IN A race to disarm, the United States and the Soviet Union have promised to destroy practically all tactical nuclear weapons in their arsenals.
NATO defense ministers have also agreed on nuclear-arms cuts to reduce the stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe by 80 percent.
Even France, not a member of NATO's military command, announced in August that it would cut back production -- from 120 to 30 -- of its new short-range nuclear missile, the Hades.
But all these countries have left anti-missile systems off their disarmament lists.
And for good reason. The CIA says between 15 and 20 developing countries will have ballistic missiles by the year 2000. At least six will have missiles with a range of 3,400 miles.
Taken together the current Middle East missile arsenal -- divided among such countries as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Israel and Saudi Arabia -- probably numbers several thousand missiles.
Among developments since the Persian Gulf War, North Korea is selling the Scud-C, its more deadly version of the Soviet-designed missile launched at Israel by Iraq.
Syria, Iran and Libya have purchased the North Korean Scuds. They can carry a 1,500-pound warhead, three times as heavy as the Scud-B. Their 400-mile range is twice that of the earlier Scud. They also can be configured to carry chemical weapons without any loss of accuracy.
But even the basic Scud, a crude and inaccurate weapon, can be terrifying -- 2 tons of warhead and empty fuel tanks descending on a city at around 50 miles per minute, or 3,000 mph.
No one doubts that ballistic missiles are a growing threat, even to the continental United States. Some of the ?.,building or buying them -- such as Syria, Libya and Iran -- have aided or committed terrorist acts.
The Bush administration believes one answer is to fund defensive anti-missile systems -- and sell them to U.S. allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But with Middle East peace negotiations on the table some observers say there may be a change.
Recently, China, France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to report to each other on sales of big-ticket military items, ranging from tanks to missiles.
But as the major powers rush to destroy their own missiles, the Middle East remains the world's most active market for these deadly weapons.