Air University Review, March-April 1982

The Strategic Value of
Space-Based Laser Weapons

Dr. Barry J. Smernoff

Four years after World War I, Paul ValÚry made a perceptive comment about human hopes and fears:

We fear the future, not without reason. We hope vaguely, we dread precisely. Our fears are infinitely more precise than our hopes.

Indeed, Western fears about growing international turbulence in the 1980s have become more commonplace and increasingly specific. Soviet troops are firmly entrenched in Afghanistan, and others are poised to intervene in liberalizing Poland. Soviet geopolitical momentum toward the Persian Gulf threatens to impede oil life lines to the Untied States and its industrial allies. Following the shelving of the SALT process, harsh rhetoric and the emergence of an informal Sino-American alliance for coping with hegemonism have lent a substantial chill to U.S-Soviet relations.

Anxieties about the possibility of direct superpower confrontation and the concomitant risks of large-scale nuclear conflict are quite likely to worsen during the foreseeable future. The rising intensity of these anxieties is dramatically suggested in unauthorized remarks made by Major General Robert Schweitzer, U.S. Army, while serving the White House on the National Security Council staff, regarding a "drift toward war":

The Soviets are on the move. They are going to strike. They’ve got every incentive and the capability.1

The emotional crescendo of antinuclear political activity in Europe, prompted by NATO’s two-track decision in 1979 to modernize long-range theater nuclear forces as an offset to Soviet SS-20 missile deployments, is another visible reminder that apprehensions of nuclear war will probably get worse before they get better.

If Americans (among others) could hope more precisely for a desirable politico-military future, such hopes might encompass a world in which nuclear weapons of mass destruction played a much less prominent role. The contemporary dominance of offensive nuclear weapons means that serious failures of diplomacy and strategic deterrence could unleash such widespread devastation that the survivors would envy their dead neighbors for many years.2 In his news conference of 13 August 1981, President Ronald Reagan spoke for many by expressing a strong interest in "legitimate arms reductions to remove this nightmare that hangs over the world today of the strategic (nuclear) weapons." More recently, in response to a question from newspaper editors about the risk of strategic escalation in hypothetical European nuclear war, President Reagan stated:

I don’t honestly know. I think, again, until someplace—all over the world . . . research (is) going on, to try and find the defensive weapon. There never has been a weapon that someone hasn’t come up with a defense.3

Two weeks prior to this statement, President Reagan announced his decision to modernize the strategic triad of nuclear forces and command, control, and communication systems, and to end the "long neglect" of strategic defenses .4

There is clear agreement in the United States that the most vital U.S. interest is the physical security of American citizens, territory, and institutions. The first duty of government is to ensure that this most vital of U.S. national interests is protected adequately. Unfortunately, the credibility of nuclear deterrence for shielding the American homeland has eroded, perhaps severely, as the sustained growth of Soviet military power brought parity (if not incipient U.S. inferiority) to the strategic balance of power. The political credibility of extended deterrence, by which the United States provides a nuclear umbrella for its allies, has declined even more precipitously, creating agonizing doubts about American resolve for protecting vital U.S. interests abroad.

An emerging military technology under active development in the United States may begin to alter the pessimistic business-as-usual projections associated with these strategic considerations. In traditional Western usage, "strategic" connotes nuclear, global, crucial to national survival, or long-term in significance.5 The strategic value of space-based laser (SBL) weapons refers to all of these connotations, with the obvious exception of "nuclear," and. is the subject of this article.

The Concept and
Potential of the SBL

Laser weapons, based in space and capable of the global projection of power to attack a wide range of targets—satellites, aircraft, and missiles—have attracted an increasing level of attention during the past several years. Some enthusiastic proponents argue that such weapons can be quickly developed for defending the United States against all manner of military threats, especially modern Soviet ballistic missiles (ICBMs and SLBMs) carrying nuclear warheads that are targeted on American urban and industrial areas.6 Equally vocal critics contend that whereas SBLs are probably feasible, given intensive and expensive research and development efforts, they are either so costly to convert into practical ballistic missile defense systems or so susceptible to simple and cheap countermeasures that the required efforts are not worth the investment—at least at this embryonic state of the art.7 The burgeoning debate among "experts" about the perceived need to build first-generation SBL weapons is rapidly spilling over from the U.S. defense community into the public domain, but it has a long way to go before informed and sustainable decisions can be made.8

As with every qualitatively new type of weapon, the general family of directed-energy weapons—in which powerful beams of coherent electromagnetic radiation (in lasers) or relativistic elementary particles (in particle-beam concepts) act as the destructive mechanism—will attract a broad range of expert and lay opinion concerning the central questions of technical and economic feasibility and overall politico-military desirability. When established types of weapons such as tanks or fighter aircraft are under consideration for modernization, the possibilities of severe cost escalation, unacceptable technical risks, and simple, cheap countermeasures are usually not effective constraints on official decisions that move the process of modernization forward. However, when the development of an entirely new class of weapon is under consideration, these kinds of burdens can seriously encumber initial decisions to get the weapon acquisition process started, for both good and bad reasons. External influences are often needed to push the decision process forward against the opposing inertia of bureaucratic and organizational forces, especially during times of fiscal austerity when balancing the federal budget has exceptionally high priority. For example, during the early 1950s American development of the ICBM was encumbered in this manner until new personnel in the Eisenhower administration advocated and then initiated a serious ICBM development program in 1953-54, nearly four years prior to the shock of Sputnik I.

