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Tight Budget Slows Projects of Agency Involved In Star Wars Project

June 4, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A small but innovative agency within the Pentagon’s Star Wars missile defense effort faces a second year of reduced funding, forcing a slowdown in research projects ranging from optical computers to high-power microwave weapons.

The agency, the Office of Innovative Science and Technology, was a lightning rod for criticism of the Strategic Defense Initiative shortly after it was launched several years ago.

IST’s activities continue to draw both criticism and qualified support within the American civilian scientific community.

IST funding peaked at $106 million in fiscal 1988 but was cut to $76 million this fiscal year. Tentative plans call for a slight increase, to $80 million, in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

If that plan holds, IST Director Dwight Duston said, ″we’ll probably have to make some severe decisions. It’s going to certainly dampen the program.″

″We have some things which are ready to really accelerate now. In other words, we’ve got some seed corn sprouting and it’s ready to go. If we have to be held at $80 million, there’ll be no fertilizer this coming year. Things will have to percolate along at the very fiscally limited level they are now,″ he said.

Duston said he was told his agency’s spending was being virtually frozen because of competing priorities and overall fiscal constraints.

For the entire SDI program, the Bush administration has requested $4.6 billion in fiscal 1990, up from $4.1 billion this fiscal year but considerably below the $5.9 billion recommended by President Reagan before he left office.

Critics of IST contend it has taken a highly idiosyncratic approach to funding research projects, without adequate scientific peer review, that it has sought to polish SDI’s image by getting university researchers involved with the program and that it has oversold the potential for civilian spinoffs from SDI research.

″You can’t spend that amount of money without coming up with some little odds and ends,″ said John Pike, associate director for space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based public interest group. ″But I sure haven’t seen anything that’s going to rescue the American electronics industry.″

Rosy Nimroody, a national security analyst with the Council on Economic Priorities, a New York-based organization that has issued several reports critical of Star Wars, said the IST program ″was definitely oversold.″

She said in recent years officials running the program have become more restrained in using IST for SDI image-building. But she added: ″I think there still remains an effort to get as many people as possible, so they can go around and say we have X number of universities involved in SDI.″

IST supporters, however, argue the program has been successful in promoting innovative projects which compare well with the scientific output of other Pentagon-sponsored laboratories.

″My own assessment is that within SDI, I think that a program like (IST) is very important and is in many ways the highest-quality and most promising part of the entire program,″ said Ashton Carter, acting director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. ″They’ve done well at attracting proposals that are reasonably good and that will have some application even if we never build a missile defense system.″

Duston said about 50 percent of IST’s research money goes to academic institutions, 30 percent to private companies and 20 percent to government laboratories. The program has contracts with researchers at 95 U.S. universities.

IST projects which he said appear promising but are likely to be slowed because of reduced funding include:

-Optical computers, whose central processors operate very fast because they utilize pulses of light rather than electricity.

IST, in conjunction with other agencies including the Office of Naval Research and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, had planned to mount an ″aggressive program″ to construct a first-generation, all-purpose optical computer within the next two years. ″We’ll just have to stretch it,″ Duston said.

-Advanced diamond technology, opening up new fields of diamond optics, highly heat-resistant electronic components and other future applications such as superhard coatings on surgical instruments. IST-funded researchers had been making progress in growing thin diamond layers on non-diamond materials.

-High-power microwaves for disabling the electronics of enemy missiles, aircraft and other weapon systems. Duston said IST likely would delay plans for field tests of a high-power microwave device because of the tight budget.