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A fresh start: the point-count plan for arms reduction

Arms negotiations have not made much headway and the arms reduction talks are in recess. Thus it seems a good time to consider an approach that would eliminate extended negotiations over the relative threats posed by various weapons systems. The approach, called the ''point count'' plan for arms reduction, would achieve a progressive reduction in the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers while moving the two sides closer to nuclear parity.

The plan would work according to a principle used by countless parents in dividing desserts between squabbling children: One child slices; the other chooses the slice she wants. Here is how it would work in achieving arms reduction. Each superpower would be allotted an arbitrary number of points, say 1,000, to use in assessing the distribution of the military power of the other side's forces. The United States would judge the relative value of various components of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and assign portions of the 1,000 points to each. The Soviets would do the same for US nuclear forces. Each side would obviously assign the most points to those components of the other's forces it considered most threatening. This sort of evaluation, aided by surveillance satellites and electronic sensing devices, is already being carried out by the intelligence services of both sides.

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Each side would then pass its distribution of points to the other to serve as the basis for annual percentage reductions in its nuclear armaments. It is important that this be a percentage reduction - which becomes feasible with the point system - because it cuts more deeply into the arms of the side with a larger arsenal. The difference in the sizes of the two nuclear arsenals would be reduced with each successive cut.

Each state would have complete discretion over which of its weapons to cut, so long as the aggregate reduction met the percentage figure. Assume the annual reduction is 10 percent. Then, each year each side would reduce its arsenal by any mix of weapons it chose where the points assigned by the other side added up to 100. The annual decisions on weapons cuts would be announced simultaneously, so that neither side would have advance notice of the other's plans. For symbolic purposes, the two governments might announce their reductions at the opening session of the UN General Assembly. The disposal of the weapons could be verified by an international agency.

With each successive year there would be a new round of point distributions and percentage reductions of the balance of weapons remaining in the two nuclear arsenals. This would continue until the two sides reached an agreed-upon minimum level.

The point-count plan, as all other arms reduction proposals, would work most effectively in conjunction with a freeze on the testing and deployment of new weapons. It would make a freeze more palatable to its American critics, since the largest reductions would occur on the side with the largest arsenal. In the absence of a freeze, the point-count plan would not discourage entirely new qualitative developments, but it would encourage the design of weapons less threatening to the other side, to avoid new systems attracting a heavy weighting of points. The Midgetman missiles proposed by the Scowcroft Commission are a good example of the kind of system that would be encouraged. The mobility of the Midgetman would reduce its vulnerability to a Soviet first strike, but more important, the small, single-warhead missiles would pose no first-strike threat to the Soviets.

By allowing each superpower to decide which of the other's weapons pose the greatest threat to it, the plan would avoid endless bargaining between distrustful adversaries over the relative capabilities of various weapons or their intended purposes. By the same token, the system of incremental cuts does not require that both sides believe that parity exists. Since the process would move the two sides toward greater parity, all that is required is that each agree that parity is desirable, a position that both sides have stated many times.

President Reagan has committed himself to attempt to go beyond arms control agreements to ''real arms reductions.'' He has opposed a nuclear weapons freeze on the grounds that the Soviets would never agree to arms reduction once a freeze guaranteed their lead in the arms race. Suppose the President were to test his perception by offering to cut the cake and let the Soviets choose the piece they wanted. If they rejected the offer, the US would lose nothing, and the President's view of Soviet intentions would be more persuasive. On the other hand, if the Soviets accepted the President's offer, we could take a major step toward a safer world.

An improbable scenario? Perhaps. But no more improbable than that depicted in the President's ''Star Wars'' ABM plan. After all, a simple agreement on slicing the cake carries considerably fewer costs and risks than attempting to devise a new technology to shoot down the flying silverware when the dinner table cold war becomes hot.

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