The advent of space laser weapons during this decade might make a military and geopolitical virtue out of technological necessity. Powerful forces in the Department of Defense and the U.S. academic community argue that this new type of strategic weapon, even if it could become eminently feasible in the engineering sense, would prove to be too costly, easily countered, and destabilizing to justify the serious development needed to demonstrate its feasibility. On the other hand, increasingly potent forces in the U.S. Congress and industry have engaged the issue due to the decisive strategic significance that SBL weapons appear to have for improving America’s adverse military and geopolitical position and their apparent ripeness for accelerated development.

This article makes the case that space laser weapons could have disproportionately high leverage in coping effectively with many kinds of important military and geopolitical threats to American security lurking in the 1990s and beyond. Moreover, this new class of weapons can facilitate a gradual transition from the contemporary world of nuclear offense toward a more hopeful future in which the most vital of American interests—national physical survival as a democratic society—is protected by testable hardware instead of by reliance on the tenuous psychological "software" of nuclear deterrence (backed by triad hardware untested in realistic operational contexts).9

The strategic potential of space laser weapons is discussed in this article by exploring three related lines of thinking. First, the general characteristics of SBL technology are covered to establish a real-world baseline. Then an examination is made of the urgent need for new kinds of strategic power which can be converted into useful political and/or military leverage to offset the recently acquired global reach of the U.S.S.R. Finally, the positive image of a strategic future in which nuclear weapons play an increasingly minor role—a future in which there is an exit from the large-scale vulnerability of American society, held hostage in the nuclear age—is articulated and explored. The principal conclusion drawn from this analysis is that the unique utility of SBL weapons for devising and building new kinds of strategic military power needed to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives and for facilitating movement toward a "postnuclear" future is compelling. The high strategic value of SBL justifies the need for clear national commitment to a bold, farsighted, high-priority space laser weapon program in the United States, a need which may remain unfulfilled until the proper mix of technical, political, and moral forces emerges.10

The Emerging Technology of
High-Energy Lasers

Operating at a level of approximately $200 million per year, the U.S. high-energy laser (HEL) program has been the single largest technology base program sponsored by the Department of Defense (DOD) during the past five years. This fact signals both its relative importance within the broad portfolio of military research and development programs and the favorable expectations associated with it. By the end of 1981, DOD had expended nearly $2 billion in an integrated effort involving the three military departments and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to demonstrate the technical feasibility and military potential of high-energy lasers as practical weapons. The Department of Defense has begun to undertake lethality demonstrations to persuade itself and others (particularly the U.S. Congress, which authorizes its annual expenditures) that the "weaponization" of lasers is both feasible and worthy of additional larger investments. For instance, in March 1978 the Navy completed a significant milestone in its HEL testing program through the shoot-down of operational TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) antitank missiles, and in 1981 the Air Force began field testing of the Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL).

The Soviet Union is credited with a high-energy laser program that is estimated to be three to five times larger than the American one, suggesting that interest in exploiting this rapidly emerging military technology is even stronger in the U.S.S.R. Senior American defense officials have stated that the Soviets may be beginning the development of "specific laser weapon systems" but cautioned that they may be moving prematurely to the engineering phase before adequate technology is available to support such decisions. Soviet deployment of moderate-power laser weapons capable of antipersonnel and tactical air defense applications may be far enough along for such systems to be fielded by the mid-1980s, according to DOD. In the latter half of this decade, it is possible that the Soviets may demonstrate laser weapons in a wide variety of ground, ship, and aerospace applications. The very large Saturn-like space booster under development in the Soviet Union reportedly "will have the capability to launch very heavy payloads into orbit, including even larger and more capable laser weapons.11

Given the large resources and high priority that the Soviet Union apparently has decided to invest in HEL research and development, Soviet leaders-not content to rest on the laurels of catching up by achieving strategic parity (or better) with the United States— clearly intend to play a major role in reshaping the military competition on terms consistent with their goals. Under the reasonable assumption that laser weapons will not prove to be a technological mirage, they are moving forward with vigor to develop and weaponize this new military technology at a point in time when Soviet-American relations are dangerously strained and the United States is gripped with anxiety about its declining status and inability to influence events in the world. The challenge posed by heavy Soviet investment in HEL weapon development is particularly formidable when viewed against the real possibility that as Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering James Wade testified to the Congress in March 1981: "Development of an effective and survivable space-based laser force could have a decisive impact on the character of warfare and on the strategic balance of power."12

Immediately after the laser principle of "light amplification through the stimulated emission of radiation" was demonstrated in 1960, speculation grew that technological advances would push the well-known death ray rapidly out from its historical realm of science fiction into engineering reality. Until the development of the gas dynamic laser in the late 1960s, however, technical prospects for weaponizing the laser were rather bleak. The gas dynamic laser, in which a high-speed gas flow removes large amounts of waste energy produced during lasing action, was the first device that could be scaled to very high energies and opened the technological door for serious consideration of practical laser weapons. Subsequently, electric discharge and chemical lasers have been developed which provide much higher efficiencies and shorter wavelengths, implying better coupling of the beam to targets as well as smaller and lighter mirrors. New types of short-wavelength HEL devices, such as excimers* and free-electron lasers, seem even more promising and are under active development in large programs sponsored by both the Departments of Defense and Energy, the latter having laser-driven fusion and isotope separation in mind.

