ASAT and Geneva

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THE Reagan approach to strategic issues seems to be a willingness to accept cuts in weapons arsenals, but not restraint on the variety or sophistication of weapons. This attitude appears based on a belief in an American technological imperative, a conviction that Western security depends on US scientific and technological inventiveness. Yes, the administration argues, the Soviets have an antisatellite system that is ground based and cumbersome; but the Americans have a flexible and deadlier ASAT that is all ready to test. Yes, our announcement that we are going ahead with testing, before the November summit between President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev, may look like we are willing to risk credibility on seeking arms reductions in the face of Soviet demands that arms cuts be linked to restraint on space militarization and defensive system s. But Congress has approved the tests. And we do not intend to link our defensive systems, whether ASAT or ``star wars,'' to the mutual arms reduction bargaining.

The gist of this position is that the administration intends to continue the arms race in theater and mode, in research and technology readiness. But perhaps not so.

As argued in the column opposite, now is a moment to intercept the launch of the arms race into space. Military satellites are part of the nuclear age safety net, providing the system of surveillance, tracking, warnings, and communication that helps counter the nuclear balance of terror. An ASAT weapons race jeopardizes this satellite safety net. The technologies of ASAT lead into those of a ballistic missile defense system. If the US is bent on testing its ASAT system, the best hope may be an agreement

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freezing ASAT weaponry at the current development level and banning further tests, especially at the high altitudes where the most remote satellites hover. This would balance the US technological edge against the Soviets' altitude edge. Viewed as such, the ASAT issue could become a constructive part of the Geneva summit agenda. The President's strategic defensive initiative, or ``star wars,'' program is down the pike in development; ASAT is at hand.

The problem with a technological race, as with a firepower race far in excess of a capacity for mutual annihilation, is its insatiableness. It is a game of catch-up, not rest. It does not really offer peace. Advantage is elusive. The Soviets, for example, have begun to make gains in nuclear submarine silence, a key to US nuclear submarine fleet superiority.

We know President Reagan continues to promise that his administration's defensive weapons system in outer space offers ``a way out of the nuclear dilemma that has confounded mankind for four decades,'' as he did again late last week in Los Angeles. But there is no more security in technological deftness than in sheer bomb megatonnage; some argue the other way: that too threatening a disparity in technology is destabilizing and could prompt the lagging superpower to heighten world tensions -- or to do wo rse.

No outside analyst is quite sure what the Reagan administration is up to with its latest put-it-to-them offensive toward the Soviets. Reports from inside the administration indicate that many policy contradictions remain unresolved. Announcements like the ASAT test go-ahead may reflect the din of battle inside the White House as much as a message in any coordinated Geneva approach.

Whatever the case, American technological hubris should not be allowed to impair progress in Geneva any more than should brute Soviet bluster.

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