As news of a new Soviet arms control offer leaked out in Washington last weekend, one of the Soviet Union's top scientists in the area of space and space weapons was in West Germany addressing the final session of the Sixth Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Roald Sagdeev, director of space research of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, cited the negotiators agreement on confidentiality and declined to comment on the Geneva talks as such. In a tandem interview with American physicist Richard Garwin, however, Mr. Sagdeev cast some light on the thinking behind the latest Soviet proposal.
The offer could for the first time bring into the Soviet position at the Geneva talks a distinction between permitted ``star wars'' research and banned ``star wars'' testing and development in space, according to the New York Times.
Linking mutual restraint in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative programs to deep cuts in offensive warheads, it would reportedly seek to strengthen and clarify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and extend it for the next 15 or 20 years. SDI (or ``star wars'') is Mr. Reagan's research program into space-based defense.
The superpowers once agreed on this differentiation between research and testing back in the ABM Treaty, and in the past year, Soviet leaders have publicly floated the idea of making such a distinction in the case of current space-defense efforts. Until now, however, official Soviet negotiators had never translated these public feelers into negotiating offers and had insisted that all research in space defense against missiles was impermissible.
Obversely, until now, United States spokesmen have always argued that Soviet insistence on banning all research in space defense was not serious, since lab research is unverifiable.
And US officials have been deliberately ambiguous about whether the US would keep SDI testing within ABM limits when the issue would first affect the SDI program in 1988/89.
Excerpts from the Sagdeev/Garwin conversation dealing with the ABM Treaty follow:
Sagdeev: I feel that the decision which was made by Reagan administration to follow the restricted interpretation about ABM Treaty and at the same time to say they feel free with more wide interpretation, [resembles] the same approach to the SALT II [the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty].
[Sagdeev was referring to last fall's duel in which hawks within the Reagan administration won a legal interpretation that the ABM Treaty would bar virtually nothing in the SDI program -- and administration moderates then won a presidential policy statement that the US would nonetheless stay within a strict interpretation of the treaty in SDI or other programs.]
They said we do not ratify SALT II, but we would follow it. And this type of approach, as now we see, [in last week's statement saying that Washington no longer feels bound by 1979's SALT II] has brought SALT II almost on the verge of collapse.
Garwin: The Reagan legacy will be an expanded arms race with the absence of all control limitations on strategic arms, and this comes about because people prefer more to be able to expand their own weapons than to reduce the weapons on the otherside.
Monitor: Would an expanded arms race lead to more instability, and if so, why?
Garwin: You only need to ask what Secretary [of Defense Caspar] Weinberger has said. He would think even a possible Soviet ballistic missile defense would force the United State to expand its offensive forces and to make sure that it can penetrate to its target. And of course we would not be left out of the deployment of defenses either.
So we would have on the two sides an overestimate of the effectivenes of the offensive forces and of the defensive forces.
Monitor: Mr. Sagdeev, the Soviet Union has traditionally said that defenses are good, and it has erected comprehensive air defenses while the US hasn't. Why is it that the Soviet Union now is against defenses against missiles?
Sagdeev: You know first of all, I think our military, our decisionmakers, came to the firm conclusion about the uselessness of such global defenses since long ago. I think the very fact of signing the ABM Treaty in 1972 is quite indicative of that.
The air defense is a different story. You know, it was a long tradition which came as a result of World War II, when our country was really devastated, at least during first years of the war.
Monitor: Then why not continue with this idea of defense and set up enough of a strategic defense to defend against the threat of first strike, not a comprehensive defense, but against a first strike?
Sagdeev: The air defense was a result of the old thinking [at a time of] a few bombers, a few atomic bombs. And already in that time, air defense accumulated its scope and power. But SDI defense against intercontinental missiles is under discussion in [a] completely different environment, when already there are thousands of existing and very sophisticated intercontinental missiles, submarine-launched warheads, with multiple warheads, with decoys.
I think the total number of decoys probably exceeds hundreds of thousands. So it would be really suicidal to start such kind of approach against this massive, very sophisticated, devastating nuclear potential. . . .
Both sides are afraid of accidental first strike, accidental outbreak, unsanctioned first strike of the kind like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. And the same kind of equipment is used in military technology, and the same kind of human errors could be made. And the more military Three Mile Islands and Chernobyls we would have, [the more] they would lead their own life and increase the risk of such accidental outbreak.
Garwin: Sagdeev gave an example of a system in his talk which is totally crisis-unstable. It's one in which we both have big defenses in space which can both destroy one another. So there the accident is that one side destroys the other side's defense thinking there has been a launch, and the other side sees the destruction of its defense as the first step in an enormous first strike.