PRESIDENT Ronald Reagan has stated that the goal of his ``star wars'' program is to find a way to shield the United States from a potential nuclear attack. The technical feasibility and strategic wisdom of undertaking such a task has been hotly debated. Another, unstated function of the program has received far less attention -- its role as a financial and political shield for the nation's largest nuclear weapons contractors. The now famous 1983 ``star wars'' speech was motivated by Mr. Reagan's fear that public concern over burgeoning US and Soviet nuclear arsenals would further fuel the already powerful movement for a nuclear weapons freeze. In the words of his science adviser, George Keyworth, ``the President was sensing and fearing the public's concern'' over nuclear weapons and looked to offer hope ``that some day there may be some means by which we don't perceive ourselves to be living under the threat of a potential nuclear holocaust.''
From the point of view of the arms industry, ``star wars'' is the best possible means to attempt to end the public's fear of nuclear weapons. Not only has it diverted public attention from more immediate political solutions to the nuclear arms race, thereby keeping funding for the new generation of nuclear weapons alive, but it has created a profitable and growing stream of new research and development contracts. The leading contractors for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research are in fact the same companies that are bringing us the new generation of nuclear weapons: Lockheed (Trident missile), Boeing (B-1 bomber), McDonnell Douglas (sea-launched cruise missile), and Rockwell (B-1, MX missile) have shared over $900 million in SDI prime contract awards in the last two years alone.
While ``star wars'' research awards will not make or break these large military contractors now, they are planting the seeds for the production contracts that could sustain them in the 1990s. With military contracts providing anywhere from one-third (Boeing) to three-quarters (McDonnell Douglas) of their total sales, continued profitability will depend on new large awards to begin as their nuclear weapons programs are completed. With a research budget slated to grow from $1.4 billion this year to over $10 billion by 1991, SDI is strategically placed to fill this financial vacuum.
Not only will ``star wars'' benefit the same companies as nuclear weapons programs, but it has taken root in the traditional strongholds of military industry. Over 90 percent of the SDI awards since 1983 have gone to just four states: California (45 percent), Washington (22 percent), Texas (13 percent), and Alabama (10 percent). More than three-quarters of these awards have landed in states or districts of members of the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees, ensuring the program of influential allies in key votes on future funding levels.
As the program moves toward production, its geographic spread and pork barrel appeal will broaden to include the districts where key subcontractors are located. Rep. Kenneth B. Kramer (R) of Colorado, co-sponsor of the pro ``star wars'' People Protection Act, has dubbed his state ``the space capital of the free world'' based on his expectations of SDI contracts to come. As funding accelerates, potential ``star wars'' income and jobs may also sway representatives currently skeptical of the plan.
However, the power of military firms to shape the ``star wars'' program does not depend on large future contracts. Seven of the top 10 SDI contractors have received $1 million ``systems architecture'' awards to assess the technical feasibility of developing a full blown ``star wars'' defense system.
Since these firms will be the principal beneficiaries of deploying such a system, they are likely to argue for going ahead with the program, whether or not the stated goal of protecting the US is feasible. Lockheed is already touting early deployment of a partial defense system based on its successful ``homing overlay experiment.''
One defense contractor executive put the point more bluntly in an interview with the Washington Post: ``Everybody knows you don't make money on technology research programs. We've got to have deployment.''
Given these conflicts of interest and the pace of scheduled funding, the next president may find it impossible to stop the ``star wars'' program, irrespective of its merits. The time to curb SDI funding is now, before the program takes on an economic and institutional life of its own. Congress should cut deeply into this year's $3.7 billion SDI budget request, two and one-half times last year's funding level. A means must be developed to monitor the technical and strategic possibilities of the program without depending solely on the judgment of those firms that need SDI to survive, even if we citizens don't.
William Hartung and Rosy Nimroody co-authored ``The Strategic Defense Initiative: Costs, Contractors, and Consequences,'' a study released by the Council on Economic Priorities, a New York-based independent research organization.