Saturday, February 23, 2008


Robert Jastrow, 1925-2008

A great thinker and man of wisdom, Robert Jastrow, died the other day. The obituaries noted his many scientific accomplishments--he was a physicist and a by-God rocket scientist-- but they missed entirely the substantial vindications of his most controversial theories, especially his endorsement of the idea that US technological advancements could effectively bankrupt the then-rampaging USSR, and even make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." Could it have been an accident that those vindications were precisely the ones that enraged liberals the most?

Dr. Jastrow added a weighty voice to the debate in January 1984 about Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" strategic defense initiative with a long essay in Commentary magazine: ""Reagan vs. the Scientists: Why the President Is Right About Missile Defense." When we consider that Dr. Jastrow died the same week the Navy shot down a falling satellite with an SDI-style "bullet hitting a bullet" shot, and when US forces in the Middle East are using relatively tiny explosive payloads to obliterate jihadis surrounded by densely populated civilian neighborhoods, it is beyond belief that the man's ideas from the early 1980's have been covered up so thoroughly by the MSM. Was this man not a visionary?:

The key to these technologies is the miniaturized computer. Extraordinary developments in the miniaturization of computer circuits enable millions of transistors and other electronic components to be packed into a space the size of a
thumbnail. As a result, defense technicians now have the means for building elaborate computer brains into a very small missile-a mini-missile-so that it can steer itself toward its target. Sensing the target either by its delicate emanation of heat waves, or by its radar reflections, the mini-missile analyzes the product of its senses within its highly capable computer brain, and directs a succession
of messages to small rockets arranged around its circumference. Delicate thrusts of these rockets steer the defending missile into the path of the oncoming ICBM warhead. The result is either destruction of the warhead by a direct impact, or an explosion of the mini-missile in the vicinity, releasing a cloud of flying metal fragments. The warhead, moving ten times faster than a bullet, tears into the cloud of fragments; the skin of the warhead is punctured in many places; its electronics are disabled; and the nuclear bomb inside it is disarmed.

In essence, the defense consists in tossing into the path of the speeding warhead some TNT and a keg of nails. What makes this simple defense work is its computer brain.

The amount of TNT need not be very large. One mini-missile of the kind described, currently being tested by the Army, contains less than 100 pounds of explosive. The reason is that the defending missile does not have to destroy the warhead to be effective; it only has to prevent the nuclear bomb inside the warhead from exploding. That happens to be fairly easy, because nuclear bombs do not go off very readily; elaborate arrangements and a great deal of fragile electronics are needed
to make one explode. Accordingly, a small charge of TNT, or a cluster of high-speed metal pellets, will usually be sufficient to disarm the bomb's mechanism.


Getting back to President Reagan's [first SDI] speech, one of the main criticisms of his plan was that a defense against ICBM's can never be 100-percent effective.
This criticism also applies to the smart mini-missiles. If these missiles were intended for the direct defense of American cities, they might not be of much value, because even a few ICBM warheads leaking through such a defense would kill millions of Americans. However, the situation is very different when a defending missile is intended only for the protection of missile silos and other military sites. Suppose, for example, that the defense of the silos is only 50-percent effective-a conservative estimate for the technologies described above. This means that roughly half the attacking warheads will accomplish their purpose. Therefore, the USSR will be required to make its ICBM arsenal twice as big as it is today, to regain the level
of threat it possessed before the defense was put in place. In other words, it will have to buy another ICBM for every one it already has.

The Soviet Union has spent about $500 billion on the build-up of its ICBM arsenal over twenty years and might be hard-pressed to spend another $500 billion in a short time. Even if the USSR does increase its missile forces in an effort to overwhelm
our defense, we can increase the number of defending missiles around each silo and once again reduce to an acceptable level the number of Soviet warheads that would reach their targets. This response is practical because each defending little missile
costs considerably less than the warhead it is aimed at. Estimates by a team of scientists at Los Alamos indicate that if the Soviet Union tries to overcome
an American missile defense by building more rockets and warheads, its costs will increase at least twice as fast as ours. In this situation, in which the ratio of costs heavily favors the defense over the offense, the Soviet Union may be led to rethink its whole strategy of striving for military dominance with weapons of mass destruction.

[Note: This was written more than a year before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, and more than two years before Gorbachev unveiled his plans for glasnost and perestroika]

For nearly forty years, since the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, the
nuclear bomb has dominated strategic weaponry. But technicians make new facts, and new facts make a new strategic calculus. We are on the threshold of revolutionary gains in the accuracy of intercontinental ballistic missiles, created by the
incorporation of computer brains into missile warheads.

In the future, the smart ICBM warhead, equipped with electronic brains and infrared or radar "eyes," will hitch a ride to the general vicinity of the target on its ICBM bus; then, disembarking, it will steer itself into a particular spot on the
target within a yard or two to accomplish its task with nice precision. Consider the possibilities opened for the military planner by this development.

