A New Sdi Plan

The headlines are all about cutbacks in Star Wars, but another game is being played behind the scenes in Washington. The White House and key legislators are discussing a ground-based defense against limited missile attacks--in hopes the Soviets may be willing to amend a treaty to make the deployments legal.

In last week's vote on the 1992 Pentagon budget, the House did indeed cut back the Strategic Defense Initiative, including all funds for "Brilliant Pebbles," the scheme to put 1,000 small missile killers in orbit. But overall missile defense spending for 1992, at $3.5 billion, was a cool $1 billion than what the House voted last year. Meanwhile, a deal is being brokered in the Senate to get bipartisan support for an SDI program stripped of space weapons and scaled back to counter only limited missile strikes. Two key congressional players, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Wisconsin Rep. Les Aspin, are backing the deal. NEWSWEEK has learned that Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talked privately with Soviet officials in Moscow earlier this month about amending the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty, which outlaws missile defenses.

What changed the mood in Congress? First was the success of the Patriot missile in the gulf war. Perhaps more important, defense planners worried for the past year about the instability of the Soviet Union and the nightmare that a rouge skipper might decide on his own to launch close to 200 warheads at U.S. targets. In a nod to the Tom Clancy thriller, defense planners actually refer to the "'Red October' scenario." The White House objects to shelving Brilliant Pebbles, but the rest of the new plan is a modified version of the missile defense that George Bush himself proposed at the height of the gulf war. To cover all the United States, the new plan calls for deploying 1,200 interceptors at six sites; the first would be the old, abandoned ABM site at Grand Forks, N.D. The deal could still come unglued, but senior administration officials who are in on the negotiations say they're optimistic the president will back it.