*An "excimer" is a relatively new class of laser device; most blue-green lasers under development for submarine communications are excimers. See Laser Focus, January 1982, pp. 57-58.

Among the chief components of a laser weapon system are the laser device, which generates the intense coherent radiation, and the beam control subsystem, consisting of an optical train of mirrors that aims and focuses the laser beam on a vulnerable spot of the target. Laser weapons are unique because they use mirrors (but not blue smoke) to direct their firepower. This characteristic, which has been misunderstood by otherwise competent observers and technical publications, permits multishot and rapid retargeting capabilities.13 As in other weapon systems, a fire control subsystem would acquire and designate targets as well as play a major role in determining whether they have been destroyed. If used inside the atmosphere, a laser weapon will be measurably less effective due to beam absorption and/or defocusing; moreover, the presence of clouds or aerosols (such as smoke) will limit the effective range of such "endoatmospheric" weapons.

Contingent on the success of a series of feasibility demonstrations, the Department of Defense plans to decide in the mid-1980s whether to build one or more laser weapon prototype systems. The test-bed for the Air Force program, the largest element of the national HEL program until DARPA’s SBL program expanded recently, is the Airborne Laser Laboratory. ALL is a highly instrumented NKC-135 aircraft that demonstrates the integration and operation of an HEL system in a dynamic airborne environment and the propagation of laser beams to airborne targets. Not surprisingly, the initial results from ALL tests in 1981 have been mixed.

The highest level of public and congressional interest in emerging HEL technology has been associated with the intriguing concept of space-based laser weapons designed to intercept strategic ballistic missiles in their boost phase, as well as to attack satellites, bombers, and other strategic aerospace vehicles.14 Responding to a formal request from the Senate Armed Services Committee, DOD prepared a classified report analyzing options for accelerating the development of SBL weapons.15 Given the sharp increase during the past several years in DARPA’s budget (to over $100 million in FY 1982) for developing the subsystem technologies needed to build laser weapons for space applications, and the creation of an SBL project office at Air Force Space Division (with $20 million budgeted for FY 1982), the stage has been set for an acceleration of the American space laser program that could have extremely significant implications for the strategic balance and for the long-term future of arms control and U.S.-Soviet relations.

From the global vantage point of space, laser weapons could reach out to attack a broad spectrum of distant time-urgent targets with great precision and agility. "Exoatmospheric" propagation of laser beams in space is unhindered by the absorption and defocusing problems associated with the atmosphere or under the oceans. Given the development of appropriate sensors and precision pointing systems—we know that operational U.S. satellite-based infrared sensors and large-aperture cameras can provide early warning of ballistic missile attacks and high-resolution imagery from space—advanced long-range laser weapons could attack large constellations of soft satellites and hundreds of large and relatively soft aircraft and missile boosters with relative ease. Consequently, laser weapons in space provide an exceptionally attractive conceptual option for meeting the multimission requirements of antisatellite (ASAT) operations, strategic and fleet air defense, and ballistic missile defense (BMD) with a nonnuclear system that is reasonably responsive to the initiatives of adversaries and that can defend itself.16

Senior officials in the U.S. Air Force and Army responsible for the ASAT and BMD missions have stated that while there are major technological challenges confronting the development of highly capable directed-energy weapons, such as space lasers, the long-term system potential is clear, and the lure is strong to develop and deploy such directed-energy weapons.17 It is not surprising that George Keyworth, President Reagan’s science adviser, stated in his confirmation hearings before the Congress that lasers "may represent the only credible antiballistic missile technology in the future."18 More generally, the unique potential of space laser weapons for rapid and global projection of firepower against various types of time-urgent targets suggests the high-leverage nature of emerging SBL technology in the context of the intensifying U.S.-Soviet military competition.

The Technological Context

The history of military technology clearly illustrates that new types of weapons displace old ones. Compared with its slow and sporadic evolution from antiquity to the late nineteenth century, the postwar pace and scope of military innovation are unprecedented.19 It is human nature to pursue the art of the technically possible, especially when military systems that bear on urgent life-and-death issues are involved. Yet there is clear evidence that the U.S. defense community tends to resist and even suppress new and possible "superior" technology if it threatens existing roles and missions. For example, Deborah Shapley writes that

the only "new" strategic weapon, the cruise missile, was developed as such after Congressional leaders intervened in the normal Air Force development process to force the weapon to be developed in an innovative, instead of an add-on, mode.20

Some students of the bureaucratic politics of American ICBM development argue that there was a long pattern of disbelief, neglect, and delay until external influences intervened to accelerate the ICBM program in 1953-54.21 A self-fulfilling prophecy operated during 1947-53 in which the U.S. Air Force claimed that the ICBM could not be developed because of technical impossibility and then refused to provide developmental funds. In circular fashion, the ICBM was not developed during this period, and the judgment of technical infeasiblity appeared valid.

