Congress Moves toward Approval of a Scaled-Down Version of SDI Adoption of Proposed System, Which Would Respond Only to Isolated Attacks, Would Indicate a Significant Change in US Weapons Policy

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EIGHT years after the "star wars" program was launched by President Reagan the United States is taking a big step toward actual deployment of a limited defense against ballistic missiles.

The system would be designed to deal only with isolated missile launches - a far cry from the perfect astrodome shield originally envisioned by Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proponents. But, if erected, it would mark a major shift in US nuclear weapons policy, which has long shunned defenses and emphasized the superpower standoff of mutual assured destruction.

The step is contained in the 1992 defense bill now nearing final approval in Congress. Senate and House negotiators have agreed that the legislation will explicitly call for deployment of a missile defense system that is consistent with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The House in particular has long been a hotbed of SDI opposition. But as the program has been scaled back, shifting from visions of space lasers to ground-based rocket interceptors, House opposition has been muted. Now the question isn't whether to build defenses, but how.

"There's a consensus now on defenses" in Congress that has developed without fanfare, says a key congressional aide. In order to reach this consensus, a shift in the pecking order of perceived threats to US national security was necessary.

The possibility of an all-out, surprise nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, once at the top of the threat list, is now down much closer to the bottom. Its place has been taken by so-called "limited strike" scenarios, such as an accidental or rogue launch of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a terror strike by a third-world nation with ballistic-missile technology. As shown by the success of the Patriot missile in Saudi Arabia, the US already has technology that, if refined, is capable of dealing with the threat of a limited strike.

In contrast, defenses against a large Soviet attack would have necessarily included a technology much more difficult to perfect - some type of space weapon able to hit rocket boosters on the rise.

President Bush never has seemed as committed to the star-wars program as was his predecessor. In the light of changing threats to the US, Mr. Bush last January officially refocused the SDI program away from comprehensive defense toward what he termed "G-PALS Global Protection Against Limited Strikes.

Shortly thereafter, US Sen. …