Star Wars down to Earth

October 24, 1991

Little by little, the United States and the Soviet Union are edging toward a potential compromise on missile defense systems to thwart nuclear attacks. When President Reagan first talked about "Star Wars," with space rockets zooming in to blast enemy missiles, the superpowers were primarily targeting one another. Now the focus is changing. The two big countries see a more immediate threat in accidental, unauthorized or terrorist attacks, principally from Third World nations.

President Bush, flush in the middle of the Persian Gulf war when Iraq was brandishing its missile capability, announced last January he was refocusing the Strategic Defense Initiative to allow for "Global Protection Against Limited Strikes" or GPALS. In other words, not the all-out Soviet assault feared by Mr. Reagan. He proposed a $5.2 billion missile-defense program that called for land-based non-nuclear interceptors, an approach that is drawing increasing acceptance, and included funds for spaced-based interceptors, dubbed "Brilliant Pebbles," that are highly controversial.

In the House, Democrats cut off "Brilliant Pebbles" without a cent. But in the Senate, Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., engineered a compromise in which he won approval for the land-based missile defenses but wrapped space-based interceptors in elaborate ambiguity. There the matter rests in a Senate-House conference much affected by big-power diplomacy.

In announcing sweeping unilateral cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal last month, Mr. Bush urged Moscow to take "immediate, concrete steps to permit the limited deployment of non-nuclear defenses." President Mikhail S. Gorbachev replied a week later that he was willing to discuss the matter, thus buttressing an earlier expression of interest in "early warning systems to prevent unauthorized or terrorist" attacks. The Bush administration response this week was to announce for the first time a U.S. willingness to discuss limits on the timing and size of missile defense systems.

Implicit in a superpower compromise would be revisions in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, arguably the most important arms control pact ever written. Thus, Moscow and Washington have much to negotiate, not least how their more friendly relationship could lead to joint missile defense efforts.

Given all that is going on, we support Senator Nunn's plan for full focus on deployment of land-based defenses and only research on space-based interceptors. That is enough until diplomatic progress can be measured more precisely.

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