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Making sense of missile defense; thinking about the next pope; the case for private accounts; keeping our republic

Thursday, February 1, 2001

Making sense of missile defense

Sir, — Mark Davis’s article “Reagan’s Real Reason for SDI” (October/ November 2000) is both timely and on target. Can, or should, any responsible government avoidably leave its citizens open to devastating attack? Our government did it for nearly a half century and got away with it — through the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (mad). Because it “worked” for 50 years does not necessarily mean it is the best possible policy or that it will work indefinitely.

The probability of a nuclear missile attack in any given year is quite small, but given enough years, the result approaches the inevitable. We must expect a serious challenge at some time in the future.

Can nuclear missile attacks be deflected or blunted? Not if we don’t try. As matters stand now, there are three different methods of intercepting and destroying incoming missiles: 1) By laser interceptor in the launch phase. We have such a program in development. The laser is installed in a highly modified Boeing 747 which presumably would be within range, perhaps 100 miles, at the time of launch. 2) By interceptor rockets from the surface during the “ballistic” phase. We have limited capability for such interception in place now, but it does not protect all regions of the country and could be overwhelmed by a massive missile launch. And 3) particle beam interceptors in low earth orbit. The latter concept does truly deserve the appellation of Star Wars, and most people suppose that it would require decades to develop. Not so. There is a particle beam device in almost every living room. The particle beam is the basis for every cathode-ray television tube.

Particle beam technology, directed streams of either protons or electrons, is well enough developed in the field of high-energy physics. The beams, to have effective range, must exist in a high-vacuum environment. Physicists and their technicians go to great lengths to sustain a high vacuum near the earth’s surface, but high vacuum is the natural state of things at, say, 100 miles above the earth’s surface.

Naysayers will object because of what is called “bloom,” the mutual repulsion of like-charged particles: Such beams tend to lose their focus with distance. However, there is no reason I know of why an electron and proton beam cannot be melded. Instead of blooming, the mixed or melded beam would then tend to focus itself and become, in the process, a beam of neutral high-energy hydrogen atoms.

Would not particle beam weapons be prohibitively expensive? Not at all. Indeed, they would be much cheaper than either interceptor rockets or 747-mounted lasers. A beam accelerator could go into orbit with each of several Challenger-type space launches. The accelerators would be relatively inexpensive, likely no more than a few tens of millions of dollars per unit.

The beams would have a velocity of nearly the speed of light, thus making the ballistic intercept problem relatively simple. One “bottle” of compressed hydrogen would provide the raw material for millions of rounds of space shots. The source of energy for these rounds? An array of solar panels attached to the particle beam accelerator. (Such a panel was placed in orbit in early December 2000.)

A beam current, for example, of one ampere at 5 million electron-volts would produce beam power of 5 megawatts, the equivalent of 5,000 electric cooking range surface units of one kilowatt each. Anything in the path of such a beam, a beam say 6 inches in diameter, would simply vaporize.

What about decoys? Destroy them all. Unlike surface rocket interceptors, additional “rounds” of particle beam weapons are almost free.

We serve the cause of peace, not war, by maintaining the best feasible defense against incoming nuclear weapons. (Had we been prepared for World War II, that war would not have started.)

Share this technology with potential adversaries? Why not? If peace, not blackmail, is our aim, we should go out of our way to give other nations reason to feel secure.

The proposal here is a three-tiered defense system, one based on the surface of the earth, one airborne, one in low-orbit space. None has the certainty of being 100 percent effective but all three, coordinated, would make the probability of success of an icbm attack so small as to discourage the effort.

Robert W. Clack
Lake Wales, Fla.

Editor’s note: Robert W. Clack is a retired nuclear engineer who worked, decades ago, on particle accelerators at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California.


Thinking about the next pope

Sir, — Damon Linker’s analysis of the pope (“John Paul II, Intellectual,” October/November 2000), noting his intellectual strengths and lamenting the lack of recognition for them that he has received, suggests to me that John Paul is likely to be replaced by a very liberal pope who will share few of the current pope’s ideas or philosophical inclinations.

