WHEN the MX intercontinental ballistic missile was first proposed some 15 years ago, its principal attraction resided in its utility at the negotiating table -- the classic ``bargaining chip'' -- in the SALT deliberations coming up then. The MX was to be a 10-warhead missile to penetrate and saturate any Soviet antimissile system more effectively than could our smaller, three-warhead Minuteman III. Unfortunately, the Nixon administration insisted that multiple-warhead development proceed despite the severe restrictions imposed on defensive weapons in the ABM Treaty of 1972. Predictably, the much larger Soviet missiles were able to load several times the number of warheads per missile launcher than their American counterparts could: Fears of a first strike correspondingly grew stronger, and calls for renewed ``strategic modernization'' (i.e., more-numerous and diverse nuclear weapons) in the face of this new Soviet threat became the reasonable, consensus position.
We seem once again to be caught by the allure of new gadgetry, posing in the guise of a bargaining chip, as the administration insists on the non-negotiability of its ``star wars'' defense against ballistic missiles. Kurt Gottfried of the Union of Concerned Scientists framed the problem correctly when, before Congress last year, he asked whether we would cash in our bargaining chip in arms talks with the Soviets or leave the game because we had yet again ``fallen in love with the bargaining chip itself.''
For Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and those others who would like to remove star wars from the negotiating table, the question needs to be put: To what end is the Strategic Defense Initiative leading? The goal, as enunciated on many occasions by the Reagan administration, is to reduce the risk of nuclear war by developing the means to make the ICBM ``impotent and obsolete.'' The ICBM is singled out because it packs the mightiest wallop, is the most accurate of all nuclear delivery vehicles, and remains the one index of nuclear strength in which the Soviets hold a substantial lead.
Let us assume for the moment that developing and maintaining lasers and particle-beam weapons does not, in the end, result in the elimination or significant reduction of Soviet ICBMs. In fact, the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community points in just this direction -- that any space-based defense could be readily defeated or evaded by a variety of countermeasures presently available. The likelihood of an accelerated arms race between offensive and defensive weapons suggests itself very clearly for the years ahead.
Despite accumulating evidence that no strategic defense system could ever achieve such ambitious goals, Moscow seems genuinely disturbed by the prospect of a space arms race. Soviet political elites are upset, however, not only by the expense and difficulty of keeping abreast with American space weapons technology; they are equally disturbed by the implications for crisis stability, should two leaky or imperfect defensive networks be deployed. With two rickety shields facing each other, ``rewards'' are doled out to the side that strikes first -- so that the aggressor's shield can better deal with the enfeebled retaliatory blow. We should not assume, as this administration does, that it is possible to win a technology race with the Kremlin: History records that in the realm of military technology, the Soviets always field a comparable weapon.
If we truly want to reduce the risks of war and eliminate the theoretical advantages retained by the Soviet heavy-missile force, then we should take Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at his word and trade away the fanciful benefits we gain from a space-defense system for the more tangible benefits derived from their first-strike ICBMs. This is in accord with Mr. Gromyko's insistence that offensive and defensive talks be linked and is consistent with his pledge that the new negotiating round result in ``significant reductions.'' The objective would also be in line with the last US Geneva position: that of de-MIRVing, or moving back to the era where each missile possessed only one warhead. Eventually, each side would de-MIRV sufficiently that neither would be able to destroy enough enemy ICBMs to make a premeditated or preemptive first strike thinkable.
Prudent negotiating tactics may very well require the US delegation to be coy about star wars, but it can only prove counterproductive to leave your best bargaining chip at home in an effort to lecture Moscow on the advantages of the so-called ``defensive transition.'' There should also be no doubt that, should the Soviet negotiators accept the ``wisdom'' now in vogue at the Pentagon, the administration itself will be leading the vanguard decrying the perilous Soviet ``laser gap'' while demanding renewed vigilance in the form of additional ``modernization.''
Our record in regard to bargaining chips should therefore be uppermost in mind when we return to Geneva. Whenever we have become amorously involved with our negotiating instruments (either old or new weapons systems), like the MIRVed ICBM, the Soviets have always caught up and the strategic balance is said to have shifted further in their favor. It may even be possible -- some would say likely -- that a defensive world would be more amenable to Soviet interests. For now, however, we must not let our recent infatuation with star-wars wizardry stand in the way of negotiating a sound arms control accord firmly in the US interest.
Jonathan B. Stein is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University. Chart: MX Missile WARHEADS: 10 WEIGHT: 96 tons DIAMETER: 92 ins. RANGE: 7,000 mi. LENGTH: 71 ft. ACCURACY: 300 ft.