In many important ways, the evolution of space laser weapons in the United States during the 1980s may prove to be quite similar to the development of the ICBM during the 1950s. The awesome military and psychological power of the primitive V-2 rocket prompted General Dwight Eisenhower to make his memorable pre-ICBM statement in 1948 about the possibility that Operation Overlord might have been written off had the Germans succeeded in using V-2s much longer. Similarly, the unique and decisive military potential of space laser weapons is generally recognized within the Air Force today—well before practical laser weapon systems based in space have been developed and demonstrated. But the signs of what might be called "repression" of vigorous space laser development are unmistakable, especially in high-level collective judgments that in-space integrated SBL demonstrations are premature,22 making the analogy between ICBM and space laser weapon development highly relevant to the issues under discussion.

In this connection, it is becoming clear that the United States no longer can take for granted that its historical preeminence in military science and technology will continue and that future Sputnik-like shocks—if there are any—can be compensated for by an effective and timely catch-up process. The doctrine of using advanced American technology to offset Soviet numerical edges is becoming bankrupt as the Soviet quest for technological superiority produces major results. World leadership in key areas of industrial innovation has become a perishable commodity for the United States as Japanese innovation makes deep inroads in areas once dominated by Americans (such as advanced microelectronics). Similarly, large sustained Soviet investment in military R&D has closed many important leads once held by the United States and has also severely eroded American faith in technology as a substitute or surrogate for overall military capabilities.23

The United States does hold one clear lead in modern military technology, in addition to its well-known (but perhaps decreasing) edge in computers and microelectronic materials/ manufacture: U.S. space technology is at least 8-10 years ahead of its Soviet counterpart, and this unambiguous lead is probably widening. Although Russian cosmonauts have spent more time in space than American astronauts, the Soviets never completed their development of a large Saturn-class launch vehicle (reported to have failed catastrophically in tests beginning in the late 1960s) and never landed men on the lunar surface. The U.S.S.R. is far from demonstrating the heavy-lift launch capability that the reusable U.S. space shuttle possesses with such impressive operational flexibility. Furthermore, while the large Soviet space booster under development "will have the capability to launch. . . even larger and more capable laser weapons" into orbit, its arrival had been anticipated in the late 1960s, and it is literally one dozen years overdue. Annual expenditures in FY 1982 for U.S. military activities in space will exceed those allocated to NASA’s civilian programs for the first time since 1960. Hence, it seems likely that the U.S. lead in military space technology will widen in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps of more importance for the long-term future of the U.S.-Soviet military competition in space is the fact that Soviet development of early-warning satellites is far behind the long-standing operational U.S. program, implying the existence of a clear U.S. lead in SBL weapon development.24 Hence, journalistic estimates concerning the possible testing of first-generation Soviet space-based laser weapons—as early as the mid-1980s25—have no direct and meaningful implications for the kind of advanced long-range capabilities that would be needed for credible laser defense with global coverage against ballistic-missile or bomber attacks. The increasingly rapid growth of an advanced technology base for U.S. space laser weapons creates the opportunity for converting the existing clear American lead in military space support systems into a new form of advantage: active space weapons capable of (literally) projecting military power into conflicts if diplomacy and deterrence fail.

Contemporary Requirements
of Strategic Power

The traditional concept of strategic power requires reassessment and reformulation due to major changes in the perceptions of vital U.S. national interests and to the thrust of emerging new technologies. Whereas the goal of protecting the citizens, territory, and institutions of the United States remains the unchallenged priority of national security and the first duty of the U.S. government, defense of strategic sources of oil imported by the West and sea lines of communication connecting oil consumers and (Persian Gulf) suppliers has become an important priority.26 Also, the gradual emergence of a "strategic" relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is motivated, at least in American terms, as a calculated political response to contain the burgeoning geopolitical momentum of the Soviet Union. Traditional forms of strategic capabilities embodied in the American triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and long-range bombers constitute not much more than an equalizer of similar Soviet capabilities. With the exception of bombers capable of carrying conventional ordnance, triad nuclear forces have little operational relevance for deterring (or fighting) nonnuclear wars over Persian Gulf oil or political hegemony in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Requirements for new forms of strategic power that are more relevant to the new kinds of threats posed by apparent Soviet aspirations and military capabilities are under investigation. For example, the concept of a rapid deployment force (RDF) was formulated in the late 1970s and has evolved into a response for coping with interference of the normal operation of large oil fields supplying the bulk of Western imports. Much criticism has been directed at the prospect that the RDF would not be sufficiently rapid, deployable, or forceful to deter hostile Soviet actions in the Persian Gulf, so close to the U.S.S.R. More generally, even though U.S. defense spending will rise rapidly during the foreseeable future, knowledgeable observers are dubious about the ultimate success of American efforts to cope with the new global reach of the Soviet Union unless bold attempts are made to exploit advanced technology. This approach remains America’s strongest comparative advantage, although the Soviet quest for technological supremacy is increasingly evident.27

New programs more appropriate to the changing realities of the global balance of power (termed the "correlation of forces" by Soviet analysts) are urgently required to provide the United States with effective and credible capabilities for the rapid and global projection of military (and political) power. These new types of strategic capabilities could give the United States the leverage it needs to deter and, if necessary, fight nonnuclear wars with the Soviet Union involving vital U.S. national interests without risking American involvement in a manpower-intensive, Vietnam-like quagmire for which popular support might be totally lacking. In this regard, the Reagan administration has decided that a significantly larger navy is needed to cope with the global nature of modern Soviet threats and to defend the United States as an "island nation" by controlling the balance of forces on the high seas. Similarly, space is becoming an essential medium for the United States to operate in, much as the oceans have, and weapons will be deployed in space if they are judged to be feasible and militarily useful.

