NUCLEAR BLINDERS

ONE OF THE STAR ATTRACTIONS of the recent Farnborough International Air Show was a piece of Star Wars widgetry that would have made even Darth Vader smile. A company called Plessey has developed a new generation of aviator's goggles to protect pilots' eyes from bright nighttime flashes that the company evidently finds undesirable.

"The intense light from battlefield weapons, particularly nuclear devices, can temporarily blind pilots for several seconds," Jane's Defence Weekly explains. The magazine omits all mention of how long such flashes will blind people on the ground. Jane's liked the new specs enough to feature them on the cover of its Farnborough issue as part of the full battle array that fashionable pilots may be wearing in nuclear winters soon to come. The goggles are not only remarkably sophisticated, but they do succeed in making the lucky wearer look an awfullot like Darth Vader, which is just the sort of thing that Star Wars fans and strategic planners love.The eyewear works by polarizing light both horizontally and vertically, blocking the flash with photo diodes and solid state shutter elements. In and of itself, it's a technological marvel that no kid should be without.

The technological effort, however, raises serious questions about the survivability not only for pilots but for the planet.

Countermeasures such as the Plessey goggles seem to promote the possibility of nuclear war by assuring us we will be fully prepared for it. They help us contemplate the unthinkable and to look beyond it to the next attack. As in the events that led to World War I, readiness for war can become a major factor in propelling countries toward war. There is a major philosophical problem with weapons and systems that are designed to survive nuclear destruction and go on into the next generation of horror, the unimaginable World War III. For decades, we have been led to believe that if there is any value in nuclear weapons it is as a deterrent. We would never use them, the argument went, because we would all be killed.

That argument seems to be less and less true in light of Star Wars research and survivability countermeasures such as the Plessey goggles. The question of escalation seems to have shifted from one of who will have more weapons before war begins to who will have better weapons once the war is over.

With the continuation of Star Wars research becoming one of the major focuses of upcoming arms negotiations with the Soviet Union, it seems high time that the public focused its awareness on the implications of sophisticated weapons that are not simply bombs and missiles.

While there may be valid reasons for keeping day-to-day details of arms control negotiations under wraps, the debate over key issues should be loud, clear and open. The public cannot afford to keep plodding through the nuclear age with blinders on.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe