As a result of messages received from the Persian Gulf war, the United States is in the process of altering its strategy and thinking on missile defense. Put off, for the moment, is any deployment of a Reaganesque Strategic Defense Initiative using space-based interceptors to checkmate a massive Soviet attack. Also losing support is absolute adherence to the arms controllers' favorite treaty, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile pact that limits the United States and the Soviet Union to just one ground-based defense system each.
Instead, the Senate has given its approval to rapid construction of a highly modernized ground-based defense system using space sensors that would probably require modification of the ABM treaty unless the Russians look the other way. Dove critics of this plan, concocted by Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, condemn it as a death sentence for the ABM agreement. Hawk detractors see it as a device to bury SDI.
Senator Nunn has now to contend with the House, which has not authorized one cent for SDI or for ground-based missile defense. His bill includes a bit of overkill for bargaining purposes in conference -- most especially its instruction to the Bush administration to reopen negotiations on the ABM treaty and its approval of "one or an adequate additional number of sites" for ground-based missile defense. [Italics ours].
Both items will probably go. So one can envisage a defense bill specifically authorizing only one ground-based missile defense installation (in North Dakota). Follow-on projects that conceivably could lead to ground-based missile defenses for the bulk of U.S. territory would be left to another day.
Why this momentum for ground-based defense as an alternative to nothing or SDI? The answer is Iraq. Its aggression against Kuwait, its firing of Scuds, its secret work on ballistic missiles, sent alarm signals into the American psyche.
The most immediate result is almost unanimous support in Washington for Patriot-style tactical missile defenses to protect forward-based American troops and deal with regional conflicts.
In contrast, the Nunn plan is controversial. But because Saddam Hussein rammed home the lesson that rogue dictators cannot be lightly dismissed, especially as ballistic missile technology improves, Congress' approval seems likely.
Whether space-based sensors contradict ABM is something U.S. negotiators can discuss with their Soviet counterparts in Geneva. Whether Moscow will actually resist updating the ABM treaty, threatened as it is by disintegration and unfriendly regimes close to its border, is unknown. It might want protection against accidental launches or renegade attacks even more than the U.S.
So, all in all, we find Senator Nunn's most limited initiative persuasive. It is a cautious yet creative move that can add to U.S. security, at least marginally, and should not, in itself, undermine arms control doctrine as it is so evidently evolving.