If developed vigorously, at a pace comparable to the program for the radar-stealthy Advanced Technology Bomber, by the 1990s refuelable SBL weapons could provide much of the time-urgent global projection of firepower needed to deter (or fight) wars over strategic resources or political hegemony provoked by the impulse of Soviet expansion. A moderately sized constellation of 10-20 space platforms carrying first-generation laser weapons could place a wide range of Soviet satellites, aircraft (e.g., Backfires armed with air-to-surface antiship missiles, airlifters, and airborne warning and control systems), and missiles (e.g., SS-20s targeted on Europe and limited numbers of SLBMs and ICBMs) in global jeopardy and sustain an adequate level of self-defense against plausible ASAT threats. In the traditional measure-countermeasure interaction, Soviet designers would attempt to harden their aerospace vehicles to laser radiation and develop techniques for neutralizing sensors onboard laser-bearing satellites. But this is not a persuasive argument against the case for building first-generation SBL weapon systems. Rather, it implies that SBL weaponeers must carefully account for likely hardening and ASAT threats in their plans, without driving technical specifications for space-based laser weapons beyond the point of "prudent" risk or affordability.

In addition to its potentially decisive military utility, there are two important reasons for developing and building a first-generation space laser force in the United States: national prestige and technological learning. Since the startling launch of Sputnik in 1957, the so-called "space race" between the global superpowers has been loaded with political symbolism; this situation is unlikely to change in the future.28 Whereas the U.S.S.R. could accrue the early political and psychological benefits of a Sputnik-like event if its first SBL prototypes are launched during the 1985-90 period, the depth and breadth of the U.S. SBL technology base are such that subsequent developments in American weaponization will probably make major contributions to U.S. prestige in the world and have much more staying power than Soviet SBL efforts, in a manner analogous to the ICBM development race during the late 1950s.29 Furthermore, timely conversion of the clear U.S. SBL technological lead into first-generation military equipment would move the United States rapidly up the SBL learning curve toward those advanced capabilities that will be needed for such stressing missions as large-scale BMD.

In essence, the midterm strategic significance of first-generation space laser forces corresponds to their potential as politically useful instruments for achieving critical objectives of American foreign policy, the foremost of which is the credible deterrence of hostile Soviet actions below the nuclear threshold. Unlike the strategic nuclear forces, which have quite limited utility except in last-resort circumstances and thus have marginal political credibility, SBL weapons could constitute credible and powerful war-fighting tools if diplomacy and deterrence failed. American SBL weapons could thereby greatly enhance deterrence by virtue of their strategic character as powerful multimission weapons having global time-urgent coverage and their nonnuclear nature as usable and testable weapons that do not carry the apocalyptic implications or moral taboos associated with nuclear weapons.

Strategic Transition from
Nuclear Offense toward Laser Defense

Once first-generation strategic laser weapons are deployed in space—and such deployment is much more a question of when (and whom) rather than whether, given the compelling air of inevitability associated with their emergence— the possibility of reducing the historical dominance of nuclear weapons may become a real option. Strategic military power may begin to bifurcate into the traditional offensive and unuseful form wielded by superpower nuclear triads and an unconventional defensive form vested in the new spaceborne laser weapons. First-generation SBL weapons will have only limited BMD capabilities, although high-altitude aircraft may prove to be relatively easy targets due to their intrinsic laser vulnerability and long transit times. Advanced SBL weapons, however, could have impressive capabilities against even large numbers of hardened ballistic missiles and may offer the prospect of building credible layered BMD systems, using SBL as the boost-phase layer, which are not foolproof (nothing ever is) but do have low leakage rates in realistic scenarios.

Given this new technological possibility, strategic images of the long-term future range through three alternatives:

• the technically pessimistic extrapolation of "no exit" to the mutual hostage relationship of nuclear-armed nations, absent general nuclear disarmament;

• the politically hopeful—no serious nuclear wars will be fought because nuclear deterrence will never fail (even when diplomacy does) since rationality will prevail;

• the technologically and politically creative— an emerging "postnuclear" strategic world increasingly dominated by defensive nonnuclear weapons (initially space lasers) in which arms-race pressures are managed through cooperative mechanisms, such as deep negotiated reductions of offensive force levels.

The negative fatalism of the first strategic image ("no exit" to the stark vulnerability of society because there is no perfect defense against nuclear weapons) and the politically na´ve assumptions of the second (eternal efficacy of nuclear deterrence based on rational decisions, even during intense crises or wars) have conspired to support the traditional modes of thinking about nuclear war and nuclear weapons.30 As in every field of public endeavor, images of the future shared by those who shape public opinion or make key choices tend to exercise great influence over the details of official decisions. Consequently, it is important to understand that the emergence of SBL technology creates a new alternative for coping with the seemingly inscrutable problems and ethical dilemmas of nuclear war and nuclear weapons and the open-ended nature of the strategic arms competition.

