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Pork Barrels in Space

June 02, 1985

Pigs can't fly, but this doesn't mean that there are no pork-barrel programs headed for outer space.

Listening to growing numbers of physicists and former top defense officials describe President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, it seems clearer by the day that his project is just such an animal. They argue not only that it will take decades to produce a leakproof shield against nuclear weapons over the United States, if it can be done at all, but also that even trying to perfect such a system on the crash schedule that the Pentagon wants to follow can ignite a whole new arms race--this time in space.

For that reason alone the Senate should make deep cuts in the program this week while it is working on the defense authorization act.

The Senate does not need nuclear experts to help it phrase the first question to ask before it votes on a bill sponsored by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) to cut in half the Administration budget of $3.7 billion for next year's work on Star Wars. Americans ask the question of salesmen every day: "What does this gadget do?"

The President cannot very well say, as he implied in his speech two years ago, that it will give the United States leakproof protection against nuclear warheads, because his own Pentagon experts would have to deny that.

The next question is: "If it's not leakproof, how many missiles would get through and where would they hit?" Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson would want to know, for example. how many would hit California. Ninety-eight other senators would have similar questions of their own.

Trimming the sails of Star Wars might also help arms-control talks in Geneva get on track. The Soviet Union insists that the Star Wars program, the multibillion-dollar search for a nuclear-proof shield over the United States, should be part of the Geneva talks. Reagan says that Washington will explain to the Soviets what it is doing, but will not bargain about it.

At the same time, the Administration is debating with itself about whether to turn its back on existing treaties that limit numbers of nuclear weapons and kinds of weapons on the ground, still not entirely proved, that the Soviets are cheating on the treaties, anyway. The numbers of weapons allowed under SALT II are immense, to be sure, but the treaties provide at least some boundaries that take some of the uncertainty out of the otherwise very uncertain field of nuclear strategy. The treaties should continue in force, but the longer the Geneva talks fail to show progress, the greater will be the pressure in both countries to break through the ceilings with new weapons.

The Senate should put Star Wars on a much slower research track. The Administration should agree to negotiate at Geneva not only on defensive systems research but also on changes that any defensive system would produce in the nuclear forces of both the United States and the Soviet Union. You can't talk about one without the other any more than pigs can fly.

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