The superpowers still have the best opportunity in two decades to cap the nuclear arms race. But with President Reagan in his last thousand days as chief executive, that opportunity will run out if there is no movement soon -- presumably by the end of 1986. This is the view of one of Washington's key behind-the-scenes explorers of potential arms control, Alton Frye, Washington representative of the Council on Foreign Relations. In an interview, Dr. Frye wove together the aspects of:
Deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons and their relations to other arms control.
The fierce battle in Washington about the financial criteria for judging the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ``star wars'').
The overall evolution of SDI.
The fact that the superpowers are very close in their negotiating positions on strategic offensive weapons tends to get obscured by the stalemate in arms control since the American-Soviet summit of last November, Frye commented. ``We are a few hundred weapons apart on the central strategic systems [offensive nuclear warheads]. And we are clearly in sight of being able to strike a clear balance -- if not the zero option, then for substantial reductions in INF [intermediate range nuclear forces].''
``Then the final big question is the most unknown: how to handle SDI. On that there are again ingredients that could be fashioned into a deal,'' especially if three or four key technologies could be regulated, including no space-based testing of high-energy lasers, of kinetic energy devices, of large mirrors to reflect lethal radiation, or of power sources, mainly compact nuclear reactors.
Frye interpreted Soviet willingness to downplay SDI at the November summit as a time-buying tactic. By leaving the issue of SDI restraints to a later date, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev kept the superpower dialogue open and avoided confrontation with Mr. Reagan on a pet presidential project.
Frye took Soviet emphasis on intermediate-range over strategic arms control since the summit in the same light -- as an attempt to aim for agreement where agreement seems most possible, with the hope that the momentum of an INF deal might promote later deals on strategic offense and eventually defense.
With the stalemate since the summit, things are not now working this way. ``The slippage since then is a Greek tragedy,'' Frye suggested, and the rather good opportunity for arms control will have been lost if movement isn't resumed soon.
In Frye's view, the current evolution of SDI away from the restraints of ``cost effectiveness'' and toward an incremental deployment presage an unstable competitive environment for superpower relations and arms control. He noted the view of many in Washington that the inherent financial and technological limitations on SDI will inevitably scale it down to something that will not overthrow offensive deterrence -- as originally advertised -- but will in fact strengthen it and increase stability, by reducing the vulnerability of land-based missiles.
This, however, is far from inevitable, he contended. Certainly a clear sign of a move away from letting financial pressures curtail SDI was evident in the victory of Pentagon hardliners in the report the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) sent to Congress last Friday. In that report the financial criterion advocated by presidential arms control adviser Paul Nitze of ``cost effectiveness at the margin'' was scrapped for much looser language. ``Cost effectiveness'' means roughly that strategic defense would be deployed only if it was cheaper than Soviet offensive countermeasures. The Pentagon concept of ``affordability'' means it could be deployed if Congress appropriates the money, regardless of the countervailing Soviet costs. This in turn implies an open-ended arms race of strategic defense vs. offense.
The same implication of open-ended arms racing may be read into the current SDIO inclination to go for incremental deployment of SDI as new technologies are engineered into hardware without waiting to work out the complete system.
``One would think that policymakers would look at this and draw conclusions,'' Frye commented. The inference he draws is that the Pentagon at this point doesn't expect to find any full ``solution'' to Soviet countermeasures before making decisions to deploy. Instead, it would proceed piecemeal without a clear idea of what the end balance of offense vs. defense would look like.
All of this suggests a ``highly unstable'' strategic environment in which each side would fear a one-two surprise-attack punch on defensive and then offensive weapons. ``This calls into question whether even theoretically a transition to a defense-dominant world can be accomplished.''
In such a ``competitive dynamic,'' Frye continued, inherent financial and technological restraints on strategic defense would tend to be nullified or at least delayed, because alarm about the adversay's ongoing deployments would drive deployments of one's own that might otherwise be vetoed as ineffectual and wasteful.