As the nuclear-free promise of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars," founders on awesome technological barriers and easy Soviet countermeasures, we're hearing more about one of the great delusions of our time: "Spinoff," the threadbare notion that SDI's billions for research will invigorate the civilian economy with an abundance of scientific discoveries.

It would be impossible, of course, to spend the $26 billion that President Reagan is seeking for SDI research without turning up some knowledge that can be turned to civilian use. But, today, the real menace to national security is the high-tech international competition that's walloping the U.S. economy. And the key question is whether the U.S. can afford to tie up much of its outstanding technical talent in a futile military extravaganza, while hoping for a bonus for civilian needs.The answer is that we can't. And that's why SDI's enthusiasts are pushing the spinoff theme as an assurance that SDI will boost, rather than drag down, the civilian economy. According to the widely repeated forecast of a private consulting firm, Business Communications Company, SDI will eventually spawn $5 billion to $20 billion in sales of civilian products. That range of dollars is so broad that it's meaningless. Furthermore, the real issue isn't gobs of

dollars on the distant horizon. It's how can we best use scarce resources - and it's doubtful that the answer is by dumping them into Star Wars.

The spinoff spiel collects some credence from the fact that science and the military are old collaborators. Their partnership goes back at least to ancient times when the skills of blacksmiths and the needs of warriors laid the foundation for what evolved into metallurgical science. Later, explosives became central to warfare and mining. And so on, into modern times, where the urgencies of war accelerated the development of aircraft, electronics, antibiotics and a slew of other products that characterize our era.

Why can't it go on like that, with SDI as an engine that will help speed us toward the technologies of the next century?

The answer is that for many centuries, civilian and military requirements overlapped a great deal and, in many instances, were identical. But in recent decades, military technology has diverged toward exotic, high-performance capabilities that are remote from civilian needs - as remote, let's say, as a 300-mile-an-hour racer is from the requirements of commuter bus service.

Many military and civilian airplanes formerly originated on the same drawing boards. The ven erable Boeing 707 commercial transport and the Air Force KC-135 tanker are twins in their basic design and engineering. But the happy process of two fro one no longer applies. Our latest bomber, the supersonic B1, has spawned no civilian counterpart, nor has the wide-body generation of civilian transports lead to any military applications.

Meanwhile, in the economically critical field of electronics, Japan has taken the lead in manufacturing today's consumer products and the basic chips for the next generation of marketplace winners. The Japanese have worked long and hard for this triumph, and we've helped them along to their competitive lead. About 30 percent of all U.S. spending for research and development goes to the military. The Japanese spend only 2 percent of their R&D money on military programs.

The irrelevance of Star Wars to civilian needs is typified by the hurrahs for progress in the development of the rail gun - an electromagnetic device that can hurl a projectile at speeds unattainable by other means. The rail gun is indeed a technological marvel with a potential for numerous military roles. But its value for civilian needs is remote and maybe there's none at all.

The Star Wars hucksters insist that the money voted for their passion would otherwise go unappropriated by the U.S. Congress - and, therefore, the civilian benefits, no matter how small, are a bonus, they say.

That argument has long been pushed to justify big research budgets for the Pentagon and crumbs for the government's civilian research programs. With U.S. industry now taking a beating in the high-tech fields where it has traditionally lead the world, the spinoff thesis is increasingly threadbare.

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