In Too Deep

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has demonstrated how deep a hole the nuclear nations have dug themselves into and how steep a climb they face to get out.

Speaking Tuesday to the Washington-based Arms Control Assn., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee repeated his criticisms of President Reagan's "Star Wars" project to create space-based defenses to shield the United States from nuclear missiles.

By holding out in arms-control talks in Geneva for the right to conduct Star Wars tests that are still years down the road, he said, the White House could bungle a chance for deep cuts in long-range nuclear missiles here and now.

"Rarely in the postwar era has the dividing line between historic breakthrough and missed opportunity been so finely drawn," Nunn told the association, which is the leading force outside government for reductions in nuclear weapons.

Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev signed an agreement during their Washington meeting last December to dismantle all their medium-range nuclear missiles. At the same time, they told their negotiators to intensify talks in Geneva on a plan for each country to destroy half its more deadly intercontinental missiles as well.

The Soviets finessed the question of Star Wars during the Washington summit meeting, but they are now talking about a mutual understanding on limits to the testing of defense systems as a condition of going through with deep cuts in long-range missiles. Skeptics brush aside the Soviet position, saying that they have said that before and changed their minds. Nunn obviously does not want to take that chance, and has urged the White House to negotiate terms of defense testing--all of which was music to the ears of arms-control advocates.

But Nunn also said Tuesday that the United States might want to change its research goal from a Star Wars system to something on a smaller scale--perhaps just enough to ward off a missile that had been launched by accident.

There are problems with that concept. Stripped-down defenses are promoted as systems that might deter deliberate nuclear attack because an attacker could not be certain how many missiles might get through. A system to intercept a random and inadvertently launched missile might have to be larger because an accidental launching could be aimed at any one of 2,000 or 3,000 targets.

The idea has one flaw that Nunn has noted in Star Wars. It would not protect the United States against bomber attack, missiles launched from submarines or sabotage.

It could be that Nunn was simply trying to peel away from the promoters of Star Wars an argument that they themselves use--the shield against accident. If he is serious, he is simply demonstrating how difficult it is after 40 years of basing global strategies on missiles to get out of the habit of thinking of nuclear weapons as the only way to keep the global peace.

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