Research and Technology vs. Operational Reality

Feb. 1, 1985
When he was Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Hans Mark frequently contrasted the perceptions of things held in the programmatic world of Washington with the way things really are in the operational world of the combatant commands – the real world, where the weapon systems are and where the blue-suitors live and work. Nothing illustrates just how vast this gap is between Washington-level thinking and the real world of operational weapons like the debate now raging over President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Starting from his dramatic March 1983 “Star Wars” speech concerning the need for ballistic missile defenses (and his challenge to our scientific and technological communities to perfect them), the “fog count” in Washington began to increase. A drift toward mischief was evident when the strategic gurus of the Potomac began converting the President’s general objectives and broad technology initiatives into specific capabilities with measurable performance parameters and near-term options.

Fortunately, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got it right; she called SDI what it is – a major (and demanding) research and technology program. Would that some of the zealots and space warriors on our side of the Atlantic exercise that same discipline and judgment.

We are now being inundated by the intellectual Mafia of the political/military think tanks. Books, op-ed pieces, articles for the prestigious national magazines, arms-control seminars, and background sessions with industrial leaders are bursting out all over. Now that the Administration and Congress are preparing to come to grips with the tip of the SDI budgetary iceberg and our negotiators are reopening substantive discussions with the Soviets on arms-control measures, the conceptual battle lines are forming – but with some surprising areas of agreement between strange bedfellows.

That earlier “fog count” has thickened to the point of obscuration, and some real-world operational facts re in danger of being overlooked or ignored. As important as the President’s SDI programs are (and SDI is an important, exciting, top-down initiative), we cannot afford to let the long-range research and technology programs take on unwarranted operational dimensions. We must separate conceptual dreams, desires, and hopes from the immediate task of satisfying critical operational requirements, strategic and general purpose, in today’s operational world.

Norman Augustine, former Chairman of the Defense Science Board, recalled recently that, during the intense ballistic missile defense debates of the mid-1960’s two-thirds of those citizens polled believed the system then deployed afforded good protection. Of course, there was no system then deployed – there was no protection! That great danger for us in the current situation – the inability of our people (and our allies) to separate the SDI technology programs seeking what might be from the modernization programs for operational forces that are in being.

The programmatic world now being shaped for SDI cannot substitute for the deterrent strength that rests in our ICBMs, bombers and sub-launched missiles, but we must be alert to those who will try, deliberately or inadvertently, to do exactly this. The ongoing modernization of our current operational forces must not be relegated to the budgetary scrap heap. For there is no ballistic missile defense system, there is no operational alternative to our current deterrent force, there is no substantial agreement that we can (or should) place primary reliance for our security on defensive systems, even if such defensive systems should evolve beyond our current hopes and expectations. In a much longer term, we may be able to make substantial modification in the nature of our strategic offensive forces, but failure to modernize them in this decade, as planned, would be a grievous error.

The President’s admirable hope that we can find a technological alternative to deterrence, which is based on what he termed as “the immoral threat of nuclear retaliation,” must be viewed in exactly that vein: a futuristic hope backed by a widespread, vigorous technology program. For now, we should encourage Lt. Gen. Jim Abrahamson and his people to press technology for progress toward an encompassing strategic missile defense, and we can hope for achievements that surpass our understanding. Meanwhile, we must take with a lot of salt those who describe, with precision, “operational” defensive systems or who place seemingly precise time frames around the viability of deterrent forces, the utility of nuclear retaliation, or the demise of nuclear ballistic missiles.

National decisions must not be made or swayed by the assertions of those who describe, in absurd detail, how our operational space defenses will work, how effective they will be, what they will replace, how much they will cost, and when we can have them “on Line.” We should not even repeat such irresponsible conjecture, for it is sure to mislead our people into thinking that we have, or soon can have, a comprehensive ballistic missile defense.

The recent and remarkable exoatmospheric intercept of an incoming reentry vehicle near Kwajalein atoll can easily be misinterpreted as such a ballistic missile defense. If our national leadership is misled into this erroneous mind-set, they will fail to see the pressing operational requirement for our strategic offensive and retaliatory modernization. There will be no MX, no B-IB, no D-5 missiles for our submarines, no small, mobile ICBMs. And if we fail to do what we must while we search for our hopes and dreams, all too quickly we could find ourselves without arms-control leverage, without relevant deterrent strength, without defenses, without a guarantor of our freedom. Then, nothing else we do will count for much.