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Nuclear winter: the case for weapons reductions and defense

The nuclear winter scenario - in effect a detailed account of the devastating environmental impact of nuclear conflict - has become the new cause celebre of nuclear freeze advocates and critics of United States defense policies. And yet, nowhere can be found a more compelling case for nuclear arms reductions and strategic defense.

Various nuclear winter studies conclude that the use of even a small fraction of the nuclear weapons that currently exist would result in the most destructive consequences ever conceived by the human mind. In response to these ghastly scenarios, some propose a nuclear freeze on existing US and Soviet nuclear stockpiles.

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It is difficult to find logic in a ''solution'' to the nuclear winter nightmare that locks into place current levels of nuclear armament, yet rejects the proposed weapons reduction efforts central to US START and INF arms control proposals.

What the nuclear winter scenario should tell us is that no time should be wasted, no effort spared, in achieving verifiable reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both superpowers. In particular, special attention should be given to reducing the most destabilizing, first-strike types of weapons - especially Soviet heavy ICBMs - which themselves uniquely raise the specter of destruction envisioned by the analysts of nuclear winter.

Even if a nuclear freeze were a desirable objective (something I would dispute), it would require long and arduous negotiations to conclude an agreement. Last year's debate in the House of Representatives regarding the Nuclear Freeze Resolution pointed up some of the difficulties of resolving issues relative to what forces should be frozen and how compliance with the terms of an agreement would be verified.

Disagreement abounded concerning the wisdom of prohibiting any modernization of our land, submarine, or bomber forces. Many freeze advocates recognize the positive contributions of these systems to deterrence and stability. Thus, support is found within the congressional ranks of freeze advocates for the small ICBM (Midgetman), the Trident submarine, and the B-1, or ''stealth,'' strategic bomber programs. Equally divisive was the debate regarding effective means of verification - an issue made all the more important in light of Soviet arms control treaty violations.

If debate could rage so vigorously within the Democratic controlled House, can one imagine the task of resolving these issues, consistent with the security interests of the US and its allies, with tough Soviet negotiators? And having successfully negotiated a freeze, what would we have to show for it but the codification of nuclear force levels that would keep nuclear winter experts awake at night - and should.

The nuclear winter analyses, therefore, actually reinforce the case for negotiations to provide verifiable reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both superpowers. The US START and INF proposals provide a framework for achieving progress in the field of nuclear arms control. Agreement based on the US proposals would provide for substantial reductions in nuclear weapons (as much as one-third the number of ballistic missile warheads in the case of START). The principal roadblock today is the unwillingness of the Soviet Union to return to the bargaining table; it is impossible for the United States to reach an accord without Soviet cooperation or participation.

A second fundamental element of US nuclear policy, namely deterrence, is also reaffirmed by the conclusions of the nuclear winter studies. In the words of Michael Quinlan, a British career civil servant, deterrence involves the transmission of a basically simple message.

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''It says, 'To whom it may concern: if you attack me, I will resist; I will go on resisting until you stop or until my strength fails; and if it is the latter, my strength will not fail before I have inflicted on you damage so heavy that you will be much worse off at the end than if you had never started, so do not start,' '' (emphasis added.)

Deterrence has been central to US nuclear policy for more than three decades. The requirements of deterrence have, however, been continually reviewed accordingly. President Reagan's strategic defense initiative, designed to review options for defense against nuclear attack, is both a natural outgrowth of this review process and a major conceptual breakthrough in thinking about the challenge of preserving the nuclear peace into the next century. This initiative should be supported enthusiastically by all who take the prospect of nuclear winter seriously.

In the final analysis, therefore, nuclear winter studies clearly demonstrate that US policy rejecting a freeze in favor of negotiated reductions in nuclear weapons, while reviewing defensive options to protect against attack, is a sound basis for security, stability, and sanity in the nuclear age.