When the House of Representatives reconvenes in September, it should make shooting down the Missile Defense Act a top priority. The Senate-backed legislation would commit the U. S. to deploy an antimissile-defense system at Grand Forks, N. D., by 1996. It would also direct the President to open talks with Moscow to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of U. S.-Soviet deterrence, to permit additional antimissile sites and space-based missile-detection sensors.
The proposal, hatched by Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), is long on politics and cost--as much as $60 billion as envisaged--but all too short on policy. Nunn argues that new ground-based missile defenses are needed to protect the U. S. against accidental or unauthorized launches by the Soviets or a terrorist attack by the next Saddam Hussein. But chances of an accidental launch are no greater now than in the past. And why would a breakup of the Soviet Union tempt a rogue Soviet general or nationalist clique to invite certain and devastating retaliation? For the same reason, fears of Third World ballistic launches against the U. S. also are overblown. Short-range attacks by developing countries, against their neighbors as well as the U. S., are a greater threat--but Nunn's system would be ineffective against them. No wonder the Federation of American Scientists calls the proposal "a capability in search of a mission."
If the U. S. deploys nationwide antimissile defenses, the Soviets will likely do the same. Setting Moscow off on a costly round of missile-building would make a mockery of U. S. calls for the Soviets to cut back on defense and convert military facilities to civilian use. It could undo nine years of talks to slash superpower nuclear arsenals: The Soviets have long warned that they would walk away from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty if the U. S. breaks the ABM Treaty.
The U. S. would be foolish to tamper in this way with the ABM treaty. Treaty framers recognized that widespread deployment of antimissile missiles by one side would lead the other to enhance its offensive forces to overcome those defenses. A spiraling defensive-offensive arms race would ensue. The Senate seems to have forgotten a key tenet of deterrence: Country A will not launch a nuclear attack on Country B if Country A doesn't think it can snuff out a certain retaliatory blow by Country B.