Just as the technical and political dynamics of the international energy situation are moving it beyond wholesale dependence on OPEC petroleum into what might be termed a post-petroleum future, a similar phenomenon may be unfolding in the realm of strategic affairs. The technical and political dynamics of strategic weapon development may be moving the world beyond overweening dependence on nuclear weapons into the threshold of a postnuclear future where strategic military power would still exist, but in an increasingly tame form as its basic nature shifts—with the assistance of meaningful and durable arms control agreements—from nuclear to nonnuclear, offensive to defensive.31 Many Americans (and Russians) would undoubtedly prefer a defense-dominated world to the present one of stark nuclear vulnerability, if dangerous transition instabilities can be eliminated (or at least minimized) on the way from here to there.32

The long-term strategic value of space-based laser weapons is that they constitute the single most obvious and credible technological innovation that could facilitate the initial stages of a gradual transition away from a world in which the recognized currency of strategic power is the nuclear weapon, having very limited (if any) meaningful political utility and quite negative moral implications. Moving toward defensive emphasis from the nuclear present without creating such unsettling transition difficulties that intermediate outcomes contain several large nuclear wars may be quite difficult. Any strategic transition which comes close to "blowing up the planet" could never be considered successful, even if the ultimate endpoint was viewed as being eminently desirable and practical.

Conventional strategic wisdom based on the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and so-called mutual assured destruction (MAD, in its inevitable acronym) holds that BMD systems are inherently destabilizing if they protect urban/industrial areas. Such a BMD capability might raise incentives during an intense crisis for preemptive nuclear strikes if the BMD system could limit damage from retaliatory strikes (crisis instability). Moreover, BMD systems tend to stimulate offense-defense arms racing since adversaries are motivated to build bigger and better offensive forces to assure penetration of the defenses (arms-race instability).

On the other hand, the current strategic balance is far from being perfectly stable, since any failure of deterrence could be catastrophic unless escalation was strictly controlled up to war termination; most analysts believe that escalation past the threshold of first nuclear use may be semiautomatic and rapid. In a political world where rationality has become an increasingly rare commodity, Winston Churchill’s famous "balance of terror" speech in 1955 captures the essential issue:

The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout. This is a blank.

In this connection, Fred Ikle’s statement rings true:

While luck has been with us so far, strategic thinking must and can find a new path into the twenty-first century.33

The advent of SBL weapons implies a novel type of tradeoff between short-term instability, measured from the traditional frame of reference associated with MAD-based deterrence (which provides at best a metastable strategic balance), and the long-term and more meaningful type of stability connected with a defense-dominated balance. In the latter case, an offensive arms race might be triggered by the ascendancy of BMD-capable SBL weapons in the absence of effective measures to place firm ceilings (or phased reductions) on offensive force levels. The negotiability of offensive ceilings or phased reductions as advanced defensive technologies mature is perhaps the key open question in the subject of a possible strategic transition from nuclear offense to nonnuclear defense.

Fortunately, historical precedent for answering the question of negotiability in the affirmative can be found in the SALT I negotiations undertaken during the early 1970s. The U.S. demand for simultaneity in treating offensive and defensive weapons was accepted by the Soviet Union in the agreement of May 1971 which "moved SALT onto negotiable ground."34 This concept of linking strategic offense and defense in the SALT framework is formally embodied in the unilateral statement by the United States (9 May 1972) entitled "Withdrawal from the ABM Treaty":

If an agreement providing for more complete strategic offensive arms limitations were not achieved within five years, U.S. supreme interests could be jeopardized. Should that occur, it would constitute a basis for withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.35

If an American lead in ABM technology persuaded the U.S.S.R. to agree on the ABM Treaty in 1972, it is conceivable that a significant U.S. lead in SBL technology, with its unique and decisive military potential, could convince Soviet leaders to agree on sharp phased reductions of strategic offensive forces in the 1980s.

The difference now is that the United States badly needs the unique military capabilities that SBL weapon technology can bring to bear in the midterm against a wide range of nonnuclear Soviet threats, well before the long-term BMD potential of SBLs can be exploited. Consequently, the U.S. cannot afford to place its emerging SBL program on the bargaining table at START (formerly SALT),36 even to achieve Soviet agreement about deep cuts in offensive forces. The United States must use its SBL-related negotiating leverage, which will grow larger as the SBL program accelerates and matures, with great care and deliberation to encourage U.S.-Soviet competition in the development of strategic defensive forces (where the U.S.S.R. places much more emphasis now than the U.S.). This approach would improve the prospects for achieving a successful and moderately stable strategic transition toward defensive emphasis over the long haul. As the sole remaining product of the SALT process, the ABM Treaty of 1972 will require radical revision (perhaps during the treaty reviews of 1987 and 1992—not in 1982) to permit any significant shift toward defensive emphasis. The arms-control burden of maintaining strategic stability would move to a yet-to-be negotiated offensive agreement on deep cuts, which will be under discussion in the START forum during coming years.

The strategic value of space-based laser weapons has two horizons. During the midterm (roughly 1985-95), first-generation SBL weapon systems will be developed in the U.S. (and elsewhere, with an unpredictable lag), which have formidable multimission capabilities against a broad spectrum of targets, not including large numbers of ICBMs in coordinated launches. While these first-generation SBL systems may have impressive military capabilities, they will by no means constitute the ultimate BMD system. Analysts who believe that first-generation SBLs could be so provocative that adversaries may be sorely tempted to preemptively attack a partial constellation during its deployment in space (before adequate levels of self-defense are possible) grossly misunderstand the serious limitations and operational uncertainties of early SBLs in the stressing BMD application.37 Early SBL systems will not constitute such total defenses as to threaten block obsolescence of the opposing strategic triad and a revolutionary shift in the strategic balance and arms competition.

