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Space defense problems. Talk of difficulties with antimissile system hints at possible moderation of US arms position at Geneva

By Charlotte SaikowskiStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1985


As President Reagan avidly promotes his ``star wars'' concept, senior officials within the administration are candidly beginning to point out the obstacles to achieving it. By speaking about potential difficulties, say diplomatic and arms control experts, the administration could be positioning itself to back off from its present position in the Geneva arms talks.

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American officials mention these factors as they discuss the program, formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), designed to provide a nonnuclear space-based defense against nuclear missiles:

It will be extremely difficult to manage the transition period, during which the Soviets and the Americans begin to move away from deterrence, based on offensive nuclear weapons, to more reliance on defensive systems.

If SDI is to be put in place, it will be necessary not only to negotiate reductions in nuclear arms but to agree on a balance in levels of conventional weapons, which would add still another dimension to bilateral talks.

SDI will be viable only if it is cheaper to add more defensive arms than for the other side to add the offensive capability needed to penetrate the defense.

Any future defensive systems must be reasonably survivable.

``As you discuss SDI and as you discuss the reduction of theater and strategic weapons, I think that has to be coupled with . . . conventional arms control,'' says a ranking State Department official involved in arms control policymaking.

Without limits on conventional weapons, he says, a defensive system that eliminated nuclear weapons would simply increase the risk of conventional war.

Taking account of Soviet fears about SDI, the official also says that the transition period would have to be ``very, very carefully managed on both sides'' and would require step-by-step cooperation between the superpowers -- something experienced diplomats agree would be difficult to achieve.

Hinting at the possibility of a US compromise with Moscow on defensive systems, the official says that, falling short of understandings on a long-term SDI, he would be willing to have the US field a ``terminal'' (ground-based) defense along with reductions in offensive systems on both sides. This seems to suggest the US might consider an agreement trading off defensive and offensive systems, as the Soviets would like, instead of simply reducing offensive weapons.

One idea being discussed by arms control experts is that the US focus SDI research on the terminal phase -- the stage when warheads reenter the atmosphere. Current research has emphasized the ``boost phase,'' using space-based weapons aimed at stopping Soviet missiles at liftoff stage. This is what most concerns the Russians.

Some experts believe it would be possible to reach an agreement with the Soviets on ground-based defense systems, enabling the US to modernize its old, unused missile defense systems to defend hardened targets (such as missile silos) and at the same time not undercut the talks on offensive nuclear weapons.

``Let's not bad-mouth our successes,'' says the US official, referring to the fact that agreements based on deterrence (and encompassing offensive and defensive systems) have kept the peace a long time.

There clearly is a debate within the administration regarding SDI and how far the US can effectively press Moscow for the radical change in strategic thinking that SDI requries. The State Department official suggests that at Geneva the two sides would have to negotiate a road map of ways in which scientists in both countries could cooperate -- even in the research phase -- to achieve the long-term objective.

American scientists could concentrate on certain aspects of research, he says, while Soviet scientists deal with other elements.