SECRETARY of Defense Caspar Weinberger recently declared that President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) will not be ``any kind of bargaining chip'' at the Geneva negotiations. Some less-hawkish officials in the administration, however, such as Secretary of State George Shultz and Mr. Reagan's chief arms control adviser, Paul Nitze, seem to feel that Reagan should throw SDI on the bargaining tables to see if he can gain significant Soviet arms reductions in return. So far Reagan has sided with t he hawks, but here are five solid reasons he should change his position: The Soviets are offering the most significant arms reductions in the history of arms limitation talks in exchange for a ban on SDI testing and deployment. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has suggested that the Soviets may be willing to cut their nuclear arsenal by as much as 50 percent. We will never know if Mr. Gorbachev will follow through with these ``radical reductions'' unless Reagan dips his foot in the water and finds out. If Gorbachev backs down on his offers, then Reagan will have proved to
the world that the Russian proposals are merely propaganda. If the Soviets follow through, Reagan could achieve a major victory. Either way, looking at the possibilities would be worthwhile, strategically and politically.
Offering SDI for negotiations could mean a breakthrough in the President's image on arms control issues, and it could stifle his critics at home and abroad. Because Reagan is the first President since Harry Truman who has not signed a major nuclear arms control agreement, he is especially vulnerable to public criticism on arms control issues. Mainstream Americans have begun to doubt his desires to ease East-West tensions. If the President offers to negotiate SDI at Geneva, he would prove to the world that he is agile as well as tough.
Gorbachev's offers to ban SDI testing and development are verifiable. The President has been reluctant to negotiate with the USSR in the past, on grounds that the Soviets violate the agreements they sign. In this case, Gorbachev could not cheat without being discovered, because he is asking for a ban on the verifiable stages of research, testing, and production. Scientific research, he concedes, ``is going on [in the USSR] and . . . will continue.'' Reagan would only be sacrificing part of his ``star wars'' plans with similar guarantees from Moscow.
Any limits on SDI would help to reduce America's staggering federal deficits. In the past fiscal year the SDI budget has increased 120 percent, and the program for fiscal years 1986 through 1990 will cost $26 billion or more. Already the program has suffered contracting delays, understaffing, and cost overruns, and this is just the beginning: As the cost of deploying SDI begins to play a role in budget requests, the budget will skyrocket. Thus, SDI would result in an expensive space race, and Reagan s hould bargain off SDI now.
Any limits on SDI could actually increase US ability to maintain a credible defense. High-tech, high-chance programs like SDI are taking billions of dollars away from the more traditional weapons systems, and for this reason the entire star-wars program could hurt US conventional forces. In the Pentagon's next long-range budget, a number of new programs to develop aircraft, ships, armored troop carriers, and helicopters are being slowed down or put on hold to make way for high-tech expenses. Scientis ts contend that no SDI research could provide the US with a ``complete shield'' that would shoot down thousands of warheads and decoys traveling in different directions at thousands of miles an hour. In fact, SDI might provoke the USSR to build more missiles and their own space systems to counter US efforts. Thus, SDI may never pay off and, as of now, it is worthwhile militarily only as a bargaining chip.
Reagan will be in Geneva Nov. 19-20, hoping to persuade the Soviets to withdraw some of the thousands of nuclear weapons they are pointing at the US. If he offers SDI as a bargaining chip, those hopes could become a reality, and he will demonstrate to Americans a new kind of ``resolve'' -- a resolve to reduce tensions and make a worthwhile agreement between the superpowers.
Solomon M. Karmel is a staff associate with the Committee for National Security, a nonpartisan Washington group concerned with defense policy.