Resurrecting ABM

The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) has been resurrected from the half-sleep into which it fell at the end of the cold war. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, supported by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, wants to spend another $6 billion trying to develop a missile that will shoot down another missile. The reason is the new threat to the US stemming from proliferation of weapons technology in countries such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

The proposal is a scaled-down version of President Reagan's "star wars" plan to develop a full-blown ABM system designed to provide a nuclear shield over the US. Proponents of star wars have maintained that it was what led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this view, the Soviets spent themselves into oblivion in a futile effort to match the US. This is a dubious thesis, but the economic burden of ABM development was, and is, one reason for Soviet objection to it.

The Soviet collapse sufficiently reduced the nuclear threat to the US that the ABM should have been abandoned. Yet research continued - more quietly and on a smaller scale, but no more successfully. Prototypes have failed a series of tests. The project never lost its support in Congress and now it has acquired new momentum with failure of the long-standing US policy to limit proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Worse, some of the nations that have acquired - or are close to acquiring - these weapons cannot be counted on to handle them as responsibly as did the Soviet Union.

These developments have been accompanied by equally fundamental changes in Russia and China. Russia seems to be tottering on the brink of collapse. China, on the other hand, is undergoing frenetic development. Both feel threatened by US efforts to acqure even a junior-size anti-missile defnese..

Russia's difficulties have severely wounded Russian pride - and US revival of the ABM makes it worse. Nor is it helped by a Pentagon proposal that if the Russians don't complain about US development of the ABM, the US won't complain if the Russians add extra warheads to their nuclear missiles. It's a gamble the US can develop an effective ABM faster than the Russians can increase the warheads on their missiles. Nothing in the record of ABM research justifies this. Both the US and Russia know that the Russians can't soon mobilize the resources for such augmentation. To Russians, the proposal looks like taunting of their weakness. They have little leverage against the US, but they do have one high card: the START II treaty to further cut US and Russian nuclear stockpiles. It's languished in the Russian Duma long after Senate approval. The US wants it ratified. Revival of the ABM may kill it.

The revival also complicates China relations. It would stabilize the strategic balance in northeast Asia, strengthening defenses of Japan and South Korea against North Korean missiles. But China sees it contributing to Japan's military ambitions and the defense of Taiwan.

In Moscow last week, Ms. Albright seemed insensitive to these concerns. She argues that the ABM isn't aimed at Russia and it is partly Russia's fault because Russia has been supplying Iran with weapons technology. This is a persuasive argument, but the Russians aren't persuaded.

The US is confronted with a particularly difficult trade-off: accept the threat of proliferation or upset relations with two major powers. Either of these powers is more important than any half dozen of the countries against which the ABM is aimed. Though the formidable technical problems of the ABM may be solved, they look more likely to make a mirage of the project's promise of greater security.

This is a close call. But it seems a better policy to look for other means to deal with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and their ilk.

* Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs.

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