On the other hand, first-generation SBLs certainly will be technological precursors to later vintages in this new class of directed-energy weapons that could have exceptionally robust BMD capabilities. Advanced SBLs might be highly effective and credible against ICBM salvoes, as well as affordable, as long as they are not a stand-alone BMD system but are backed up by several other layers covering the midcourse and terminal phases of ballistic missile flight trajectories. Thus the long-term strategic value of SBL weapons that may be developed and built in the decades following 1995 would pit them against all manner of delivery vehicles carrying nuclear weapons.

Nuclear deterrence base on mutual assured destruction is

a scheme that would have been rejected as abhorrent in the Dark Ages by kings and the common people alike . . .It is a tragic paradox of our age that the highly humane objective of preventing nuclear war is served by a military doctrine and engines of destruction whose very purpose is to inflict genocide.38

Whether the barely tolerable tension between the fundamental American ideal of the sanctity of life and the modern American institution of nuclear-based MAD39 can be reduced will depend on the combined success of the U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations called START, spurred by the emerging, broadly based antinuclear movement in the United States, and the timely development of SBL and other weapons to facilitate a transition toward defensive emphasis.

Briarcliff Manor, New York


1. Michael Getler, "NSC Aide Sees a Drift Toward War," Wasington Post, October 20, 1981, pp. Al and A9; and David Shribman, "Security Adviser Ousted for Talk Hinting at War," New York Times, October 21, 1981, p. Al.

2. The acute scarcity of surviving physicians and medical facilities to treat the survivors of large-scale nuclear warfare is discussed in The Final Epidemic: Physicians and Scientists on Nuclear War (Chicago: Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc., 1981), distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

3. "Brezhnev and Reagan on Atom War," New York Times, October 21, 1981, p. A5.

4. "Background Statement from the White House on MX Missile and B-1 Bomber," New York Times, October 3, 1981, p. 12.

5. Michael Pillsbury, "Strategic Acupuncture," Foreign Policy, Winter 1980-81, p. 50.

6. Senator Malcolm Wallop, "Opportunities and Imperatives of Ballistic Missile Defense," Strategic Review, Fall 1979.

7. For example, see M. Callaham and K. Tsipis, "High Energy Laser Weapons—A Technical Assessment," Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 1980, and Richard L. Garwin, "Are We on the Verge of an Arms Race in Space?" The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1981. Ballistic missile defense (BMD) is used interchangeably with ABM.

8. See Monte Davis, "Is There a Laser Gap?" Discover, March 1981;" ‘Star Wars’ Weapons May Come True," U.S. News & World Report, July 27, 1981; John Quirt, "Washington’s New Push for Anti-Missiles," Fortune, October 19, 1981; Jim Schefter, "Beam Weapons," Popular Science, November 1981; and "Lasers Light Up the Battlefield," High Technology, November/December 1981.

9. Absolute reliance on deterrence presents serious problems in a world where rationality is highly imperfect. Perceptions of an adversary’s limited rationality can motivate preemptive attacks on nuclear-related facilities, such as the 1981 Israeli raid on Iraq’s reactor in Baghdad.

10. In this connection, a recent report to the Congress by the General Accounting Office recommends that the Secretary of Defense endorse an SBL program plan containing specific objectives, commit the necessary funds to provide stability for this program, and establish an appropriate management structure to accomplish the program objectives.

11. Soviet Military Power, released by the DOD in October 1981, pp. 76-79.

12. Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1982, Hearings before the Committee on Armed Services. U.S., Senate, 97th Congress, 1st session, Part 7, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces, p. 4113 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981). See also Richard Burt, "Experts Feel 80’s Could Be Dawn of Laser Weapons," New York Times, February 10, 1980, p. 1. Burt is currently director of the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the U.S. Department of State.

13. A striking example of this misunderstanding appeared in Gerald Steinberg’s article, ‘The Ultimate Battleground: Weapons in Space," in the October 1981 issue of Technology Review, published at MIT. His discussion of space-based laser antisatellite systems contains the following inaccurate statement: "The entire system weighing many tons would have to be rapidly rotated into a series of precise positions. This problem alone may make the entire program infeasible." (p. 61)

14. For an extensive technical survey of the HEL field emphasizing space laser weapons, see the collection of nine articles in Aviation Week & Space Technology, May 25, 1981, entitled "Beam Weapons Technology Expanding."

15. Department of Defense Report to the Congress on Space Laser Weapons (U), Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, OUSDRE No. 81-0306, 15 May 1981. This report focuses on technical considerations and discusses key policy issues and military requirements in a cursory fashion.

16. SBL weapons could provide strong support for (layered) fleet air defense against Backfire bombers armed with long-range air-to-surface cruise missiles that pose a severe threat to large aircraft carriers and for theater defense against tactical ballistic missiles such as the SS-20.

17. Eugene H. Kopf, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research, Development and Logistics, "Space Activities of the Future," and Major General Grayson D. Tate, Jr., Ballistic Missile Defense Program Manager, "Strategic Missiles and Technology—Defense," lectures at the annual conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Baltimore, May 1980.

18. Science, July 31, 1981, p. 519. In October 1981, Keyworth reportedly told aerospace executives that he is spending most of his time trying to resist congressional pressures to build and operate SBL platforms for the BMD mission; see Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 26, 1981, p. 15.