A Soviet charge of TNT, carried across the ocean by an ICBM, guides itself down the smokestack of the Consolidated Edison plant in New York; an American warhead of TNT, carried 5,000 miles in the nose of an ICBM, drops down onto a
critical transformer in the Moscow power grid; a bridge is destroyed by a small explosive charge ferried across oceans and continents on an ICBM, and carefully placed at the foot of a pier. A small, artfully shaped charge of TNT is delivered to the door of a Minuteman or SS-19 silo; exploding, it pierces a hole in the silo door, spraying the interior with shrapnel and destroying the missile. It is not
necessary to crush the entire silo with the violence of a nuclear warhead; missiles are fragile, and gentler means suffice to disable them.

Command posts, ammunition dumps, highways, and airport runways-all are vulnerable to conventional explosives skillfully targeted. Nearly every task allotted to nuclear weapons today can be accomplished in the future by missiles armed with
non-nuclear, smart warheads.

[This "accuracy revolution" enabled US forces in Afghanistan to accomplish in 2 months what the much-larger Soviet forces couldn't accomplish in 10 years...And the annihilation of the entire military infrastructure of Iraq was achieved in about the same time, with about 1% of the civilian casualties that such a campaign would traditionally have required]

And when nuclear weapons are not needed, they will not be used. That may seem unlikely, but consider the following facts. A nuclear weapon has many defects from a military point of view. Because of its destructive power and radioactivity, it
tends to kill innocent civilians, even if used sparingly in a surgically clean strike at military targets. If used in great numbers, nuclear weapons stir up
clouds of radioactive material that roll back with the prevailing pattern of the winds, carrying their poisons with them into the land of the attacker.
Finally, these weapons generate emotional reactions of such intensity that the military planner can only hold them in reserve to use as a last resort; he cannot release his nuclear arsenal in gradual increments, adjusted to the military needs of each situation.

In other words, nuclear weapons are messy, and, other things being equal, the military planner will avoid them. They will never disappear entirely; some blockbusters will always be stockpiled by the superpowers as a deterrent to a genocidal attack on their cities and civilians. But as the accuracy of
smart warheads increases, and more military tasks can be accomplished by non-nuclear explosives, the tasks assigned to nuclear warheads will diminish, and the size of the world's nuclear arsenals will decrease.

The shrinkage has already been observed in the armaments of the U.S. and the USSR. Nuclear weapons in the American arsenal are now one seventh their size twenty-five years ago, and the total megatonnage of our arsenal is one-quarter what it was then. Figures available to me on Soviet nuclear weapons go back only ten years, but
in that short interval, while the number of Soviet warheads increased enormously, the average size of an individual warhead decreased by a factor of three.

These changes in the sizes of the world's nuclear arsenals have resulted from rather modest improvements in the accuracy of missiles, but the technology of the smart warhead is still in its infancy. When it reaches its maturity, and the precision of
delivery of explosives across continents can be measured in feet rather than in hundreds of yards, the military uses of the nuclear bomb will dwindle into nothingness. And so it may come to pass, as President Reagan suggested, that the scientists who gave us nuclear weapons will also give us "the means of rendering these weapons impotent and obsolete."

Rest in peace, Dr. Robert Jastrow, a great American and by all accounts a great guy.

Oh, and never forget: the late great Ronald Reagan was just a dumb actor, and the people who supported him were equally dumb, gulled by his nice smile. They sure weren't rocket scientists!



RattlerGator said...

Great post.

People fear American power in complex and contradictory ways, it seems to me. You're right, however, this man should receive great credit.

I have no idea how original his thoughts were or whether he was simply smart enough to spot the wisdom in what was possible through research and development. Machts nicht, as we used to say in the Army.

Jewish Odysseus said...

RG, the late Dr. J. [heheh] never claimed to be a futurist or "breakthrough theorist," but as this article made clear, he was an incredibly clear and analytical thinker who cd track trends and impartially draw conclusions from evidence with amazing accuracy.

Put it another way: have you seen another 24-year-old essay on a big controversial subject that so strikingly hit so many nails on the head?

Had Dr. Jastrow made comparable projections and analyses from a liberal slant with the same accuracy, his passing would have merited at least 10 minutes on each of the nightly newscasts for r4 nights running.

Oh, and did you know in the past 7 years he was also a big global warming SKEPTIC? Another corrupt hack bought off by the oil companies, as Al Gore wd tell us, I'm sure.

BTW, you can buy the whole 1984 essay for $2.95 on the Commentary website, and really get the full flavor of this man's brilliance. I remember when I read it back then, and thinking: "With minds like this on our side, there's no way the Reds are going to beat us."