WHY would the Soviets spend millions of their scarce rubles to build a not-so-good radar and then invite United States congressmen to tour and photograph it? According to the most knowledgeable of those congressional visitors, Anthony R. Battista of the House Armed Services Committee staff, the most likely purpose of the radar is early warning against incoming US missiles, but only with marginal efficiency. Even so, the fact that the huge phased-array radar is being built in the middle of the Soviet Union, rather than on the periphery as dictated by the current antiballistic missile defense treaty, has triggered a dispute over what the US alleges is a treaty violation.
Much has been made by several congressmen and accompanying reporters of the fact that the radar is being built above, rather than under, ground. So some of the visitors have been quick to conclude that it can't be a ``battle management'' radar for control of a ``star wars'' engagement, as the Pentagon alleges. Much also has been made of the poor quality of construction.
First off, radars don't work very well underground. The signals they emit would bounce off the bunker walls before they got to the incoming missiles. So no matter what the risks, radars of any sort must be above ground. Second, the Soviets have never been much for showroom glamour. Their tanks, fighter aircraft, etc., have always been notoriously crude. But if you were, say, a Hungarian freedom fighter in 1956, that was irrelevant.
In short, the Soviets tend to build what is necessary, and that is all. What, then, of the controversial missile early-warning radar at Krasnoyarsk?
If you look at the world through American eyes, accepting such assumptions as ``mutual suicide'' in any sort of nuclear war, or ``retaliation'' rather than ``first strike,'' then the Krasnoyarsk radar is utter folly. It would disappear with everything else in the catastrophe. But if you think, as do the Soviets in all their military literature, that the most important element in warfare, including nuclear warfare, is surprise, then the crumbling concrete at Krasnoyarsk is much less important.
That is, a marginally efficient battle-management radar might be good enough to watch out for whatever missiles an opponent had left after he had been devastated by an overwhelming surprise first strike, or had been merely stunned and disorganized by a first strike limited to a few large-warhead missiles exploded far overhead so that the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated blacked out communications, the nervous system of all modern military forces. The effect of the enemy's ragged counterstrike would be further reduced by even marginally efficient antimissile weaponry, such as that now installed around Moscow, given the few minutes of warning the completed Krasnoyarsk radar will be able to provide, whether it survives long after that or not.
Marginally efficient though it may be, the Krasnoyarsk radar and the Soviet antiballistic missiles in existence or under development interject at least a doubt in the mind of anyone who might be thinking that a limited first-strike use of EMP might cripple the USSR.
The equation just described will not be altered by any arms control agreement now in view, nor by how many visits are made to radar sites. More than enough weapons and ``battle management'' means will remain in both arsenals to carry out attacks of any size desired.
This tells us we would do well to rethink the absolutist and emotional assumptions we carry around about nuclear warfare, all much in evidence among the congressional party during and since the Krasnoyarsk visit. Once we are free of such self-delusions, a more modest Strategic Defense Initiative than what President Reagan has proposed might appear a very worthwhile deterrent against at least a limited EMP-style ``first strike.''