ONGOING negotiations between the United States and Russia on modifying the Antiballistic Missile Treaty have the potential to produce the most significant contribution to US national security in recent years. Yet if hearings last month hint at the reception such modifications may receive in Congress, that benefit is very much at risk. Certain senators seem to be fighting the ghost of the Reagan administration instead of focusing on the circumstances that drive the current US-Russian talks - the proliferation of ballistic missiles and of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
The US and Soviet Union signed the ABM Treaty in 1972 to keep each other from deploying nationwide systems to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). ABM systems were considered dangerous because they might lead each superpower to build more ICBMs to overwhelm the defenses of its rival. The treaty reflected a commitment to a strategic doctrine that argued, paradoxically, that peace could be maintained only if each superpower could destroy the other. In October 1985, the Reagan administration's ``broad interpretation'' of the treaty met with hostility in the Soviet Union and Congress, as well as in the arms control community. While President Reagan wanted to shift our nuclear strategy and ease prohibitions on the Strategic Defense Initiative program, resistance was too great and US treaty policy never changed.
The US and Russia are now engaged in discussions to clarify that the treaty was meant only to limit development of defenses against ICBMs. Proposed modifications focus on defining missiles according to their velocities. This clarification is needed because of the spread of much slower, shorter range missiles to countries other than Russia - a situation that did not exist in 1972. This clarification could allow the US and Russia to deploy theater missile defenses (TMD) to intercept these slower missiles, which most concern defense players, without jeopardizing the ABM treaty's original goals.
But during Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings last week, several senators seemed not to comprehend the fundamental change in the international security environment that the proposed treaty modifications will address. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts noted the Congress ``fought tooth and nail to defend'' the ABM Treaty from the Reagan administration. And Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois asked, ``Isn't that the purpose of the treaty, to prevent deployment?'' Yet the battle to which Senator Kerry refers and the treaty goals about which Senator Simon wonders can be understood only in the context of the bipolar world of the 1970s and '80s and Mr. Reagan's challenge to core assumptions about nuclear stability. The problem with their criticism is that a bipolar world no longer exists, and the proposed modifications pose no such challenge to strategic stability.
As Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming noted during Senate debate last September, ``It would be ridiculous to allow a cold-war US-Soviet Union treaty to prevent us from dealing with the new multipower strategic context that we face today.'' As for Kerry's concern that a treaty modification would threaten future counterproliferation efforts, there is no evidence to suggest such a linkage. Negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program now focus on economic aid, diplomatic recognition, and US-South Korean military exercises, not the status of the ABM Treaty.
The hearings serve to highlight an inconsistency in congressional guidance on US missile-defense programs. Congress has demonstrated genuine concern over the threat that proliferation poses to US security interests. Following the Persian Gulf war, the Missile Defense Act of 1991 provided firm political support for the development of ``highly effective theater missile defenses''; a target date of the mid-1990s was set for the deployment of such ``highly effective'' systems. Yet despite recognition of the growing missile threat, last month's hearings show a reluctance to take the final steps needed to free the US to acquire systems to counter that threat.
The US has only a limited ability to defend forward-deployed troops from short-range missiles, based on Patriot missile systems modified and improved since the Gulf war. The Defense Department is pursuing more-capable systems, including the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, to protect larger areas against longer-range missiles like the North Korean No Dong-1, to which US forces currently are vulnerable. Absent the clarifications sought by the White House, the ABM Treaty represents a potential obstacle to the eventual deployment of THAAD and other advanced TMD systems.
As John Holum, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, noted at the hearings, the modifications in no way diminish the US commitment to refrain from deploying systems capable of intercepting strategic missiles; TMD systems like THAAD have no significant capability to engage those high-velocity ICBMs. Rather than undermine the stability that the ABM Treaty seeks to promote, the clarifications would simply reinforce it in terms more suited to today's world.
The debate in the mid-1980s reflected a political tug of war for authority in interpreting US treaty obligations. Then the debate was academic because the US was far from able to deploy effective defenses against ICBMs. Since the Gulf war, the Pentagon has made significant progress in developing more-robust TMD systems to protect US interests against missiles being acquired by nations hostile to the US. Opposition to ABM Treaty modifications will only assure our continued vulnerability to the demands of nuclear dictators.
In a world growing more unstable, missile defenses can enhance our bargaining tools and provide a much-needed capability to negate weapons of mass destruction where no bargain can be reached. Congress should not use arguments firmly rooted in the past to derail efforts to deploy TMD systems as soon as possible. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.