THE latest fashionable answer to European skepticism regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is something called the ``European Defense Initiative,'' or EDI, which would create an SDI-like defense in Europe against Soviet short- and medium-range missiles. EDI's proponents contend that a defense against short-range missiles could be constructed relatively easily, well before a full-scale SDI ``shield'' was in place; that modernization of the Soviet short-range missile force in Europe demands a Western response; and that the EDI provides the perfect avenue for a European role in SDI-related research. This ``son of star wars'' proposal has primarily served as a sales pitch in Europe, demonstrating the potential uses of SDI technology to skeptical allies. The arguments for missile defenses in Europe sound plausible, but they conceal at least as much as they reveal.
If the EDI is intended to make nuclear weapons in Europe impotent and obsolete, its prospects for success are more remote than those of the American SDI. Western Europe, unlike the United States, lies in the Soviet Union's front yard. Because of the shorter ranges involved, the EDI will not incorporate the numerous ``layers'' of antimissile weapons envisioned for the American system. With only one or two chances to see and shoot at incoming Soviet warheads, European missile defenses will have little hope of being a perfect defensive shield.
All that EDI can promise is the potential ability, at great cost, to destroy a percentage of incoming Soviet ballistic missiles. Many of these missiles could carry conventional, chemical, or nuclear warheads, so that in many cases the defender would not know what he was shooting at.
EDI proponents sometimes seem to forget that ballistic missiles are not the primary military threat to Western Europe. The Warsaw Pact's short- and medium-range missiles are only one element of a larger military equation in Europe. There are hundreds of these missiles, but there are thousands of pact bombers and fighter-bombers, all capable of carrying nuclear bombs, and Warsaw Pact tanks are numbered in the tens of thousands.
With NATO plagued by deficiencies in air defense, along with spare-parts and ammunition shortages, initiatives to build defenses against ballistic missiles in Europe simply distract attention from more-immediate matters. Not only are these less glamorous tasks more important; they also offer a much higher payoff.
If an improved NATO air defense caused one-quarter of Warsaw Pact pilots to fail to return from their missions, the pilots would soon refuse to fly. But the destruction of 25 percent of Soviet-fired missiles would make little difference, since missiles are infinitely brave.
When military professionals talk about ways to counter Soviet tactical missiles, they do not talk about shooting missiles out of the sky; they focus on more practical and effective measures.
The Army, for example, proposes to upgrade its ``passive defenses,'' increasing its ability to disperse, conceal, and harden the targets the Warsaw Pact might wish to attack. Such measures, advocated for years by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, would have a vastly greater positive impact on the credibility of NATO's deterrent posture than missile defenses.
In addition, the Army prefers to shoot at Warsaw Pact missiles on the ground before they are launched.
``This ATM [anti-tactical-missile] system will use counterforce strategies that begin with targeting missile launch and control sites, followed by engagement of those sites and their subsequent destruction,'' the Army chief of staff, Gen. John A. Wickham, explained to a Senate committee last spring. Gen. Bernard Rogers, commander of US forces in Europe, said that instead of a missile to shoot down Soviet tactical missiles, a greater priority should be given to a weapon ``accurate enough to attack Soviet ballistic missile sites before they are launched.''
This is the real substance of an ambitious military effort to counter Soviet tactical missiles, but it has little to do with ``star wars.'' The danger that such preemptive counterforce strategies could drastically increase tensions during any future East-West crisis in Europe has been obscured by the rhetoric surrounding EDI.
Geography and physics constrain the defense of Europe against missiles. But the EDI, if aggressively pursued, will have at least two other effects. First, it will serve as a European endorsement of SDI, undercutting the strength of the conditions with which British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl previously tempered their support of star wars. Second, it will spur the development of General Wickham's ``counterforce strategy,'' aimed at destroying Soviet missiles before they are fired.
Most of EDI's committed supporters may regard these as desirable results, so that EDI, if it is not attainable, can at least be the bait of a ``bait-and-switch'' sales strategy. This is no way to handle national-security policy, and the public had better beware.
Daniel Charles is research associate for European affairs, and John Pike is associate director for space policy, at the Federation of American Scientists, Washington, D.C.