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WHY NOT ELIMINATE NUCLEAR BALLISTIC MISSILES?

Ronald Reagan had two dreams, not just one, involving ballistic missiles.

An complex of industrial, military and congressional interests is keeping alive his dream of a Star Wars defense. But how many pursue his dream to replace these missiles through disarmament?President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin talk of their "alliance" as "partners." With circumstances so changed for the better, we must now revisit Reagan's visionary proposal.

Elimination of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, on a worldwide basis, would certainly be a cheaper and more reliable solution than defense against them.

From a strategic point of view, all of the major nuclear powers, including Israel, would be safer relying on aircraft to deliver their nuclear weapons than to continue living under the dangers of nuclear-armed ballistic missile attack.

From a political point of view, the pieces of this solution may be falling into place. After all, if Russia stays on the Yeltsin path, America, Britain and France will have nothing on which to target their thousands of missile warheads.

And they don't have the slightest intention of using nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in the Third World, even to preempt an emerging nuclear power.

The administration is already working to eliminate multiple-warhead ballistic missiles, at least on land. Why not continue to work against single-warhead missiles of all kinds?

Significantly, the administration has already endorsed the concept of eliminating missiles in the Middle East. If this arrangement is good for the Middle East, why is it not good for the world?

Such an effort could involve various treaties with bilateral inspections, supplemented with inspections from a suitable new international organization designed for that purpose.

But the complete fulfillment of any agreement would be contingent on the major nuclear power securing sufficient compliance by states relevant to its security.

This contingency, and other joint pressures, would encourage such states as Israel, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India to cooperate in working out regional agreements.

However this is accomplished, all would gain. Nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, like the Colt revolver in the Old West, are a great equalizer.

And the price they pay for this greater advantage is no price at all; relying on bomber forces for deterring attack can save them money.

Meanwhile, other Third World states, nuclear-armed or not, would benefit from a world order that precluded a ballistic-missile arms race.

Statesmen may never be sure that a global missile defense, even if built at great cost, would ever operate effectively when and if needed.

But a sustained worldwide effort to achieve Reagan's disarmament dream could make his Star Wars dream unnecessary.

(Jeremy J. Stone is president of the Federation of American Scientists.)