LONDON. — London -- In the aftermath of the Gulf War, some clever people are arguing a silly point: that the worry about ballistic-missile development in the Third World is overstated.
Yes, they say, they may indeed have them -- some countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel and India, with intercontinental range -- but they are so inaccurate, so prone to mislaunch, short on payload and, not least, totally unintegrated into any viable war-fighting scenario and strategy, that they are not much more than status symbols. What is important, say these critics, is the kind of high-tech bombardment used against Iraq. It was mainly airplane-launched, using computer-guided munitions, that devastated the target with amazing accuracy. The Third World nations are a long, long way from developing these.
It is a silly point because, while none of the above is incorrect, this is only 1991. If, in one lifetime, we can move from the Germans alone having V-2s to where, today, 16 relatively poor, developing countries have them, where will we be by the time our children grow up? Even today, if these highly inaccurate missiles are tipped with nuclear warheads, they may not be able to reach the U.S., but they could scratch Europe and the Soviet Union. And they could devastate a Third World neighbor.
This is why the conference of the nuclear ''big five'' in Paris next week, to discuss limiting arms sales to the Middle East, is so important. It is why the recent spurning of the U.S. under secretary of state, Reginald Bartholomew, last month in Beijing, when he asked China not to sell the M-9 missile to Syria and the M-11 to Pakistan, is a very serious matter. And it is why the Western-sponsored Missile Technology Control Regime, established only in 1987 to police the export of missile components, must be strengthened.
Nevertheless, buried in feigned insouciance is a kernel of important matter. Right now, most of the threats raised by the profusion of ballistic-missile technology are visited from one Third World nation to another. In short, it is the Third World countries that need to be at the forefront of any effort to toughen up world-wide curbs on missile proliferation.
Until now, the weakness of missile controls is that they have been initiated by Washington and Moscow, and have seemed paternalistic and patronizing. As a respected Indian military analyst, M. Subrahmahyam, observes: ''this moralistic stand is akin to drug pushers shedding tears about the weaknesses of drug addicts.''
One almost wishes the industrialized countries could wash their hands of the whole business and leave it to the Third World to sort out the mess. But the industrialized countries are too compromised. For all the inventive expertise -- more than most of us ever guessed at -- of the Iraqi, Syrian or Indian research laboratories, most of the materials, devices and information to make these missiles fly has been bought from the industrialized countries, sometimes illegally but more often quite openly.
France, Germany, Italy and the U.S. in particular, have been cut-throat competitive in this buyers' market. Only Britain and Japan among the big industrial powers have relatively clean hands. The Soviet Union, although often attacked for selling left, right and center, has, in fact, a better record than France and Germany, refusing, for example, the Syrian request for the SS-23 intermediate-range system and the SS-12 Scaleboard system asked for by Libya and Iraq.
Controlling, but not halting -- no one can do that -- the pace at which the missile genie emerges from the bottle is the central issue for the industrialized countries. The Third World nations themselves have to do the rest -- establish a non-threatening military balance with their neighbors, broker peace when there's conflict, and make use of the good offices of the United Nations when relations with their antagonists start to break down.
The slower the pace of technological transfer, the greater likelihood that the structures of the now-revitalized U.N. can be strengthened, and the more the chance of the emerging newly industrialized nations becoming mature enough in their quest for self-identity to avoid the kind of Faustian bargains that the already-industrialized states made on their road to development.
The Missile Technology Control Regime needs to be broadened to include developing-nation missile manufacturers. It needs the formal membership of the Soviet Union and China. It needs a more detailed commitment by its originator, the United States, to keep its own export house in order. Ballistic missiles are just too threatening, too destabilizing, to be allowed to sprout, unhindered, wherever and whenever a country decides it wants them.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.