Creating A Special Office: SDIO
In order to give SDI better definition and better protection against cuts in the defense budget, and probably just as much to protect it against doubters in the defense establishment, the Reagan administration decided to establish the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) within the Department of Defense. The office initially succeeded in preventing the program from fragmenting and in providing a focus for the direction of research and public information. It has been less successful, however, in protecting the program from budget restraints imposed by Congress.
In appointing a military officer with a background that included direction of the NASA space shuttle program, Lieutenant General Abrahamson, the administration gained the assistance of an experienced manager who had shown himself able to work with a variety of agencies and congressional committees. The office drew upon the services of industrial and government laboratory scientists and engineers and immediately launched a major effort to invite proposals from hundreds of industrial laboratories. SDIO recognized from the outset that the agency needed to establish itself within the military services and in the laboratories in order to widen its base of support and to mobilize the degree of cooperation that would be necessary to implement the complex agenda.
Accordingly, funding authorities were set up in the various services through which SDIO channeled its contracts, creating a network of military officers whose careers would be affected by the success of the project. An Office of Innovative Science and Technology was established to encourage submissions from university researchers, thereby blunting the outspoken opposition that was emerging on the campuses. Over the first several years of the project, contracts were let to hundreds of prime and secondary contractors and university-based researchers.
While SDIO benefited from strong support of Weinberger and the president (who ordered that SDI be protected from defense-budget cuts required under the 1985 Gramm-Rudman Deficit Reduction Act), it had less success in establishing its credibility in Congress. A small group of strongly supportive congressmen tried valiantly to resist budget cuts and to trumpet the significance of the program's achievements. SDIO set its own technical milestones, and each time these were met, the claim was made that they vindicated the aims of the project and showed progress even more rapid than had been anticipated. Critics were not impressed, however, claiming that the milestones were publicity stunts. To some extent, perhaps, SDIO suffered from public disillusionment with high technology owing to the disastrous accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the debacle of the Challenger space shuttle, and the failure of the AEGIS system aboard the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf. Congressional opponents were able to cite the OTA reports that warned of technical and other barriers to the success of the project, as well as the opposition of leading scientists. Neutral members of Congress were influenced by negative assessments from within the defense establishment, openly advanced before the March 1983 speech but expressed confidentially thereafter.
In response to the urgings of its supporters and in the hope of counteracting the criticisms of its opponents, the SDIO decided to shift its strategy in 1986 to put more emphasis on near-term deployable systems and less on longer-term research. Although the office formally denied any such change, analysis of actual allocation of funds belies the SDIO's claim: constraints on expansion of funding had been met by shifting the allocations to nearer-term technologies. Both supporters and skeptics in Congress had joined in urging the SDIO to identify near-term prospects. The supporters were eager to show that the project was succeeding in order to prevent their opponents from voting low levels of funds and "researching it to death." The critics were convinced that SDI could not achieve the president's goal, but some thought that a deployment of
mainly terminal defenses for retaliatory weapons had merit. Hoping to weaken popular support, some of the critics were undoubtedly also interested in putting SDIO in the position of abandoning the president's vision of protecting population. SDI could then be attacked as an unrealistic and overly expensive way of protecting missiles. The issue became confused because some in Congress wanted to redefine the program so that it would lead to the deployment of silo defenses, while others believed that the goals of the program should continue to be defined in accordance with the president's vision of population defense.
Meanwhile, SDIO was also caught in the crossfire between the executive branch, which was forwarding a reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty, and an outraged Senate. SDIO originally assured Congress that its experiments would be configured so as to conform to the treaty, although Abrahamson and other DOD officials pointed out that at some point testing in space would have to take place if the validity of developing space-based systems were to be established. Then, when the administration wanted support for its reinterpretation, SDIO was asked to prepare a list of experiments that could not be done under the "narrow" interpretation. The SDIO therefore reported that the narrow interpretation would result in the waste of billions of dollars by prohibiting experiments that could save time and effort. Beset on two sides, Abrahamson had to walk a tightrope so as to satisfy supporters and influential critics alike, supporting the administration's policies with one hand while promising with the other to obey congressionally mandated restrictions.
Abrahamson probably became a more credible figure by allowing SDIO officials to disagree publicly. Thus, when others were urging early deployment of a partial shield, Louis Marquet, SDIO's technical director, said that by the time an early deployment of kinetic-energy satellites could be made, the Soviets could counter it by going to fast-burn boosters. Marquet's comments contradicted arguments of SDI supporters, including a former deputy to Abrahamson, Col. Simon P. Worden, urging early deployment and contending that it would take the Soviets longer to build countermeasures and cost them more than they could afford. Marquet's candor, coupled with the care taken by Abrahamson not to enter the policy thicket himself, helped to preserve the credibility of the program in Congress, even though it did not prevent substantial and increasing cuts in appropriations requests.
In the longer run, it remains to be seen whether SDIO can survive as a separate entity. The more the defense budget is restricted, and the more skepticism is generated about SDI, the more pressure is likely to be
felt to reintegrate the elements of SDI into DARPA and the services so that the Department of Defense can make better judgments about tradeoffs between SDI and other R&D programs. In the short run, however, the establishment of SDIO was a politic move. It prevented the losses caused by such integration and enabled the program director to create a network of cooperative officials and agencies, more or less along the lines of the successful ICBM and Polaris projects of the 1950s and 1960s. In an effort to reinforce its status and perhaps to help assure longevity, SDIO has proposed the creation of a Strategic Defense Initiative Institute, in the belief that such a body would undertake useful, arm's-length reviews of contractors' work—much along the lines of the Aerospace Corporation, which reviews work done for the air force. Critics in Congress charge that the real aim is to create a public-relations agency for SDIO's activities. The proposal has so far been rejected.