks on the topic appeared to fall through, with each side blaming the other. Meanwhile the Administration has budgeted $2 billion for research and development on the new program this year.

One of the most vocal—and unlikely—critics of the Administration's program is physicist Dr. Richard Garwin, 56. In 1951 he helped create the H-bomb. Since then he has served on the scientific advisory committees of four Presidents and has been intimately involved in the genesis of dozens of weapons systems, including ballistic missiles and the air-launched cruise missile. In addition to his regular job as a manager of general physics and technology at IBM, he is currently assisting the Defense Department in various aspects of space-weapons technology.

Garwin feels it is his duty to help with the basic research but he doesn't approve of the weapons program. At his home in Scarsdale, N. Y. he talked with correspondent David Van Biema.

What are Star Wars weapons?

"Star Wars" or space weapons are intended to destroy, shortly after launch, ballistic missiles aimed at the U.S. The versions the Pentagon is studying include chemical lasers, which would orbit 1,000 miles above the earth; X-ray lasers powered by specially tailored nuclear explosions; particle accelerators, which would fire hydrogen atom beams; and rail guns. These last are huge, earth-orbiting riflelike devices that would shoot homing projectiles, but at 15 times the velocity of conventional bullets.

That sounds pretty exciting.

Oh, yes. The technology is very exciting. The problem is, it won't work and it's dangerous to try it.

Why?

For several reasons, technical and strategic. The President argued that peace would be secured not by the current threat of retaliation, but by defense. However, for any defense to be viable, it must be perfect—and we just can't achieve that. If a fraction of the Soviets' 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads got through, the U.S. would be destroyed. Our military knows, and said publicly, that an airtight "Astrodome" space defense is impossible.

How much money is involved in developing space weapons?

Some people compare space weapons to the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb. But Under Secretary of Defense Richard DeLault, the Pentagon's chief technical official, points out that with all the difficulties involved it's more like eight Manhattan Projects, or eight Apollos. It would take at least 20 years and cost as much as a trillion dollars.

But wouldn't it be worth the time and money?

The irony is that the technologies to destroy these defenses are already in existence and won't cost the Soviets a tenth as much. Many of them we already use for other purposes. For instance, to defend a missile against a laser, you just use an evaporating coat of asbestos or carbon, which absorbs but does not transfer heat.

What are some of the additional technical difficulties?

It's very difficult to track a missile after its booster rockets drop off. Nowadays most boosters stay attached for three to five minutes. But the technology already exists to get a rocket up to full speed in 50 seconds. And that means most of our space defenses wouldn't have time to react.

Any other nasty surprises?

The Soviets could use space mines, little satellites of an existing type that would just coast along within a thousand feet of our weapons and blow them up. It's like a $10 mine destroying a $1 million tank. Our defenses would be almost impossible to defend.

But haven't we just tested a missile that demonstrates we can intercept and blow up a Soviet nuclear warhead in outer space?

Yes and no. The so-called "homing overlay" test last June, when a U.S. interceptor hit a dummy U.S. warhead over the South Pacific, proved that if we know exactly where the warhead was launched and where it is heading, and conditions are ideal, we can home in on it. But in wartime there would be a whole flock of decoys around. There could be a Soviet nuclear explosion in space that would blind or dazzle the sensors on U.S. weapons. The test proved that you can hit a bullet with a bullet, but it does not prove you can achieve a sufficient level of defense to protect our population in wartime.

Feasibility aside, the Soviets claim that going ahead with the Star Wars idea would be breaking a treaty. Is that true?

Technically, no. The antiballistic missile treaty of 1972 says that neither side can build a defense against missiles. But it permits some research and development. Nevertheless the reason President Nixon signed the treaty is because we believed we couldn't make an effective defense and any attempt to do so would cause the Soviets to increase the number of warheads facing us. Subverting the treaty would do the opposite of making peace. And that hasn't changed.

Not everybody agrees that the ABM treaty was such a good thing.

That's true. Many people in the Administration, including [Secretary of Defense] Caspar Weinberger, think it was a mistake. Some of them want to clear away the underbrush of all American-Soviet arms treaties. In fact some people are in favor of the Star Wars plan because they feel it's a way to force the Soviets to abrogate the ABM treaty and get blamed for doing it. I think the manly thing to do, if you oppose the ABM treaty, is to denounce it publicly. I feel that the treaty is the law of the land. We depend on it and our allies depend on it, and we should not abandon it lightly.

Doesn't the Star Wars program have value as a means to get the Soviets back to the nuclear bargaining table?

If you mean the bargaining table for strategic nuclear weapons, no. I believe it will just force them to build more to overcome our defenses. If you mean the bargaining table for weapons in space, the Russians are already there. In August 1983 they submitted to the U.N. a draft treaty banning space weapons, and in June they sent us a note asking for talks this September in Vienna to ban space weapons.

How sincere are the Russians?

The Soviets are insincere about many things, but I think they're sincere in this. They really think space weapons could lead to a nuclear war. But we have been playing a game—trying to look as if we are interested but at the same time not negotiating about the weapons. That doesn't make sense.

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