20. A Collision of Technology and Politics – Star Wars Revisited

Thor May
Uni­ver­sity of New­castle, NSW
@10 June 1986

We kid­ded our­selves for a while that Star Wars had gone away. We pre­tended that flower power was win­ning. But in our heart of hearts, in our 3 a.m. night­mares, we knew that no toy of destruc­tion, once con­ceived of, has ever been left to rest. Like Mordor’s ninth ring of power*, hid­den forever deep in a dark river beneath a moun­tain, some Gol­lum was sure to chance upon it, and once set free it would again cor­rupt all who care­lessly picked it up; (*J.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings). Below is a com­puter engineer’s report on the tech­ni­cal via­bil­ity of Star Wars I, circa 1986. Judge for your­self how rel­e­vant it is to Star Wars II, mil­len­nium edi­tion…


The notes to fol­low are my best attempt in 1986 as a non-spe­cial­ist to out­line a lec­ture given by David Lorge Par­nas [1], a Cana­dian com­puter engi­neer and pro­fes­sor who spent years work­ing on Amer­i­can defense projects. Par­nas seemed uniquely qual­i­fied to report on the Strate­gic Defence Ini­tia­tive (S.D.I.). At the time I found him highly per­sua­sive, and noth­ing since, to my knowl­edge, has inval­i­dated his tech­ni­cal argu­ments. For that rea­son, it seems worth­while to re-present them here, a gen­er­a­tion later. Any errors of inter­pre­ta­tion in this doc­u­ment are of course my own, and read­ers with a more sub­stan­tial inter­est are advised to read David Parnas’s own col­lected essays on the topic, which are now avail­able online [2].

In his lec­ture, David Par­nas was not mount­ing a polit­i­cal argu­ment against the Strate­gic Defence Ini­tia­tive, but illus­trat­ing why, tech­ni­cally, it was not fea­si­ble. Of course, his tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion had, and has, intense eth­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­se­quences.

We know now that the mil­i­tary super­power of the USSR, so fear­ful in his gen­er­a­tion, did col­lapse polit­i­cally. The rea­sons for that col­lapse are com­plex, but mil­i­tary over­spend­ing cer­tainly played a large part. What­ever the tech­ni­cal infea­si­bil­ity of the S.D.I., the mis­al­lo­ca­tion of resources which it excited from tech­ni­cally illit­er­ate politi­cians extracted its own con­se­quences. It just hap­pened that the United States of Amer­ica at that time had deeper pock­ets than the Union of Soviet Social­ist Republics. We see now that the hubris ema­nat­ing from Amer­i­can “tri­umph” in the arms race has since also claimed Amer­ica as a vic­tim, an his­tor­i­cal pat­tern famil­iar from almost every empire in his­tory. Oh, and those Rus­sian mis­siles which the S.D.I. was sup­posed to ren­der obso­lete are still there, and an invul­ner­a­ble “space shield” is still a wet dream for the big spenders in Wash­ing­ton.

As a lin­guist I have a spe­cial rea­son to remem­ber this lec­ture by David Par­nas. It is an odd fact of intel­lec­tual insight that sud­den under­stand­ing can come from unex­pected direc­tions. A key ele­ment of Parnas’s dis­cus­sion is that com­puter engi­neer­ing deals with dis­crete, ran­domly dis­con­tin­u­ous phe­nom­ena whose states are too numer­ous and vari­able to model math­e­mat­i­cally, and whose out­comes can there­fore not be pre­cisely pre­dicted. Con­ven­tional engi­neer­ing deals with ana­logue phe­nom­ena whose infinite states form a con­tin­uum which can be reli­ably mod­eled and tested. For exam­ple, a struc­tural engi­neer can be fairly con­fi­dent that a model bridge which he has tested in a wind tun­nel can rep­re­sent a sim­i­lar bridge scaled to full size. A com­puter pro­gram can­not be scaled in this way. 

