Don't Gut ABM Treaty

HOWEVER rocky President Clinton's relationship with the military may have been at the outset of his term, it has largely smoothed out. Could part of the reason be the administration's attempt to gut one of the most significant strategic-arms-control treaties between the United States and Russia?

The anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty of 1972 puts tight constraints on the testing and deployment of weapons designed to destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those constraints help ensure that nuclear deterrence in fact deters. Yet the Pentagon - in designing what it feels are optimum systems to destroy shorter-range tactical missiles known as theater-missile defense (TMD) therefore is developing weapons whose capabilities far exceed the likely threat and - could double as highly mobile ABM defenses.

To accommodate these new systems, the administration is negotiating with Russia to redefine as TMDs any weapons that did not have a tested ABM capability. The standard now is one of inherent capability, tested or not. The administration also wants to use TMD systems against higher-velocity warheads than now permitted, warheads more characteristic of ICBMs than of short-range missiles.

The impact of these proposals would be far worse than the ``broad'' interpretation of the ABM treaty once offered by the Reagan administration as it pursued the Strategic Defense Initiative. Mr. Reagan wanted to squeeze through a perceived loophole dealing with ``exotic'' technologies. The Clinton administration wants to rewrite the treaty. The issue is not one of questioning the need for TMD systems. It is whether, in the face of lower-cost, treaty-compliant alternatives that more closely match the threat, the US should pursue a course that runs counter to its own interests.

ABM-capable systems, although nominally tested for theater use, would remove incentives to further reduce nuclear arsenals not only in Russia, but in countries like Ukraine and Belarus, which the US would like to see join the ABM treaty regime. This, in turn, could undermine efforts to gain indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, already threatened by nonnuclear states thatfeel the declared nuclear states are not doing enough to work toward nuclear disarmament.

Let the Pentagon develop TMDs - but within the confines of the current ABM treaty.

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