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U.S.-Soviet Radar Race Could Stall Arms Control

November 23, 1986|PETER D. ZIMMERMAN | Peter D. Zimmerman is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington.

Since the earliest days of the missile age, American radar beams have pointed outward from Thule, Greenland, and Fylingdales on the Yorkshire coast of England, two stations built to warn the United States of the launch of Soviet intercontinental missiles. Now, after almost 30 years, the two radars are obsolete, difficult to maintain, and due for replacement.

A new radar is nearly complete at Thule, and the American and British governments have signed, but not announced, an agreement for work to begin on a new installation several miles from the original Yorkshire site. These would not seem to be the kind of actions to threaten the arms-control regime and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with destruction--but they are.

The problem is that the new installations are "large phased array radars," or LPARs, products of the computer age that dispense with the large rotating and scanning dish antennas we associate with radar stations. LPARs have no moving parts, and can sweep across the sky with electronic instead of mechanical speed. They are the key elements in any system of defense against ballistic missiles.

The new radars are very large objects, extremely complex, and require many years to complete. The rate at which they can be built very likely is the most severe restriction on the rate at which either the Soviets or the United States could break out of the ABM treaty to deploy a nationwide defense. For that reason, the negotiators of the 1972 treaty established a set of restrictions governing all future LPAR construction and deployment. Exactly five permitted categories were specifically named (all others being forbidden): LPAR to verify compliance with arms-control agreements, to track objects in space, at ABM test ranges, within the one permitted ABM deployment area, and for early warning of ballistic missile attack--but only if they are situated along the "periphery of the national territory and oriented outward." Thule and Fylingdales are far from the "periphery" of United States territory.

The American position is that both radars are "grandfathered" because installations existed on or near their sites when the ABM treaty was signed. The Reagan Administration also argues that the treaty permits modernization of existing warning radars. It does no such thing. The treaty states clearly that ABM systems and their "components" (a word with a special meaning in the treaty) may be modernized, but early-warning radars are explicitly not "components."

Officials have made a "Grandpa's ax" argument about Thule, since the new radar sits on top of the old radar building: "This is Grandpa's ax; it has had two new handles and one new head, but it's still his ax." A more appropriate analogy would be that the ax was converted into a chain saw--and chain saws are illegal. Grandpa's ax fails in Yorkshire: The old and new Fylingdales radars will be miles apart, and the two may be operated concurrently before the old one is torn down.

Thule and Fylingdales are as clearly violations of the ABM treaty as is the Soviet early-warning radar being completed at Krasnoyarsk, which looks "over its shoulder" at the Arctic Ocean from deep inside Siberia. In October, 1985, the Soviets offered to stop work at Krasnoyarsk if the United States would do the same at Thule and forgo the "modernization" of Fylingdales. The Administration responded that it could not trade two permitted, and needed, radars for one that is illegal. According to a Times report last weekend, the Soviets have now offered to trade Krasnoyarsk for Thule alone. This would be no more palatable to the Administration than the previous Soviet offer, since Congress could be expected to eliminate the Fylingdales "modernization" as well, construction not yet having begun in England.

Even the reported Soviet willingness to admit the illegality of Krasnoyarsk will not suffice if the Administration is asked to admit that it also has violated the ABM treaty. But our new radars are at least as suspect as the Soviet one. Therein lies the germ of a compromise.

All three radars are useful, and perhaps necessary for the defense of the United States or the Soviet Union. Two are nearly complete, and if all of the LPARs under construction or planned by both sides are finished, each country will have eight. Parity in number and near equality in capability will have been achieved, with each side confident that it can detect missiles fired at it and its allies from any direction.

It could then be possible to halt all further construction of LPARs except by mutual agreement, and to define intelligent restrictions on the existing ones. They should remain exactly as they are today, or as they are planned, with no change in the orientations of the huge antenna faces, no new faces built, and no changes in the physical characteristics, such as the frequency, of the waves that they transmit.

The details of such an understanding would be complex, but it is clearly possible to find common ground. If the Americans and the Soviets can agree on a new "common understanding" about the kinds and locations of LPARs permitted under the ABM treaty, the process of reaching agreements on drastic reductions in the strategic arsenals can go forward without the distraction of constant charges of cheating and bad faith.

If agreement on the radars at Krasnoyarsk, Thule and Fylingdales cannot be reached, each side will have cause to charge the other with deliberate violations; and each will have encouraged its own "hard-liners" in their search for new roadblocks to set in the path of arms control.

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