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Star Wars defense: is it legal?

It is widely held that a major lactor fostering the Soviets' willingness to meet with Secretary of State George P. Schultz in Geneva, Switzerland, last week, to resume discussion of arms controls, was their concern over President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Also known as the "Star Wars" program (SN: 7/14/84, p. 26). SDI aims at developing a defense against incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The Soviets have repeatedly denounced SDI as being militarily destabilizing. Lately, U.S. critics have begun charging that, besides threatening to accelerate the arms race, SDI is illegal. Together, these charges are catalysing a whole new round of debate over the future of space weapons development.

The Geneva talks resulted in SDI being made a bargaining chip for future arms negotiations. In fact, one of the three sets of negotiations agreed to by Schultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gronyko will focus exclusively on space weapons. In a Jan. 14 interview on Soviet television, Gromyko made it known what his government's gambit will be: Unless the United states abandons SDI as part of some space weapons accord, Gromyko said, talks on strategic and intermediaterange nuclear weapons will be in jeopardy.

SDI's legality was challenged in the leadoff discussion at a space weapons symposium in Washington, D.C., last Saturday sponsored jointly by the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society and the Cambridge, Mass.-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Explained Harvard Law School treaty expert Abram Chayes, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 "is the only arms control treaty in full force and effect between the superpowers." That treaty prohibits signatories from deploying ABM systems -- or thore components -- for the defense of their lands. "So we start with the notion that the stated goal of the country--is presently illegal under the treaty," Chayes said.

Secondly, he notes, Article 6 of the treaty prohibits giving any missile except a designated abm interceptor the ability to counter ICBMs or their elements in flight. Yet in a recent U.S. Homing Overlay Experiment (HOE), he says, a modified Minuteman-1 ICBM was successfully used to intercept an incoming Minuteman. Since the interceptor was an ICBM, Chayes says, HOE violated Article 6 by giving ABM capabilities to a non-ABM missile.

Finally, he charges that since the treaty rules out development, testing and deployment of anything but a fixed, landbased system at one designated site in each country, SDI is bound to violate the treaty in other areas soon if it hasn't already. Though the treaty permits research on anything -- even the proscribed sea-based, air-based, sapce-based or mobile land-based ABM systems -- Chayes asks, "How far do you have to get out of the lab for it to stop being research?" Similary, he asks when a part will become so integral as to become an outlawed "component." To claim it isn't violating the treaty, he says, the U.S. exploits ambiguities in the treaty's language.

Arms control consultant Sidney Graybeal of Arlington, Va., who helped negotiate the ABM treaty, was also at the symposium. He challenged many of Chayes's assertions. While Acknowledging that the goal of SDI is inconsistent with the treaty. Graybeal points out that "there's nothing in the ABM treaty that limits goals," just certain specified activities. Regarding HOE, he notes that it involved a fixed, land-based system at a designated test range, Kawajalein Island--all perfectly legal. However, he says, the administration may have made a tactical error by calling its Minuteman interceptor a Minuteman, instead of just a test vehicle. "Technically, if the administration calls it a Minuteman 1," he told SCIENCE NEWS, and if it every gets deployed, "we will have violated the treaty's Article 6."

But the technically is "a gray point," and certainly not an important potential violation if it is one at all, Graybeal believes. Chayes notes that the Soviets probably have their own infractions to play down -- such as the radar being constructed in Siberla that, owing to its location an orientation, seems to be an "early warning" radar that could be useful for ABM battle management.

What most worries SDI's critics and supporters alike is that if the program isn't violating the ABM treaty yet, it probably will soon--as research on space weapons matures into the field-testing phase.
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Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 19, 1985
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