ABM: opening a Pandora's box

Few Americans probably remember the details of the ABM treaty concluded with the Russians in 1972. But they should be aware that a cloud is gathering over that treaty as the Reagan administration seriously considers returning to an antiballistic missile defense system as part of its nuclear arsenal. If it takes this course, it could be opening up a Pandora's box of problems.

To recap history briefly, the United States and the Soviet Union, realizing that ABM systems would be ineffective against incoming enemy missiles, agreed to build only so many launchers at two sites. Later the limit was applied to only one site. Today the Russians still have an ineffectual ABM system around Moscow , but the US under President Ford dismantled the American system in North Dakota as a waste of Taxpayers' money.

Now the US administration faces a dilemma. If it goes ahead to build the controversial MX missile system in Nevada and Utah (in order to protect its ICBMs against potential Soviet threat in the mid 1980s), how will it guard the MXs? President Reagan has rejected the SALT II treaty. Yet the uncomfortable fact is that, without the treaty, the MX system would be vulnerable, for the Russians would be able to build as many warheads as they deemed necessary to destroy the MX missiles in a nuclear strike. An ABM system -- or a BMD (ballistic missile defense), to use the current term -- is one solution under consideration in Washington.

Opting for this route, however, could lead to a still greater hazard -- further escalation of the nuclear arms race. To install a BMD system the US would have to abrogate the ABM treaty, to which both sides now are bound unless one formally withdraws. Can it be supposed for a moment that, if the US proceeded to build ABM defenses, The Russians would stand still? They too would be constrained to build large-area defense systems -- and to pursue technologhy which would enable them to penetrate the American deployments. In this age of rough nuclear parity, it is clear that either both nations will end up having substantial BMD deployments or neither will have them.

Moreover, contrary to strengthening the American nuclear posture, the ABM option could weaken it. Once the Soviet Union had put up abm defenses around its critical sites, the United States would be less certain that its warheads aimed at Soviet targets would not be shot down. So, to shore up the MXs, the US would in effect be directly downgrading two legs of its strategic deterrent -- the sea-based and the land-based missiles. It is hard to see such a move as other than destabilizing.

Many technical problems also arise which are too complex to treat here. But, to cite one, if the basing mode decided upon for the MX were to be a "shell game" (moving the missiles around on underground railroad tracks), presumably it would also be necessary to hide the ABM deployments -- or the Russians would simply spot them, take them out with one shot, and then proceed to the MXs themselves. Thousands of ABMs would be required. Needless to say, the cost of the MX and a protective ABM system would be astronomical.

It is not money alone which should be the determinant, however, but what best serves the nation's security. The US and the USSR both achieved a greater sense of security by limiting their defense against nuclear attack. They saw that neither side would really win in an all-out nuclear war and that deterrence -- or a "balance of terror" -- was the most effective way to keep each other in check. The ABM restrictions thus spurred a SALT process as the best, indeed the only way to bring the devilish nuclear arms competition under control.

Looking at the mounting complexities, costs, dangers -- the sheer insanity -- of that now-revved-up race, one can only conclude that the fundamental answer lies in returning urgently to the negoti ating table.

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