Space Restraint

President Reagan said after his Geneva meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev that the summit should be judged not by today's words but by tomorrow's deeds.

The vote by Congress to shut down further testing of satellite-killing weapons until and unless the Soviet Union resumes tests of its own was a deed that takes the President at his word.

Satellite-killers are the ideal pieces of hardware for experimenting with a concept of arms control by mutual restraint. It is an idea that attracts many defense analysts. With the Pentagon showing no interest in restraint, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Riverside) began some months ago urging his colleagues to give the concept a try. Last week they listened.

The weapons, known as ASATs, are ideal, first, because nobody needs them. If being able to shoot out an enemy's satellite had any value in a crisis, it would be very slight, far outweighed by the dangers of panicking one side or the other into firing in all directions if some of its satellites were shot out of space by accident.

Stopping tests while the only such weapons in existence are an American system only slightly less crude than a similar Soviet system makes sense. The real danger with ASATs is not what they can do now to low-flying satellites but what they might do to far more important communication satellites in orbit 26,000 miles high if the superpowers got into a serious ASAT race.

Banning ASAT testing also will help keep research on "Star Wars" honest. Satellite-killers and the President's space-defense project are two separate and far different programs. ASATs are simple weapons that knock orbiting satellites out of space. The President's Star Wars program, the most complicated collection of technology ever put on paper, is designed to blow up incoming nuclear missiles. But there are overlaps.

Some Star Wars tests eventually will violate the 1972 ABM treaty that prohibits widespread ballistic-missile defenses. But some of those tests will look much like ASAT tests, and, because satellite-killers are not covered by treaty, the Star War tests could be explained away as permissible.

At the same time, if neither power is testing ASAT systems, neither can disguise space-defense tests as satellite-killer tests. The White House has refused to discuss ground rules for Star Wars with the Soviets. But if the only way to continue space tests would be an open break with the ABM treaty, then the logic of negotiating might finally dawn on the White House.

The choice would be between continuing an embryo Star Wars program that may never work and breaking a fully functioning ABM treaty that gives the United States more protection than it does the Soviets.

The ABM treaty allows both superpowers to install limited ground-based defenses. The Soviet Union has used the terms of that treaty to build a defense network around Moscow. The United States has not. If the United States broke the ABM treaty, the Soviets would be free to expand the Moscow defense system all over their vast country in a matter of years. The United States would have nothing to match that except its dream of a space-based system--still very much a paper tiger.

If the ASAT ban slows down Star Wars, so much the better. It is clearer by the day that Washington plunged into Star Wars without pausing to ponder how the Soviet Union might react or what condition the world would be in if Star Wars left a trail of broken treaties and then turned out to be an idea whose time would never come.

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