A Quiet Boost for the ABM Treaty

AT their recent summit meeting, Presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin struck a quiet blow for rationality in the post-cold-war era by agreeing to "explore" the "potential" role that missile defenses could play in the future while keeping intact the provisions of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This approach tacitly recognized the importance of the ABM Treaty in facilitating their historic agreement to deeply cut offensive nuclear missiles, and it exposed uncertainty about whether expensive and exte nsive ballistic-missile defenses are necessary to meet the challenges of the future international security environment.

The summit was a setback for an informal coalition of administration and congressional officials who support the rushed deployment of a ballistic-missile defense system in the United States. They were pushing hard for ABM Treaty changes at the summit that would free the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program from existing legal constraints.

This coalition, which includes influential leaders on Capitol Hill and top officials in the Pentagon, was formed last year when Congress, in a post-Gulf war panic over the proliferation of Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles and in the face of the unraveling of the Soviet nuclear superpower, passed the Missile Defense Act of 1991. This legislation spurred a crash effort to deploy an SDI system that would protect the nation from accidental or unauthorized ballistic-missile launches from the disintegrated Sovie t empire as well as from the threat of future Saddams with ICBMs.

But circumstances - international and domestic - have changed, as Mr. Bush and Mr. Yeltsin recognize. As a result, the crash SDI-deployment plan wastes needed funds and seems out of touch with current realities.

The threat of an accidental or unauthorized launch of a long-range ballistic missile from the former Soviet Union remains a lingering concern, but it is very unlikely as long as the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States maintain strong control over their arsenal - as they have since the attempted coup last August.

No US official has expressed serious concern over the security of the commonwealth's long-range nuclear arsenal. In fact, the statements of Bush, CIA Director Robert Gates, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney have been exactly the opposite. Control of these weapons has been strong and should be strengthened by the recent agreements signed in Washington by Bush and Yeltsin.

The Saddam scenario, in which a non-Soviet, nonrational leader threatens to strike the US with a long-range ballistic missile despite certain US retaliation, may have some credence, but it is not an inevitability.

Ballistic missiles may not even be the delivery vehicle of choice by rogue regimes. It's not easy for any nation to build or successfully test an ICBM, which is the weapon that would be required to strike our territory, and it is very difficult to marry large and crude first-generation nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. Instead, as a recent report from the House Intelligence Committee points out, these leaders may choose to deliver their weapons of mass destruction by strike aircraft because "aircra ft are less constrained in carrying large payloads and can potentially serve as a more immediate threat ... [providing] ... an attractive alternative to missiles." An SDI system would be impotent against this delivery method.

Also, the CIA estimates that new long-range missile threats to the US from third nations will not appear for a minimum of 10 years and that those nations closest to developing a missile capability are currently friendly to the US. Instead of waiting for the threat to materialize we should use this window of opportunity to strengthen our arms-control and nonproliferation efforts and adapt them to the challenges of the new world. Redoubled efforts now may keep ballistic missiles and nuclear-weapon componen ts out of the hands of dangerous regimes in the future.

Finally, even Saddam was deterred from taking some actions as a result of US military might. It's not likely that any leader would be irrational enough to believe that the US would allow a missile strike at its homeland without taking every effort to stop such an action with assured devastating results. In this regard, US intelligence assets should be able to alert us to the development of an ICBM by a new nation before it is used against us. This warning will provide the president with the time to exerc ise policy options, such as diplomacy, coercion, or preemption, rather than sitting and waiting for a missile to be launched at our cities.

The Bush-Yeltsin summit signaled that historic opportunities are available for cooperation in the pursuit of future security. Their actions underscored that restraint on the ABM issue is an important element in moving this process forward. To proceed with a crash SDI deployment at a time when the nuclear threat is decreasing and the other claims on our national budget are increasing would be contrary to the fiscal and security interests of our country.

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