WASHINGTON — In what could become the "nuclear freeze" issue of the presidential election campaign, a ban on missile flight tests has suddenly emerged as an intense and highly divisive issue among Democratic presidential candidates.
Five of the six Democrats--Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt--believe the United States and the Soviet Union should stop testing the missiles that carry most of the superpowers' nuclear weapons.
A test ban, they argue, would not only stop the development of most new missiles but would also undermine the confidence of each side in its existing missiles. That, according to this view, would make surprise attacks less likely and reduce the risk of war.
Only Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. among the Democratic candidates believes a ban would make war more likely instead of less, arguing that it would create dangerous uncertainty about the reliability of existing missiles. He called a proposed ban "extremely irresponsible."
During a test ban, he said, one of the superpowers might come to believe that its missiles were deteriorating faster than the other's, and that might tempt one side or the other to attack.
The proposed ban on missile flight tests is distinct from a potential ban on the detonation of nuclear explosions to test warheads. U.S. and Soviet negotiators are discussing nuclear testing issues at arms control talks in Geneva.
In Gore's view, lobbying by liberal interest groups for a ban on missile flight tests has taken on the coloration of pressure during previous presidential campaigns for support for a nuclear freeze--a halt in the production and deployment of additional nuclear weapons.
He told a breakfast meeting with The Times Washington Bureau Thursday that one Iowa group demanded of every Democratic campaign that it state its candidate's position on the issue "on a half hour's notice."
Capitulated to Request
"All the other campaigns, with the partial exception of the Babbitt campaign, capitulated to this insistent request," he said.
Babbitt would ban test flights of existing missiles to check their reliability, but he would allow tests of new missiles, such as America's proposed single-warhead Midgetman.
A Gore aide identified the pressure group in Iowa as Star Pac, which he said opposes the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program, nuclear testing and U.S. aid to Nicaragua's rebels. "It's an amalgam of anti-SDI, SANE and the nuclear freeze movement," he said.
Robert Sherman, an aide to Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), said a group called Freeze Voter had adopted a missile test ban as its key issue in the 1988 presidential campaign. Sherman has been instrumental in pushing a test ban in the House Democratic Caucus.
Advocates of a total flight test ban maintain that compliance with such an accord would be easier to verify because all missile flights are monitored by the other side's satellites and other intelligence methods.
Space Vehicle Ban Proposed
But Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle warned that the flights of missiles associated with space missions could in reality be tests of missiles intended to become weapons. Advocates of a missile flight test ban propose also banning space vehicles with characteristics similar to those of weapons, but Ikle is not satisfied.
"Since it's inconceivable that either side would stop launching satellites," he said, "it would be difficult to distinguish tests of a new missile from tests of a new space booster or a flight to launch a satellite. Verification is just too big a problem."
Advocates of a flight test ban argue that it would not only retard development of new missiles but also reduce confidence in existing ones, preventing their use.
In the SALT II accord signed in 1979, the United States and Soviet Union agreed to limit each other to one new intercontinental missile during the five-year term of the agreement, in effect imposing an annual quota of tests.
The Senate did not ratify SALT II, and, when the Reagan Administration took office in 1981, it accused the Soviets of violating the agreement by building two new ICBMs. The Soviets claimed one of its missiles was a modernized version of an older missile, as permitted by the treaty. The dispute is still unresolved.