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US & USSR: one step to take

On the night the Soviet aircraft destroyed KAL Flight 7, a United States Air Force RC-135 intelligence aircraft was conducting a mission outside Soviet airspace off the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The presence of the RC-135 was part of a continuing program of US flights along Soviet borders. The Soviet Union routinely conducts intelligence flights along the borders of the United States, sometimes approaching US territorial airspace. These flights are deemed essential by both superpowers and, in some respects, play a positive role in monitoring compliance with arms control agreements. However, they represent a potential flash point of military confrontation. It is time for the US and the Soviet Union to begin an effort to reduce this risk.

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One approach would be to take a leaf from the book of one of the most successful superpower agreements of the 1970s - the US-Soviet Agreement on Prevention of Incidents at Sea. This 1972 agreement arose from a mutual concern about the increasing number of serious incidents between US and Soviet warships and naval aircraft operating in close proximity around the world. It committed the superpowers to establish regular contacts between US and Soviet naval officers to discuss ways of minimizing the risks associated with such close encounters.

The Incidents at Sea Agreement has been a resounding success. Each year delegations of high-ranking naval officers from both nations have met. These discussions have created agreed procedures for minimizing dangerous naval incidents as well as new channels for military-to-military communications to defuse serious incidents when they occur.

Washington should propose to Moscow the negotiation of a similar Air Incidents Agreement. This initiative would complement efforts by several countries to have the International Civil Aviation Organization ban the use of force against civilian aircraft. Also, it would be entirely compatible with the administration's emphasis on ''confidence-building measures'' to reduce the risk of accidents or miscalculations that could lead to war. In view of its own interest in lowering such risks and its positive experience with the Incidents at Sea Agreement, the Soviet Union might respond positively to such a serious initiative.

US and Soviet officers then could begin developing standing ''rules of the road'' for handling routine military air encounters along their borders and for defusing more dangerous air incidents as they occur. Such discussions might facilitate establishment of new channels for crisis communication. They would also advance the long-term US goal of expanding the scope of superpower military-to-military contacts, an objective that takes on greater importance now as the Soviet military appears to be gaining greater influence within the Kremlin leadership.

A US proposal for negotiation of an Air Incidents Agreement could be one practical step in an urgently needed comprehensive strategy to restore dialogue between Washington and Moscow and arrest the superpowers' drift toward confrontation. A timely and constructive US initiative to reduce the risk of war would contrast sharply with the Soviet decision to walk out of the Geneva negotiations and suspend the strategic arms dialogue. It would also underscore US determination to move beyond mutual recrimination to derive something positive from the tragedy of KAL Flight 7.

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