19. See Bernard and Fawn Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973); and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1980).

20. Deborah Shapley, "Arms Control as a Regulator of Military Technology," Daedalus, Winter 1980.

21. Edmund Beard, Developing the ICBM: A Study in Bureaucratic Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).

22. A Defense Science Board panel was reported to have concluded in 1981 that "it is too soon to attempt to accelerate space-based laser development toward integrated space demonstration for any mission, particularly for ballistic missile defense." See Edgar Ulsamer, "The Long Leap toward Space Laser Weapons," Air Force, August 1981, p. 62.

23. Harvey Brooks, "Notes on Some Issues on Technology and National Defense," Daedalus, Winter 1981; Barry J. Smernoff, "Science, Technology, and the U.S.-Soviet Competition," in Rethinking U.S. Security Policy for the 1980s, proceedings of the Seventh Annual National Security Affairs Conference, 21-23 July 1980 (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1980); and James P. Wade, "Analyzing the Cost of Warfare," Astronautics & Aeronautics, February 1981.

24. Existence of a clear U.S. lead in space-based laser weapon technology is strongly suggested by the fact that the Soviet Union has deployed no effective early-warning satellite system. Hence the U.S.S.R. may have a great deal of difficulty in developing the necessary acquisition, precision pointing, and tracking subsystems for long-range SBL weapon systems, even though it outspends the United States by three to five times in HEL R&D. See The FY 1982 Department of Defense Program for Research, Development, and Acquisition, statement by the Honorable William J. Perry, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, to the 97th Congress, 1st session, 20 January 1981, pp. II-10.

25. Walter Mossberg, "Soviet Could Build Laser Weapon to Kill Satellites in 5 Years, Pentagon Aide Says," Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1981. This article reports an interview with Lt. General Kelly Burke, Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition, Hq U.S. Air Force.

26. The critical significance given by President Reagan to the security of Western oil supplies and maintenance of stability in the Persian Gulf was clearly indicated by his intense lobbying to win the issue of selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia in late 1981.

27. The case for a new strategy emphasizing technological boldness in space is made by Lt. General Daniel O. Graham, USA (Ret), "Toward a New U.S. Strategy: Bold Strokes Rather Than Increments," Strategic Review, Spring 1981. Vigorous development of the radar-stealthy Advanced Technology Bomber indicates that the United States is still willing and able to muster its technological resources when necessary.

28. Richard Hutton’s The Cosmic Chase (New York: New American Library, 1981) is an excellent political history of the U.S.-Soviet competition in space.

29. Instead of the "missile gap" so widely discussed in the 1960 presidential campaign, by the early 1960s the U.S.S.R. had deployed only tens of primitive SS-6 ICBMs compared to the hundreds of American ICBMs. The staying power of the U.S. technology base is generally much greater than that of its Soviet counterpart.

30. For a recent exposition of this alternative, which amounts to the conventional wisdom, see Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., and Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, "MAD versus NUTS: Can Doctrine or Weaponry Remedy the Mutual Hostage Relationship of the Superpowers?" Foreign Affairs, Winter 1981-82, pp. 287-304.

31. Freeman Dyson has used the Rush-Bagot agreement of 1817 between Britain and the U.S. (limiting naval armaments on the Great Lakes) as an example of durability in arms control; see his Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), pp. 152-54.

32. Steven E. Miller, "Ballistic Missile Defense: Issues and Prospects," U.S. Arms Control Objectives and the Implications for Ballistic Missile Defense, proceedings of a symposium held at the Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, June 30, 1980. For perspective on the nature of a "denuclearized" world, see John H. Barton, "The Proscription of Nuclear Weapons: A Third Nuclear Regime," in Nuclear Weapons and World Politics, David C. Gompert et al. (New York:McGraw-Hill, for the Council on Foreign Relations/1980s Project, 1977).

33. Fred Charles Ikle, "Can Nuclear Deterrence Last Out the Century?" Foreign Affairs, January 1973, p. 285. Ikle, a former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is presently the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

34. John Newhouse, Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973), p. 194.

35. Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements: Texts and Histories of Negotiations, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, August 1980, p. 146.

36. START is the acronym with which President Reagan replaced SALT and means: Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.

37. A recent illustration of this type of misunderstanding is provided by Kosta Tsipis, "Laser Weapons," Scientific American, December 1981. In the spirit of the anecdotal engineer who proved that bumblebees cannot fly, Tsipis selected the most difficult mission of damage-denial BMD for laser weapons and then proceeded to unwind his numbers game to demonstrate that SBLs would make no sense for the BMD (or any other) mission.

38. Fred Charles Ikle, Every War Must End (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 130.

39. For an intriguing discussion of the persistent and radical gap between the promise of American ideals and the performance of American (political) institutions, see Samuel P. Huntington, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981).


Barry J. Smernoff (B.S., Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D., Brandeis University) is a policy analyst, specializing in advanced technology, with B.J. Smernoff Associates; he also is an Advanced Research Fellow of the Naval War College and a consultant for the U.S. General Accounting Office. Formerly a staff member at Lincoln Laboratory and Hudson Institute, Dr. Smernoff has conducted research on the impact of alternative U.S. energy policies on national security and trends in nuclear-weapon proliferation. His book The Nuclear Age will be published this year.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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