The insight which came to me after David Parnas’s lec­ture was that nat­u­ral lan­guage, like a com­puter pro­gram, is also a kind of ran­domly dis­con­tin­u­ous phe­nom­e­non which can­not be reli­ably scaled. This directly con­tra­dicted the logic-based Chom­skyan gen­er­a­tive model of gram­mar which I was using at the time as the base for a doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion on gram­mat­i­cal agency. I even­tu­ally aban­doned that dis­ser­ta­tion after decid­ing that in prin­ci­ple nat­u­ral lan­guage pat­terns could not be accounted for by a log­i­cal gen­er­a­tive approach. My doc­toral with­drawal then was not a deci­sion which found much sym­pa­thy or under­stand­ing, and any pro­fes­sional lin­guists read­ing this will know that there is still a happy tribe fol­low­ing (some­what evolved) forms of gen­er­a­tive gram­mars. They will be there until hell freezes over. Careers and rep­u­ta­tions are involved. The same forces of nat­u­ral reac­tion will of course be at work in Parnas’s field of com­puter engi­neer­ing, and with­out doubt in the uni­verse of weapons devel­op­ment.


The Strate­gic Defense Ini­tia­tive (S.D.I. or “Star­wars” Project) – Why It Won’t Work


Notes on a lec­ture by Pro­fes­sor David Lorge Par­nas


.. deliv­ered under the aus­pices of the Aus­tralian Soci­ety of Engi­neers in New­castle Town Hall, 8pm, 10th June 1986
1. Back­ground


David Par­nas is a com­puter engi­neer who spends most of his time work­ing on high tech­nol­ogy United States Defense Depart­ment projects (e.g. the S7 air­craft).

He was invited to join a tech­ni­cal panel on the S.D.I. project and paid, like the other con­sul­tants, $1,000 per day [ed. not bad money in 1986]

His own inquiries led him to the con­clu­sion that the S.D.I. would not and could not work. His fun­da­men­tal objec­tions related not to the physics of the exer­cise (which were also doubt­ful) but to the insur­mount­able human lim­i­ta­tions on error-free com­puter cod­ing.

On resign­ing he sub­mit­ted eight tech­ni­cal papers detail­ing his objec­tions. These have been widely cir­cu­lated.

He was replaced on the panel by a retired gen­eral. No com­puter sci­en­tist would accept the posi­tion.


2. The Spe­cial Nature of Com­puter Engi­neer­ing


Con­ven­tional engi­neer­ing projects may be tested by:

a) math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el­ing

b) mul­ti­ple case test­ing


Com­puter pro­grams can­not be tested by math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el­ing because it is not pos­si­ble to write equa­tions for ran­domly dis­con­tin­u­ous phe­nom­ena.

This is why com­puter code is always the last ele­ment of any large project to come right – often years after the hard­ware has been per­fected. Com­puter code can only be made reli­able by con­tin­u­ous adjust­ment in actual use.

There is evi­dence that com­plex code can some­times become unsta­ble through debug­ging – the elim­i­na­tion of one error leads to the gen­er­a­tion of many more.

3. The Par­tic­u­lar Prob­lem of Cod­ing for the S.D.I.


The S.D.I. may involve 10 mil­lion lines of code.

Mul­ti­ple case test­ing of the S.D.I. is obvi­ously not pos­si­ble. The first test will be the last (i.e. war­fare).

Because com­puter codes are ran­domly dis­con­tin­u­ous phe­nom­ena, their fail­ure char­ac­ter­is­tics can­not be derived sta­tis­ti­cally. That is, a failure/error in one part of the code can­not be gen­er­al­ized to other parts of the code. 

A pro­gram may run with a thou­sand errors, but a sin­gle cru­cial error can lead to total fail­ure. A few years ago, a Venus probe was destroyed because a semi-colon was replaced by a comma in a pro­gram.

Soft­ware con­trolled oper­a­tions there­fore have an ele­ment of inher­ent unpre­dictabil­ity.


4. The Oper­a­tional Real­ity of the S.D.I.

The S.D.I. pro­gram will involve hun­dreds of satel­lites. Each satel­lite must con­tain one or more com­put­ers. Under bat­tle con­di­tions, the com­put­ers must run in real time. If the sys­tem is net­worked, one weak satel­lite link threat­ens the integrity of the whole oper­a­tion. For exam­ple, if a sig­nal is delayed by jam­ming at one point, this will dis­tort com­pu­ta­tion in neigh­bour­ing satel­lites which are decid­ing when, where, how, and if to fire.

The “Byzan­tine Model” and other the­o­ret­i­cal mod­els show that if a net­worked real time sys­tem is split even at one point, the root nodes will never be able to syn­chro­nize.

