Futuristic arms race

Nervousness: As U.S. resumes Star Wars experiments, Russia lowers threshold for nuclear weapons.

January 22, 2000

FEW THINGS spooked the collapsing Soviet Union more than the Reagan administration's fascination with a futuristic, Star Wars-type missile defense system.

Communism may be gone, but Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin is equally worried about a similar, hugely expensive weapons concept being studied by the Clinton administration.

The long and short of it is that the United States -- even after Tuesday's failed attempt to destroy a fake nuclear warhead above the Pacific Ocean -- has enough money to experiment with the high-tech concept. President Clinton is to decide by late summer whether a reliable technology exists to construct the $12.7 billion weapons system by 2005.

Russia and China, by contrast, lack sophisticated computer know-how and financial muscle to try to develop a similar shield that would deploy 100 or more coordinated missiles. That's why they view the U.Sprogram as a potential military threat.

They have plenty of nuclear weapons, though. Recently, Russia, in a revision of its military doctrine, lowered the threshold for its use of nuclear weapons. In the past, nuclear weapons were to be considered only if the country's survival were at stake. Now, they can be used as an extraordinary measure to "repel armed aggression if all other means of resolving the crisis have been exhausted or proved ineffective."

The text of the new doctrine makes it plain that it is not prompted solely by Russia's mounting concern over U.S. military-technological superiority and increased American interest such former Soviet areas as the Caspian and Caucasus regions. The revision also aims to give Moscow more flexibility in combating terrorism and domestic disorder.

As Russia's presidential campaign heats up before the March 26 elections -- and U.S. presidential candidates slug it out -- a fuller debate of defense issues is needed. This is particularly important in the United States. A Star Wars missile shield would breach existing arms control agreements and put this country on a collision course with Russia and China.

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