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To Redefine the ABM Treaty Is to Kill It

February 15, 1987|Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr. | Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr., president of the Arms Control Assn., is a former deputy director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

WASHINGTON — President Reagan has launched a concerted effort to lock future Administrations into his flawed "Star Wars" program. As revealed over the past few weeks, the Administration now plans to reorient the Strategic Defense Initiative from a long-term exploratory research effort to a phased early-deployment program.

By refocusing the program on near-term objectives, the Administration apparently hopes to stimulate congressional and public support for a program of such magnitude that its momentum will be unstoppable. To eliminate legal barriers, the Administration also plans unilaterally to reinterpret key provisions of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in a manner that would destroy the treaty's intent and lead to its early demise.

Pursuit of this plan will destroy any lingering prospects for progress in arms control under Reagan. Such disregard for international commitments, as demonstrated by the tortuous reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty, will further reduce U.S. international credibility, already severely weakened by the Iran- contra scandal. If the plan should succeed, Reagan's legacy will be a major acceleration in the strategic arms race, vast new military demands on the budget and a major reduction in U.S. security.

Formal announcement of these decisions has been slowed, but not altered, by extremely negative reactions from congressional leaders and North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, who had not been consulted. On Feb. 6, in a remarkably blunt letter, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) warned the President that a unilateral reinterpretation of the treaty as ratified by the Senate "would provoke a constitutional confrontation of profound dimensions." Moreover, lack of support from the military services has complicated the Administration's plans. The day before, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in congressional testimony, did not support making any early deployment decision, because sufficient information was not available.

Confronting such pressures, Secretary of State George P. Shultz announced on national TV last Sunday that the Administration would not implement its reinterpretation of the treaty without consulting Congress and NATO allies.

The Administration was so eager to launch the new crusade for "Star Wars" that it seriously considered making the deployment decision in the absence of an agreed program. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III put the case for early deployment bluntly: "It will be in place and can't be tampered with by future Administrations." While the President's desire to lock his successors into his unattainable vision of an impregnable defense was predictable, the support within the Administration for these unnecessary and premature decisions suggests that some advisers see the deeply divisive national debate it will generate as a welcome diversion from the increasing political damage of the Iran- contra scandal.

Far from implementing the exotic technologies that are confidently heralded by SDI propagandists, the early deployment program has instead fallen back on upgraded technical approaches originally rejected 10 to 25 years ago. The first layer of the three-layered defense will apparently depend on satellite-borne rockets that will use infrared sensors to home in on Soviet missiles during their launch phase. The rockets would destroy the launchers by direct hits, now described as "kinetic kill." This is the same concept as the Bambi ABM system cancelled in 1962, for lack of technical promise. The second level would depend on radar-controled ground-based missiles equipped with infrared sensors designed to seek out and collide with warheads outside the atmosphere. The third layer would perform the same mission within the atmosphere. This is essentially the old Safeguard ABM concept, abandoned in the early 1970s as cost-ineffective, with homing sensors substituted for nuclear warheads.

The new systems for early deployment are technically flawed for exactly the same reason as the earlier versions. The satellites in the first layer and any radars controlling the second and third layers would be extremely vulnerable targets, and there is little likelihood the system would survive long enough to perform. The first layer could easily be defeated by Soviet deployment of shorter-burn boosters. The second layer would easily be overwhelmed by decoys, for which no satisfactory means of discrimination will even in principle be available. The ability of the final stage to operate at all in a nuclear environment is questionable. There is no prospect that such a system will meet the Administration's own criteria for deployment: technical feasibility, survivability and cost-effectiveness at the margin. Little wonder the Joint Chiefs are unwilling to support a deployment decision at this time.

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