Washington — Congress is groping for ways to understand and control the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The missile defense research program, popularly known as ``star wars,'' is perhaps the most complex issue the body has ever faced. Few members, if any, are experts on kinetic energy weapons, lasers, particle beams, and other SDI technologies.
``There is an awful lot of [SDI] I do not know anything about,'' Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona said recently.
This effort to get a handle on SDI is reflected in the defense authorization bill, which is being settled by a House-Senate conference committee this week.
The effort includes the likely establishment of an SDI commission of outside experts to advise Congress, as well as restrictions on SDI development that may be written into law.
An SDI commission seems almost inevitable. For months members of both chambers have complained that most of them can't tell the difference between a terminal imaging radar and a chain saw, and that they want independent advice to help them judge SDI's technical progress.
SDI could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and it raises many arcane questions about nuclear deterrence theory. Under such circumstances, ``I seriously doubt that normal committee oversight procedures will be sufficient,'' says Rep. James Olin (D) of Virginia.
The House version of the 1986 defense authorization bill, which outlines military programs for the year, actually calls for two such commissions. One would have five members, and last six months; the other would have eight members, and stay in business until 1990.
The Senate, for its part, has not written down its intention to form an SDI commission. But Senator Goldwater has promised on the Senate floor that he will appoint such a panel.
Congressional aides say one commission will probably come out of all these calls. Informal lists of possible members include such names as former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. 2 In one way, Congress has already asserted control over SDI by cutting its budget request. The Reagan administration asked for $3.7 billion for SDI research in 1986. The Senate approved $2.9 billion for the project; the House, $2.5 billion. A compromise figure will come out of the House-Senate defense conference, which should finish next week.
But Congress is also searching for other ways to keep rein on the SDI program. One method may be legal hurdles a strategic defense would have to leap before it could be deployed.
The Senate version of the authorization bill contains such restrictions. It requires that a missile defense can't be put in place unless the President certifies, in writing, that the system would withstand a Soviet attack, and that it would be cheaper for the US to add a unit of defense than it would be for the USSR to add more nuclear warheads to its offense.
Without such cost-effectiveness, most experts agree, an SDI system might just cause the arms race to accelerate.
One large congressional worry about SDI, as revealed by the statements of numerous members on the floor during defense bill debate, is that it will acquire an irreversible momentum. The billions spent on SDI research, many fear, might make deployment of any system inevitable, even if it is technically faulty.
Members from both parties also want to make sure SDI research is accompanied by good-faith negotiating on arms control in Geneva.
In recent days, there have been rumblings about a minor breakthrough emanating from the arms talks. According to published reports, the Soviets have shown a willingness to allow laboratory research on SDI. The Reagan administration has been adamant that such research must be allowed to continue.
Development of an SDI system, however, would still be banned, under this scenario. Development would include full-scale tests of SDI components.
Valery Artemyev, a member of the Soviet delegation in Geneva, on July 10 issued a statement officially denying that the USSR is willing to make such a concession.