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The 131st bomber won't be the most popular aircraft

PRESIDENT Reagan's decision on May 27 to cut up two more United States missile-firing submarines was expressed in classic ``good-news, bad-news'' language. He reported that ``we will remain technically in observance of the teams of the SALT II Treaty . . . ,'' but only ``until the US equips its 131st B-52 heavy bomber for cruise missile carriage near the end of this year.'' In other words, the United States will continue to observe SALT limits only until they restrict our nuclear building plans. What are the US plans that are inconsistent with SALT restrictions? First, B-52 bombers are being converted to carry 12 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) each, and before the end of the year a total of 130 bombers will be configured to deliver 1,560 ALCMs on Soviet targets. Each ALCM carries a nuclear warhead 15 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, and the 130 bombers will be capable in a single attack of delivering more than 100 times the explosive power of all of the bombs dropped by Allied bombers in World War II.

But that is not enough. Sixty-four more B-52s will be converted to carry 768 more ALCMs. At the same time 100 new B-1B strategic bombers, each able to carry 22 ALCMs, will begin joining the bomber fleet. The 131st B-52 will be the one that breaks the SALT II limit of 1,320 multiple-warhead delivery systems.

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But that is not enough. In 1988 we will add a ninth Trident submarine with 24 missiles, putting us 14 over SALT missile limits. A total of 20 Trident submarines are planned. This year we will begin replacing Minutemen III missiles with MX missiles. and in 1989 Trident I (C-4) will give way to Trident II (D-5) missiles. The Soviets are aware that each MX will have three times as many warheads and seven times the explosive power of the Minuteman it replaces, while the D-5 missile will have at least four times the explosive power of the C-4. Both new missiles will be far more accurate than the old ones. In short, new US nuclear systems will not only break SALT limits, but also will at least double the destructive capabilities of our strategic systems.

That is still not enough, however. The President proposes to push forward with an accelerated advanced cruise missile program, plus an additional 50 MX missiles complemented with a new small intercontinental ballistic missiles (the Midgetman), yet another violation of SALT restrictions. On top of all this, he calls for ``continued pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI] research program.'' Somehow he failed to mention the massive US investment in the development of a Stealth bomber, a program to add yet another 132 strategic bombers to our offensive forces, at a cost of about $50 billion to $75 billion.

Not for one moment is it possible to imagine that the Soviets will hold still while the US breaks out of SALT limits, much less while we pursue major new initiatives on Earth and in space to achieve military advantage over them. There is a clear understanding in the US military that the Soviets are in much better position to expand their offensive forces far more rapidly than we are today. The inevitable consequence of the collapse of SALT restrictions will be a major increase in Soviet offensive power, which could overtake the present US advantage in total strategic weapons in a very few years.

Today the US can deliver about 12,000 nuclear weapons on Soviet targets, vs. about 10,000 weapons the Soviets could use against targets in America. Although these numbers are still growing legally under SALT, the relative US advantage will be maintained as long as both sides continue to observe SALT force level constraints. Despite endless White House allegations of Soviet noncompliance with arms control agreements, official Pentagon reports confirm that the Soviets have continuously scrapped submarines, aircraft, and missiles to comply with SALT's numerical limits. In the last seven years they have deactivated 12 missile-firing submarines, 45 long-range bombers, and 450 ballistic missiles to remain under SALT ceilings.

It seems the height of folly to abandon an agreement that maintains a US numerical advantage, but the President and his advisers now appear determined to violate the SALT agreements to pursue the goal stated by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger: ``United States nuclear capabilities must prevail even under the condition of prolonged war.''

If we are to turn away from this fatal strategy and prevent a total collapse of all efforts at constructive arms control, the leadership must now come from Congress. In the past, senators and representatives have expressed the sense of Congress that the US should continue to observe existing strategic arms agreements, and only recently both houses urged the President to pursue a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets. The sense of Congress has produced no visible change in administration priorities.

Fortunately there is still time to act on the 1987 military budget; the choice is clear. Congress can deny funds to operate nuclear forces in excess of SALT ceilings; or it can permit funds to be spent for ``the 131st bomber,'' with the realization that it has only made a down payment on an unconstrained arms race, a race neither side can win -- a race humankind may not survive.

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Eugene J. Carroll Jr., a retired US Navy rear admiral, is deputy director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

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