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Space defense problems. Talk of difficulties with antimissile system hints at possible moderation of US arms position at Geneva

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As President Reagan avidly promotes his ``star wars'' concept, senior officials within the administration are candidly beginning to point out the obstacles to achieving it. By speaking about potential difficulties, say diplomatic and arms control experts, the administration could be positioning itself to back off from its present position in the Geneva arms talks.

American officials mention these factors as they discuss the program, formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), designed to provide a nonnuclear space-based defense against nuclear missiles:

It will be extremely difficult to manage the transition period, during which the Soviets and the Americans begin to move away from deterrence, based on offensive nuclear weapons, to more reliance on defensive systems.

If SDI is to be put in place, it will be necessary not only to negotiate reductions in nuclear arms but to agree on a balance in levels of conventional weapons, which would add still another dimension to bilateral talks.

SDI will be viable only if it is cheaper to add more defensive arms than for the other side to add the offensive capability needed to penetrate the defense.

Any future defensive systems must be reasonably survivable.

``As you discuss SDI and as you discuss the reduction of theater and strategic weapons, I think that has to be coupled with . . . conventional arms control,'' says a ranking State Department official involved in arms control policymaking.

Without limits on conventional weapons, he says, a defensive system that eliminated nuclear weapons would simply increase the risk of conventional war.

Taking account of Soviet fears about SDI, the official also says that the transition period would have to be ``very, very carefully managed on both sides'' and would require step-by-step cooperation between the superpowers -- something experienced diplomats agree would be difficult to achieve.


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