Science Wars Over Star Wars

September 19, 1986

Report Outline
Scientists Divided Over Star Wars
Nuclear Age Heralds Weaponry Debate
Technology Choices Behind Star Wars
Special Focus

Scientists Divided Over Star Wars

The cuts that Congress has proposed in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” program signal a new mood on Capitol Hill. In 1984 and 1985, buoyed by the President's enthusiasm and the optimism expressed by SDI officials and scientists, Congress approved sharp funding in-creases for the program This year, however, the budget request for SDI took a beating in both the Senate and House Armed Services committees. While Congress is considered unlikely to enact a fiscal 1987 budget before the November congressional elections, it almost certainly will settle eventually on a figure of about $3.5 billion for Star Wars—about $1.3 billion less than Reagan requested. Still, many members of Congress complain that even that cut is not deep enough. Last spring, 48 senators signed a letter saying that the SDI budget should be held to 3 percent over its 1986 level.

More important than the exact magnitude of the cuts, in the estimation of a Hill aide who has followed the fortunes of SDI closely, is a new wariness in Congress about the fast-paced, expensive program. At a time of mounting interest about whether the president might accept restrictions on the Star Wars program in exchange for a Soviet agreement to make deep cuts in offensive missiles, SDI officials no longer exude confidence that their claims about the effectiveness of proposed missile defense systems will be uncritically accepted in Congress. Typical of the new mood on the Hill was the statement made by Sen. Daniel J. Evans, R-Wash., on June 19, when a petition from 1,400 scientists opposed to SDI was presented to Congress. “Clearly there are powerful reasons to conduct a healthy ballistic missile defense program,” Evans said. However, he added, “these possibilities do not militate in favor of a precipitously paced program. We need to look no further than the waste and abuse in recent military spending to find reasons for prudence in SDI funding,”

Evans' statement focuses on the fiscal situation, surely an important factor to an extremely cost-conscious Congress in the first year of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget cuts. Another factor contributing to the new cautiousness about the Star Wars program is the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the string of missile mishaps that ensued. The accidents, which left the United States temporarily without the capability to lift any large payload into space, raised the question of when it would be possible to launch the components for a huge missile defense system, assuming an effective system could be built. The disasters also raised questions about the reliability of technological systems in general, undermined the notion that the United States could do anything it tried to do and tarnished the reputation of Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, who ran the shuttle program before taking over as head of the SDI program in April 1984.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Missile Defense
Sep. 08, 2000  Missile Defense
Sep. 19, 1986  Science Wars Over Star Wars
Feb. 15, 1967  Anti-Missile Defense Systems
Defense Technology and Force Planning
Space Sciences and Exploration