Reagan administration officials have settled a bitter dispute with Congress over arms control by solemnly promising to not do something they had not planned on doing anyway. Last week, administration negotiators acceded to a congressional demand that no 1988 Strategic Defense Initiative experiment break the bounds of a narrow reading of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. But as an SDI official and other experts point out, no such treaty-busting test was in the works.
Next year's experiments ``were all going to comply'' with a narrow ABM interpretation, says the SDI official.
The SDI office could have carried out at least one 1988 experiment that would have been permissible only under a broad reading of the ABM treaty text, according to a recent Pentagon report. But to do so would have required a substantial restructuring of the schedule already in place.
Reagan officials favor the broad interpretation of the ABM pact, which would allow much more elaborate SDI work. But key lawmakers, particularly Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, hold that this loose reading is simply not correct.
Dispute over this and other arms control issues had threatened to block passage of the bill authorizing 1988 defense programs. The White House promise to stay within the narrow ABM reading was the centerpiece of a Nov. 17 compromise which cleared the way for defense bill passage.
Already, some congressional critics of SDI are saying that there is less compromise here than meets the eye.
``We're just playing a game,'' grumbles one congressional aide who follows the program.
In practice, SDI office work will be little constrained next year by the administration promise, admits the aide. He points out that SDI scientists will still be able to plan experiments that would violate a narrow ABM interpretation - a large loophole, since much SDI work is still in the blueprint stage, and has not yet progressed to actual construction of hardware.
But he says the agreement on the ABM issue will prevent the White House from simply declaring the broad interpretation to be US policy. And he says the agreement is a useful precedent. For the first time, the White House has acquiesced to congressionally-mandated limits on SDI, whatever their practical effect. ``That's very important,'' the aide declares.
According to a list made public earlier this year, the SDI office plans nine major experiments between now and the end of 1989. Those experiments range from the Airborne Optical Adjunct, a test of infrared sensors mounted on the back of a Boeing jetliner; to Delta 181, a rocket shot intended to provide data useful in learning to target missile boosters.
A Defense Department review board has determined that all of these tests comply with a narrow ABM interpretation. If that is so, it means none involve components capable of being used in an antiballistic missile system or involve generic equipment such as radars being tested in a manner consistent with use in a defensive shield.
``Conduct of the program is in accordance with a restrictive interpretation of the treaty,'' said Richard Godwin, then-undersecretary of defense for acquisition, earlier this year when testifying about the tests before Congress.
Some critics quibble with this judgment. John Pike, SDI analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, says some of the tests may in fact involve ABM-capable components. He claims that by fudging its definitions of ``capable'' and ``component,'' the SDI office has simply caused its ABM Treaty compliance problem to vanish.
Both the White House and its critics agree that realistic tests integrating various technologies - weapons, sensors, and battle management computers - would be inconsistent with a narrow reading of ABM. SDI research now is at the point where scientists can begin planning integrated experiments, says a recent Pentagon report on ABM compliance. None have been penciled into the testing schedule, although the SDI office says it could have one ready next year, and a total of four by 1990, if the White House tells it to emphasize such work.
In any case, the SDI research program cannot furnish the data needed for an informed decision about deploying a defensive system without conducting some of these integrated tests.
Thus, sometime in the next several years the ABM compliance issue will have to be settled for good, points out the SDI office report.
``Any significant delay in adopting the broad interpretation of the ABM Treaty would have increasingly detrimental consequences for the SDI program, including higher costs and further delays,'' concludes the SDI report.