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Back from the Dark Side

SDI, with the help of Gingrich and Dole, is rearing its high-tech head again and it has software for brains

By Richard Bottoms

RELICS FROM the eighties continue to weave their way back into popularity, but one old refrain may end up costing taxpayers plenty. On the charts again with a bullet is the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as "Star Wars," the multibillion-dollar bad dream of Ronald Reagan. Failed Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole repeatedly pointed out that the United States has not yet deployed a ballistic missile defense system, and joined hands with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to push the "Defend America Act," which, if successful, will overturn Pentagon objections and require the deployment of a national missile defense system by the year 2003. Previous efforts to implement this system have cost the taxpayers more than $38 billion, and defense contractors, smelling another $40-$60 billion bonanza, have been happy to send their lobbyists marching in.

But aside from the exorbitant price tag and the questionable need, another aspect of the computer- and software-based SDI is keeping some people awake nights. When the project was first proposed in the early eighties, few Americans had experienced, first-hand, the unpredictable joys of software. Today, with our society more familiar with and more dependent than ever on the proper functioning of computers, some weapons researchers have serious reservations about turning over to electronic systems the enormous task of shielding the country from missiles.

Severo Ornstein met with a number of computer researchers in 1981 to form Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). From its Palo Alto base, Ornstein and others pressed the message that SDI could not be made to work and is, as Ornstein puts it today, "a rat hole." Though no longer with the group, Ornstein is still concerned that reliance on a ballistic missile defense may be dangerous. "If the military thought they had a technological edge, they might be more aggressive in a confrontation," he said.

Warning recently that SDI is not really dead, Carl Page, CPSR Northwest Regional Director, compares Star Wars' technical hurdles to the mission-critical software used in the space shuttle, since advocates of SDI often use it as an example of the kind of very complex software systems that must work perfectly every time. "It just doesn't scale," he contends. "Maneuvering the shuttle is relatively easy. You are moving just one object and have just one landing site. With Star Wars you're talking about thousands of objects, some of them trying to fool you."

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From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro

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