THE Kremlin's new chief has come out of shadows in a skillfully orchestrated offensive, making it clear that Moscow's new leadership will present Washington with its most serious challenge in sustaining domestic and allied support for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Saying ``no'' to Soviet entreaties to bargain may not be good enough. The political climate: For months, officials awaited a Soviet gambit to undermine SDI. With Mikhail Gorbachev's primacy established, the offensive has begun. All the ingredients for a Soviet success are there. While Congress has voted to fund SDI, it has done so in deference to a popular President with a strong attachment to it, and in the belief that it is the chip that led Moscow back to the bargaining table. But congressional support is fragile. Many who voted for the SDI have strong re servations about the concept and the money it could involve.
Within the defense community, SDI confronts critics with unimpeachable credentials who hold no stock in perfect defenses and believe it makes little sense to risk the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in pursuit of this phantom. To them, if SDI can be traded for deep reductions, then it will have achieved its goal of reducing the utility of nuclear forces without ever being deployed.
Except for the arms industry, Europe is uncomfortable with SDI. France and Britain fear that strategic defenses might neutralize their small nuclear forces. Europe questions the value of ballistic missile defense (BMD), given the continent's exposure to a myriad of threats for which SDI will provide no relief. In all these quarters, objections to SDI can be expected to grow if the price of maintaining it is no cuts in nuclear arms today.
Moscow's gambit: At last January's Shultz-Gromyko talks, the Soviets adopted offense-defense linkage as a ground rule for progress in arms control. Soviet officials hinted that in exchange for a halt to the SDI, Moscow would accept the deep nuclear arms reduction that it previously resisted. Cuts ranging from 25 to 50 percent were reportedly mentioned.
Still, there was little substance to the Soviet position. While linkage was made explicit, it recorded what the Soviets wanted but was silent about what they were prepared to concede. It is noteworthy that the hints of drastic cuts were made to the press, principally by un- named sources. They were never formally tabled. Of equal significance, the Kremlin failed to address the problem of verification and omitted any reference to Moscow's own elaborate strategic defense efforts. Enter Mikhail Gorbachev.
Opening a dramatic September offensive, Mr. Gorbachev came forward with a concept whereby all but unverifiable experiments would be banned. If the United States agrees to limit itself to research, he was prepared to offer the ``most radical'' reduction proposals. But what went unnoticed was a masterly sleight of hand.
Before, the Soviets insisted on a joint resolution of the nuclear and space issues in Geneva. Now, Gorbachev wanted Washington to renounce the SDI first. Until that happened, he planned to keep his numbers secret.
For Ronald Reagan, it was not much of a bargain. It asked the President to wager his ``star wars'' vision for the hope that Gorbachev shared his concept of what constitutes drastic cuts. But this criticism no longer holds. Meeting with Mr. Reagan last Friday, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said his government was ready to cut nuclear forces by half. Details will be given in Geneva this week.
With Moscow determined to keep up the pressures, the Soviets are likely to remain on the offensive.
If the offer proves as good as it sounds, the US will be hard pressed to resist the forces that desire trading the SDI chip for drastic cuts in strategic and Euromissiles.
Rather than be caught short, the administration would be well advised to prepare a bargaining position. But the President must first decide to negotiate. He has excellent reasons for doing so, including a need to address Soviet BMD activities and the limitations of technologies likely to emerge from the SDI.
The present danger: At Krasnoyarsk, in Soviet Central Asia, Moscow is building a radar that looks like an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty violation in the making. Besides work on this and other elements of traditional defenses, the Soviets are developing the exotic weapons required for a Soviet SDI, including high-power lasers.
As part of their SDI brief, US officials note that while American plans hold the spotlight of attention, ongoing Soviet strategic defense activities could upset the strategic balance long before any US star-wars system takes to the heavens.
Moscow's failure to mention these activities in its arms control pronouncements is significant. Does this mean that everything it does is fine and only US strategic defense activities are beyond the pale? Having done so when answering US concerns about Krasnoyarsk, the Soviets might adopt this tack.
Through hard bargaining, Reagan can ensure that Gorbachev seriously addresses developments that, in part, led to the President's defense initiative.
Moscow's strategic defense efforts appear to exploit loopholes in the ABM Treaty which, if not corrected, threaten to erode arms control at its foundation. Some prohibitions in the accord are so vaguely defined that Washington bears an unfair burden in challenging Soviet claims that developments will not give Moscow a BMD advantage over the US. As part of an SDI deal, the ABM Treaty should be revised to place the onus of accountability where it belongs, on the potential violator rather than the victim.
The more exotic directed-energy weapons, such as lasers, pose a similar problem. A 1974 ABM Treaty protocol, designed to constrain defenses, permits the US and the Soviet Union to have 100 missile killers each. But this restriction may soon be rendered moot by emerging technology that sould give a single weapon the firepower equivalent of 100 older systems. One possible remedy is a new protocol, restricting such weapons to test ranges and limiting the number at each location.
The President's dilemma: Though US-Soviet agreement will require an SDI compromise, the consequences of holding out could prove to be worse. This, in a nutshell, is the President's real dilemma.
A group of technologists, impaneled to create a plan for proceeding with the President's plan, is the architect of the five-year, $26 billion SDI program.
In the panel's judgment, strategic defenses can be effective only if they are ``sized'' to the dimensions of the Soviet offensive threat. At a minimum this requires Soviet agreement to eliminate offensive forces. Deep strategic arms reductions would be even better.
It is clear that strategic defense deployments and arms control agreements are inexorably linked. And that the arms control process must run parallel to, if not precede, the technology program.
The only escape from reliance on arms control is the hope that science can reverse technological trends that make it cheaper to deploy more nuclear weapons than to augment defenses to counter them. But prospects seem bleak when the President's technical advisers are unwilling to stake their reputations on it.
Gorbachev's calculus: Both history and current policy suggest that a Soviet Union faced with the prospect of SDI would seek to expand rather than reduce its offenses. In consequence, even the meager offensive limitations in place today could vanish. But if very deep cuts in US and Soviet offensive capabilities were in place first, Moscow could come to view advanced defenses as indispensable.
Suppose Washington and Moscow agreed to reduce strategic forces by 40 percent. Given the large number of weapons they would retain, a violation in which a handful of weapons was deployed in contravention of the accord would have a relatively minor effect on the superpower balance. But if nuclear weapons were eventually limited to a few hundred, the consequences of the same violation would be catastrophic. In a world where few nuclear weapons are left, defenses become insurance against this risk.
Gorbachev claims to be ready to take the first step toward a minimally armed world. Using the SDI as leverage, Reagan could push him further. Rather than limit his horizons to a one-time, offense-defense trade, the President could negotiate a long-term timetable for reductions and SDI research, testing, and deployment.
For example, the President might propose a schedule for nuclear arms reductions involving a series of 40 to 50 percent cuts, to be repeated at five-year intervals. In exchange, the President would agree to limit SDI research until each side had fewer than 1,000 warheads. At that point, full-fledged development and testing could start. Once the tally went below 500, deployments would start.
Reagan recognizes that advanced defenses are unlikely to be available before the year 2000. The arrangement sketched here could permit a cautiously paced pursuit of more-perfect defenses in a comparable period, while offering several advantages. Not only would it provide immediate cuts and a redress of ABM Treaty compliance problems, but by drastically reducing nuclear arms into the future, it could ensure that any defenses the US might use would work.
Alex Gliksman, a defense and arms control consultant, formerly directed the Arms Control Subcommittee staff of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.