If each satel­lite were autonomous, it would have to con­tain the whole S.D.I. pro­gram – there is no way to scale for a reduced ver­sion of the code. Prac­ti­cally how­ever, in an oper­a­tional the­atre satel­lites can­not be autonomous since the oper­a­tion of their plat­form weapons “blinds” their elec­tronic recep­tion. That is, “hits” must be ver­i­fied and com­puted by neigh­bour­ing satel­lites.

Laser weapons do not “explode” any­thing. All they can do is to dis­able the guid­ance and other elec­tronic sys­tems of a mis­sile (which will con­tinue on course).

Since elec­tronic weapons sys­tems have no mea­sur­able sig­na­ture, dead or alive, it is dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to know whether a hit has been scored. This means that the satel­lite weapons plat­form doesn’t know whether to re-attack, or whether to direct action to other tar­gets. Fur­ther, decoys, cheap and in huge num­bers, may be deployed and be effec­tively indis­tin­guish­able from real tar­gets.


5. The Secu­rity of the S.D.I.

There is no such thing as a secure com­puter code. Hard­ware can be locked up. Soft­ware can be encrypted, not merely for pro­tec­tion but for theft, in an infinite vari­ety of ways. For exam­ple, a pro­gram can be encrypted in a “pic­ture”, trans­mit­ted in mul­ti­far­i­ous forms by tele­phone, and so on. 

Weapons soft­ware in the hands of an enemy can be sub­verted or cir­cum­vented. For exam­ple, there are cases where states in con­flict have pur­chased the same weapons sys­tem. In a recorded instance, one pro­tag­o­nist used its knowl­edge of a shared radar pro­gram to repro­gram war planes to fly in pat­terns which would be “invis­i­ble” to the enemy. So much for the pub­lic pro­posal by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan to “share” the S.D.I. tech­nol­ogy with the Soviet Union. 

The Star Wars code can never be secure. Fur­ther, the large num­ber of per­son­nel involved means that one cor­rupted indi­vid­ual can eas­ily write a dev­as­tat­ing but invis­i­ble “logic bomb” or “worm” into the code.

In the whole his­tory of com­put­ing NO sys­tem has ever worked on the first try. Even the lunar land­ing had to be done on man­ual over­ride because the com­puter was going to dump the mod­ule in a crater. The S.D.I. HAS TO work in its entirety on the first try. 

The Sovi­ets have no space based S.D.I. pro­gram [ed. circa 1986]. They have a prim­i­tive land based pro­gram of a kind aban­doned by the United States. From a com­puter pro­gram­ming point of view, land based sys­tems are infinitely less com­pli­cated than com­put­ing for mov­ing weapons sys­tems in space.

The S.D.I. will lead to arms accel­er­a­tion because mil­i­tary strate­gists ALWAYS work on a worst-case sce­nario. The U.S. mil­i­tary must assume that that the S.D.I. won’t work, and pre­serve their exist­ing weapons sys­tems. Soviet strate­gists must assume that the S.D.I. may work at least par­tially, and mul­ti­ply their mis­sile throw power. This gen­er­ates a new arms race.

Defend­ers of the S.D.I. are now say­ing that it will not be used to pro­tect civil­ian tar­gets, but only mis­sile silos. How­ever, hard­ened mis­sile silos are now invul­ner­a­ble to a strike within 500 feet. It is vastly cheaper and more reli­able to defend that 500 foot radius by a ground based sys­tem than from space.

6. The Com­mer­cial and Polit­i­cal Dimen­sions of the S.D.I. Devel­op­ment


Con­tracts for the S.D.I. are being delib­er­ately dis­trib­uted through­out the states of the Amer­i­can Union, and amongst inter­na­tional allies. This will make it polit­i­cally dif­fi­cult for a suc­ceed­ing Pres­i­dent to close the project down.

What are the eco­nomic and tech­ni­cal advan­tages of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the S.D.I. projects? 

a)    Tech­ni­cal Knowhow: With all Defense Depart­ment sub­con­tract­ing, knowhow passes up the hier­ar­chy from the sub­con­trac­tor to the cen­tral bureau­cracy, but an absolute min­i­mum amount of infor­ma­tion to do the job (and often less than that) is passed down the tree.

b)    Pro­duct Spin­offs: An insep­a­ra­ble com­po­nent of engi­neer­ing fea­si­bil­ity is cost. The cost struc­ture of defense related prod­ucts is so remote from the mar­ket­place that in fact very lit­tle tech­no­log­i­cal trans­fer takes place. All large Defense Depart­ment con­trac­tors have sep­a­rate divi­sions for mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial activ­ity which, for com­mer­cial rea­sons, remain largely unre­lated. If a job costs an indi­vid­ual $1, it will cost a small com­pany $2, a large com­pany $20, and the Defense Depart­ment $200. In any case, most defense related prod­ucts, in their very nature, are unus­able in the civil­ian sphere. 


