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THE NATION : ARMS CONTROL : Security Still Means Fewer Nuclear Arms

August 20, 1995|Michael Krepon | Michael Krepon is president of the Henry L. Stimson Center

WASHINGTON — Republican drums are beating on Capitol Hill to kill the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to deploy missile defenses nationwide. Again, the arms-control community is up in arms, claiming that even the Clinton Administration's limited plans for missile defenses will kill prospects for strategic arms reductions. Sound familiar?

We've had this knockdown, drag-out debate twice before, first when the ABM Treaty was negotiated during the Nixon Administration, then after President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative. Both debates retarded nuclear-arms reductions without producing any effective defenses. The best way to avoid another such no-win debate is to quit playing by the zero-sum rules imposed by the contenders. We need drastic cuts in nuclear arsenals, and we need missile defenses that work. In truth, we can't have one without the other.

The current debate was touched off by the Gulf War, when Israeli and Saudi Arabian cities were targets for Saddam Hussein's Scuds. The prospect of another renegade leader threatening cities or U.S. forces with chemical- or nuclear-tipped missiles prompted the Bush and Clinton Administrations to speed up development of theater missile defenses.

Defending against rudimentary missiles launched by rogue states isn't easy, but it is far simpler than protecting a continent against intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the line between the two approaches is blurred, since effective theater missile defenses could also knock down some, but far from all, strategic missiles. The ABM Treaty permits theater missile defenses, but prohibits giving them capabilities to counter strategic missiles.

This built-in tension provides the terrain for the third round of battle. The Clinton Administration began negotiations with Moscow, in November, 1993, to establish a demarcation line between theater and strategic missile defenses. The Republican takeover of Congress transformed the debate surrounding the talks into another assault on the ABM Treaty. The stakes have grown, and President Bill Clinton's lack of decisiveness has made a modestly hard decision excruciatingly difficult.

The biggest irony in all this is that many arms-control and defense enthusiasts have joined in common cause, thereby reinforcing each other's diametrically opposed positions. For their quite separate reasons, both have concluded that no U.S.-Russian agreement on theater missile defenses is better than the guidelines now under discussion. The probable result: The drastic, long-term reduction of the nuclear threat that both sides want could become impossible to achieve.

Despite Russia's economic straits and the now universal recognition that strategic arsenals are bloated beyond rational need, many arms-control enthusiasts continue to argue that offensive cuts and defensive deployments are an either/or proposition. Groups like the Arms Control Assn. contend that theater defenses will gut the ABM Treaty and jeopardize the ratification and implementation of the second strategic arms-reduction treaty, now languishing in the Russian Duma. But U.S. theater defense programs were not part of the Duma's opposition to START II until the U.S. arms-control community made this a cause celebre. One year after the ABM Treaty demarcation talks began, the Kremlin started to link arms reductions to missile defenses.

Many in the U.S. arms-control community even oppose the U.S. Army's favorite program--the theater high-altitude area defense system (THAAD)--that the Kremlin is prepared to accept. To contend that THAAD violates or gravely threatens the ABM Treaty is to confuse the treaty's purposes with its practical effect: The treaty's preamble measures its worth in terms of deep cuts, not by its continued imposition of strategic vulnerability.

Limited THAAD deployments cannot possibly protect urban centers against even a small fraction of the Russian arsenal, which is why treaty foes want 22 THAAD sites, in addition to national missile defenses. Their impulse to transform the Administration's limited-defense proposal into a frontal assault against the ABM Treaty may now seal START II's fate. The Kremlin may still see the wisdom of reducing its bloated nuclear arsenal, but is likely to do so in ways that save money and provide insurance against the ABM Treaty's demise. If so, START II's biggest benefits--eliminating multiple-warhead, land-based missiles and facilitating even deeper cuts--will be lost.

If we free ourselves from the theology of the two sides, several conclusions naturally follow. To begin with, the ABM Treaty is not a Cold War relic. Instead, it is the key to steep reductions in nuclear arsenals that are a prerequisite for effective defenses.

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