Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said yesterday that Soviet development of a futuristic anti-ballistic missile defense system parallel to similar American efforts would be a step toward ending the nuclear arms race.
"I know the Soviets are doing a fair amount of work and have been for quite a while in this whole area, and I would assume that at some point it might be possible for both countries to develop the kind of system that could guarantee that there would be no longer any danger from nuclear missiles, and that would be an enormous step for mankind," Weinberger said.
Interviewed on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC), Weinberger said that he knows of no plans for joint U.S.-Soviet development of the new systems, but "I wouldn't mind at all" if the Soviets attempt to match the U.S. effort.
While some critics have warned that the program outlined by President Reagan last week could lead to a new space-age weapons race, Weinberger said it would produce "a new means of keeping the strategic balance, which depends not on any kind of fear or any kind of retaliation, but on a proven ability to defend."
Questioned about whether the result might also be a transfer of earthbound conflict into space, Weinberger said, "Well, there's no question that as you try to develop systems of this kind, others will try and develop countermeasures, others who are interested in offensive capability. We're not. We're interested in defensive capabilities . . . . "
Last week, administration officials suggested the possibility of locating such high-technology defense systems in space as well as on Earth. Although some scientists have expressed doubts about the feasibility of such technology, Weinberger recalled earlier doubts about whether man could fly to the moon. "So I don't have real doubts about the American ability to do this," he said.
Administration officials last week estimated the cost of the U.S. effort toward a strategic defense system at about $1 billion. Weinberger said yesterday that while this is the amount in the 1984 budget, only about $250 million of it is devoted to the futuristic systems Reagan envisioned in his Wednesday night speech. The rest of the $1 billion is for "more conventional" strategic defense systems based on the ground, he said, adding that "it might be possible to redirect some of the conventional" funds into the high-technology efforts.
Weinberger said that the systems Reagan described last week would not be aimed only at intercontinental ballistic missiles, but might target ground-hugging cruise missiles as well. He said Reagan is seeking a system that is "thoroughly reliable and total."
Weinberger responded sharply to Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov's claim that Reagan lied about Soviet military might. "It's the simple standard Soviet disinformation that's been poured out for years," he said. "They have said for a long time a great many things that aren't true."
The State Department yesterday expressed "regret" at the "tone and content" of Andropov's remarks.