7. The Defense Per­spec­tive of the Soviet Union

Why do the Sovi­ets appear to be upset about the S.D.I. ? Par­nas thinks that they may real­ize that with its mas­sive diver­sion of skills and funds, the S.D.I. could set back the defense prepa­ra­tions of the United States by a gen­er­a­tion. He thinks the Soviet Union may be work­ing on the “Brere Rab­bit psy­chol­ogy” of “yell NO loudly enough until the other guy goes out and com­mits fool­ish­ness from pure spite”. [ed. Well we know now that they were sold on a dif­fer­ent fable, and fol­lowed Alice down the rab­bit hole]. 


8. Mis­cel­la­neous Com­ments by David Par­nas


a) The peace move­ment is a waste of time, says Par­nas. If 60,000 peo­ple march in a city they do noth­ing but antag­o­nize some shop­keep­ers. TV audi­ences watch with half their brains – they are not acti­vated. If 60,000 peo­ple each go and per­suade 5 doubt­ful neig­bours, THEN there has been some gain.

b) Effec­tive oppo­si­tion to the S.D.I. will come through word of mouth only.

c) Pres­i­dent Rea­gan is only told what he wants to hear by his min­ders. He receives no reli­able sci­en­tific advice at all.

d) Freud (writ­ing to Ein­stein): Law and Force are equiv­a­lent phe­nom­ena. Law comes about because indi­vid­u­ally weak units band together to con­trol a stronger ele­ment.

e) Par­nas: This fact holds for states as well as indi­vid­u­als. The super­pow­ers will never act uni­lat­er­ally to curb their own power. Rel­a­tively weak states such as Aus­tralia and Canada may be able to act in unison to bring about an inter­na­tional rule of law which con­strains the super­pow­ers.

f) There are char­ac­ter­is­tics of inef­fi­ciency and cor­rup­tion which are com­mon to all large orga­ni­za­tions, irre­spec­tive of ide­ol­ogy or nation­al­ity.

g) Most of the sci­en­tists par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Strate­gic Defense Ini­tia­tive are know­ingly per­pe­trat­ing a fraud.

h) Social courage is rare. For exam­ple, the engi­neers who knew that the space shut­tle, Chal­lenger, was at risk didn’t go pub­lic until after the event.

i) Mil­i­tary pro­gram­ming tech­nol­ogy is gen­er­ally infe­rior to that in the pri­vate sec­tor. For exam­ple, the Defense Depart­ment Pro­gram­ming Lan­guage Project, ADA, is a mon­ster that has never worked, but is not allowed to die. Con­trac­tors are required to work with it, wast­ing end­less time and money.

j) The NASA ground con­trol com­puter pro­grams are a rat’s nest whose inter­de­pen­dent prop­er­ties nobody under­stands. They break down con­stantly. (This infor­ma­tion is based on Parnas’s own con­sult­ing expe­ri­ence). To get the S.D.I. satel­lites into space, the mil­i­tary would have to com­man­deer the whole civil­ian space pro­gram for a long time to come.





[1] Wikipedia (accessed Jan­u­ary 2013): David Lorge Par­nas @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Parnas

[2] Par­nas, David (1985) Soft­ware Aspects of Strate­gic Defence Sys­tems. Amer­i­can Sci­en­tist, Jour­nal of Sigma Xi, Vol. 73, No. 5, pp. 432–449. Reprinted online in Com­mu­ni­ca­tions of the ACM, Decem­ber 1985, Vol. 28, No. 12 @ http://www.cs.helsinki.fi/u/przybils/courses/CBD06/papers/p1326-parnas.pdf



Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972). 

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thor­may AT yahoo.com

All opin­ions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

A Col­li­sion of Tech­nol­ogy and Pol­i­tics  – Star Wars Revis­ited
© copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 1986

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