'Star Wars' Shield Threatens Treaties ; as US Tests Missile Defense, Critics Ask: Who Is It Aimed at, China Or

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The US will conduct a crucial test today of an antimissile defense system that, if deployed, could jeopardize two of the world's most significant arms-control agreements.

The test will take place more than 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean, where a self-guided "kill vehicle" will separate from its rocket booster and try to collide with an incoming missile.

If successful, it will be the Pentagon's second "metal on metal" hit in its development of a national missile-defense system, and the Department of Defense likely will recommend to President Clinton in June that the descendant of "star wars" be deployed, according to a department official.

But while a hit may answer some of the technological questions surrounding missile defense, it will do little to assuage concerns of two of the program's loudest critics: Russia and China.

Both countries are worried that, if the US perfected the system, it would protect the US and undermine the deterrence of their own long-range nuclear missiles, possibly sparking another high-tech arms race. It is for that reason that the US and the Soviet Union agreed upon the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972.

National defense is also opposed by America's European allies, who worry that the system will negate the risk they now share with the US, and force them either to invest in a system of their own or become vulnerable as a proxy target.

For the US, however, the prospect of having umbrella protection of all 50 states is almost irresistible. It is supported in principle by most politicians, with Democrats preferring a slower timetable and Republicans wanting to deploy as soon as possible - even if it is at the expense of the ABM treaty.

Officials here have taken every chance they get to pressure Russia into amending the ABM treaty to allow for a limited national missile-defense system. The State Department argues that it is designed to stop a limited attack from a rogue nation such as North Korea or Iran - not the shower of missiles that Russia is capable of launching.

But amid deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, the Russians have so far refused to amend the treaty. Furthermore, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to make ratification of another treaty, START 2, contingent upon the US abiding by the ABM treaty.

START 2, which would require Russia and the US to drastically reduce their nuclear-arms stocks, has been approved by the US but is still awaiting a vote in the Russian Duma. If it were tied to the ABM treaty, the death of one would mean the death of both.

"For a substantial time this would end the reductions of strategic offensive forces," says Spurgeon Keeny, the director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. …