It was significant that the Democratic and Republican candidates for president and most other offices went to great lengths to avoid the subject of abortion, as well as any other major philosophical arguments advanced by Pope John Paul II. It is also significant that the Roman Catholic Church in America seems more concerned with maintaining access to federal funding for various education and social programs than it is in developing or advancing a philosophical or intellectual case for its theology.

It appears that the intellectualism of John Paul II has not given the Roman Catholic Church as a whole the intellectual respectability it needs in order to maintain its position among the developed nations of the world. Instead, the content of the pope’s encyclicals have been used against the Roman Catholic Church and its leadership to make it appear more medieval or “backward,” and more out of date or irrelevant to modern life, than ever.

The Roman Catholic Church seems to understand that it is losing ground in developed nations (it was at its peak in about 1980, and has been losing members and political clout ever since), and church leaders may see the United States as a source of funds to feed its global operations. Right now, the most likely new source of adherents to Catholicism is in the undeveloped regions of Africa and South America. All of this plays into ideas advanced by atheists and secular groups: that religion is something for primitive or aboriginal people, but unsuited or unnecessary in an advanced culture.

My guess is that John Paul II will be replaced by a pope much more focused on “pragmatic” and political issues than on philosophy. The next pope is likely to be a political liberal in the tradition of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. The Republicans might want to rethink the strategy of wooing Hispanic voters should that happen, since they will almost certainly be voting for Democrats.

Brian Lynch
Austin, Texas


The case for private accounts

Sir, — I am starting to lean towards privatizing at least a portion of Social Security benefits. (“Making the Most of the Surplus,” by Peter J. Ferrara, October/November 2000). But there are still some important issues that deserve to be more fully considered.

We need to talk about people’s knowledge of investing. Will people day-trade this capital away? Is, then, the government, Big Brother, responsible for assisting these folks?

And, what about people already receiving Social Security? These folks didn’t have the opportunity to invest a portion of their Social Security benefits in private accounts (because of the pay-as-you-go method). They still need their benefits. Therefore, we would have to wait years before the system (or a portion of the system) allows us to invest in private accounts.

And then there is the question of the windfall financial planners will receive if law allows people to privatize.

But notwithstanding these questions, it’s clear that private Social Security accounts have the capability of changing so much.

Anthony Cook
Boston, Mass.


We can keep the republic

Sir, — A comment on Tod Lindberg’s “A Republic, If We Can Keep It” (December 2000/January 2001). What is the use of power if one is not liable to use it? History is full of empire builders — Nebukadnezar, Alexander, Attila, Hitler. All had massive military power, and all used it to invade and conquer. History is a list of invasions and wars.

Yet, the United States and the rest of the civilized world now have a policy of recognition of established borders. Military might is now used to strengthen those borders, not cross them.

Therefore, it does not matter if the United States is the only “superpower.” Most nations recognize and defend all borders, even borders of other nations, due to self-interest. We don’t do it alone now, nor need we. This current situation, of international recognition and support of secure borders, may change. Right now, it is nice to be strong — but it is not critical.

The republican form of government is better than the other choices, monarchy and dictatorship. The latter suffer from two deficiencies. The first deficiency is the lack of protection of personal civil rights. But the most glaring deficiency is the way new leaders are produced, mainly by civil war or coup, which is very destructive. With the republican way of determining leaders, we avoid all that messy bother.

So, citizen apathy, ignorance, and lack of voter turnout, are relatively unimportant. I am not worried, as long as our form of government is continued. And the difference between ignorance and apathy is moot, because neither threatens the republic. The threat would come from dedicated, informed, motivated people who are organized for its overthrow. These are apparently small in number, and isolated. So, we have the ignorant masses who don’t care, and the informed activists who support the republic. I think that the republic is secure. The revolution is televised, but it consists of a “reality” game show.

Joe Cotton
Baltimore, Md.

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