WASHINGTON -- The United States has asked the Soviet Union to negotiate changes to the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty that would set limits on the deployment of "star wars" strategic missile defenses in space, Bush administration officials said yesterday.
The request, an outgrowth of recent U.S. and Soviet arms reduction initiatives, represents what one senior Pentagon official called a "significant" departure from a long-standing U.S. policy that reserved the right to unlimited deployment of a high-technology shield against ballistic missile attacks.
But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, en route to a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Sicily, Italy, rejected two Soviet counterproposals to the Bush initiatives.
He said the Soviet bid for a "no-first-use" agreement on nuclear weapons was unacceptable because that strike option had been a key to NATO defense policy. "The [nuclear] deterrence is stronger if you leave the element of uncertainty out there in the mind of an adversary," Mr. Cheney told reporters.
As for a comprehensive test ban, he said, "A nuclear inventory with testing is safer than a nuclear inventory without testing."
The White House announced the "star wars" policy shift in time to put last-minute pressure on congressional budget negotiators who are threatening to cancel development of "brilliant pebbles," space-based interceptors central to the administration's current version of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "star wars."
"The United States is now prepared to discuss limits on the scope and timing of defense deployments, consistent with the president's direction to pursue a system providing Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS)," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in a statement.
GPALS would deploy early-warning sensors and satellites, 100 ground-based interceptors and 1,000 kinetic energy weapons designed to collide with enemy ballistic missiles in space.
The new U.S. position "should make it possible to reach an agreement facilitating the deployment of ballistic missile defenses to protect against accidental, unauthorized or third-country launches," Mr. Fitzwater said.
He attributed the policy change to "the climate reflected by the president's nuclear initiative and the positive Soviet response."
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bob Hall said Undersecretary of State Reginald Bartholomew discussed GPALS with Soviet officials during a recent visit to Moscow "and basically got a favorable response."
Apparently mindful of potential threats from neighboring countries or breakaway republics, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had indicated heightened Soviet interest in ballistic missile warning systems during the summer.
A senior Pentagon official said the administration did not want to "break out" of the ABM treaty altogether, preferring instead to frame any agreement as a revision. But he and other officials conceded that the level of deployment sought by the United States would go well beyond what is now permitted by the treaty.
Arms control advocates opposed to strategic missile defenses were skeptical that the Soviet Union would actually agree to change the ABM treaty, which they considered tantamount to scrapping the pact.