No Rush to SDI

THE Patriot missile deserves the accolades it has received for bringing down such a high percentage of the Iraqi Scuds aimed at Israel and Saudi Arabia. We can be grateful this piece of high-tech weaponry, once threatened with cancellation, exists. But the Patriot's success in the Middle East is no argument for expanded funding of the much debated Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars.'' As knowledgeable analysts of the Pentagon budget point out, assertions that the Patriot demonstrates the need for SDI is like comparing apples and oranges.

The land-based Patriot, originally conceived as a antiaircraft weapon, has the limited mission of knocking down individual incoming ballistic missiles. It has shown its worth, and warrants continued production and improvement.

SDI was conceived as a space-based defense to ward off massive Soviet ICBM attacks. Its technology is far from proven, and its full development would bust a tight US defense budget.

Congress and the administration must do all they can to abide by last fall's federal spending-limit agreement. The economic health of the country demands that. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney is well aware of the constraints. The money battle ahead will be over allocation of the billions already agreed to.

The performance of advanced weaponry deployed in the Gulf will figure prominently in that budget tussle. This war is perhaps the toughest post-cold-war test for tanks and planes. The adversary is a regional player with lots of world-class firepower.

As US defense planners and political leaders assess the lessons of the Gulf, one point should be kept uppermost: Buying the right weapons for a new era is important, but equally crucial are diplomatic efforts to limit the availability of destructive power. Saddam Hussein went to the weapons marketplace and picked up all he could. A post Gulf-war world has to vigorously regulate that marketplace.

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