Stalled arms talks in Geneva spur initiatives from other corners
Cobwebs are forming over the negotiation tables in Geneva as superpower relations grow frostier. But this may have the positive effect of impelling thoughtful arms-control advocates in Congress to press for key changes in United States weapons acquisition and strategy that could help stabilize the nuclear confrontation. It now appears certain that the increasing unlikelihood of any arms control breakthroughs this year will prompt lawmakers to become more active in these areas.
This would follow a period of relative passivity last year, while the President's Commission on Strategic Forces studied and proposed. This blue-ribbon panel, headed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, gently closed the Reagan administration's ''window of vulnerability'' on the threat of Soviet nuclear attack. But it recommended deploying 100 controversial MX missiles, developing a new single-warhead mobile missile, and adjusting arms control efforts to discourage multiwarhead missiles. The principal goal here was increased stability.
Most lawmakers last year gave the administration the benefit of the doubt and went along on the MX. But critics fault the administration for not probing arms control possibilities as vigorously as it is pushed for the MX and other new weapons. Thus it has been left to others to follow up on the work of the now-disbanded Scowcroft commission.
Three key congressmen this week offered a dozen amendments to defense-funding legislation designed to ''promote stability and reduce the probability of nuclear war,'' in the words of one. The three are Democrats Les Aspin of Wisconsin, Albert Gore of Tennessee, and Norman Dicks of Washington.
The amendments would limit some weapons systems that are seen by many experts as a particular threat to the nuclear balance: antisatellite (ASAT) devices; ballistic missile defenses (as called for in the President's ''Star Wars'' program); sea-launched cruise missiles (which can be either nuclear or conventionally armed and would be nearly impossible to verify once deployed); and battlefield nuclear weapons.
They would also formalize the administration's declared commitment to abide by the SALT (strategic arms limitation) agreements as long as the Soviet Union does. The unratified SALT II treaty expires next year, and there have been suggestions by some administration officials that this country might not continue to abide by it.
The three congressmen also want a thorough and long-range examination of submarines and sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This leg of the strategic triad (land, sea, and air) has traditionally been viewed as the more stabilizing because submarines are relatively invulnerable to surprise attack and their weapons are not accurate enough to successfully attack Soviet strategic forces. But many arms-control advocates are concerned that this could change as new SLBM accuracy is acquired within the next few years, along with advanced submarine-detection systems.
The overall idea in these proposals is to reduce tensions caused by weapons technology that is advancing faster than politicians and arms controllers so far have been able to handle, and to lessen the chances for a nuclear first strike on either side.
It is also an attempt to show - as the Scowcroft commission did and many experts believe possible - that the US can take certain unilateral steps through the terribly complex labyrinth of nuclear strategy and armament that will increase national security without simply building more weapons.
''These proposals are aimed at providing genuine stability in the strategic realm,'' says Representative Aspin, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. ''Their goal is to make it less likely that anyone would resort to nuclear arms in a crisis. They are geared to allow both the Soviet and American leaderships to act more calmly in the difficult moments that will undoubtedly confront us in the decades to come.''
Representatives Aspin, Gore, and Dicks last year promoted the Scowcroft findings in Congress, including the deployment of the MX in existing Minuteman missile silos as an inducement to Moscow to consider reducing its advantage in land-based missiles.
The MX survived congressional attack by just nine votes in the House last year, and there are indications that the controversial 10-warhead ICBM may be a target for budget-cutters this year. In any case, funds for missile production in 1985 are likely to be reduced to something less than the 40 missiles sought by the Pentagon.
It is Aspin's hope, however, that the debate in Congress focus not merely on weapons reductions. Many experts agree with his assertion this week that ''contrary to popular opinion, massive reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons could actually harm us.'' In some cases, it is argued, this could tempt a nuclear power to use such weapons sooner than if it had relatively larger but more stable nuclear forces.
''Our concern should not be with mere numbers,'' he says, ''but rather with a configuration of weapons systems that does not tempt one side or the other to resort to nuclear weapons.''
On the other hand, this argument goes, sea-launched cruise missiles that can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads present ''a verification nightmare.'' So, too, do small ASAT weapons such as the jet fighter-launched rocket now being tested by the US Air Force and ''dual-capable'' tactical artillery units that can fire either conventional or nuclear shells.
The amendments by Aspin and his colleagues would cut funds for tactical nuclear warheads, ban further testing of the US ASAT (as long as the Soviet Union holds to its declared moratorium), and require that sea-launched cruise missiles be clearly distinguishable for arms control verification purposes.