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US arms expert sees pluses and minuses in Soviet proposal

Initial American analysis is finding innovation, regression, and considerable ambiguity in the new Soviet arms control proposal, according to a senior United States official. The negotiators' task now, he suggested, is to try to separate out the ``innovative'' elements and get rid of the ``regressive'' elements. It is not yet clear just how much flexibility might be built into the Soviet position: how much they might be ready to ``give away'' and how much they will ``insist on.'' The Soviets, the official commented, have ``removed five of the seven veils'' in the Geneva superpower talks of the past week and a half -- but some veils remain.

Regression is evident, the official said, in the reversion to Moscow's lopsided 1969 definition of strategic weapons; in ceilings for offensive strategic forces that would increase rather than decrease ``crisis instability;'' and in a weapons balance that would increase present Soviet-theater nuclear superiority in Europe.

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The innovation is evident in the Soviet proposal of a subceiling on land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads that comes closer than ever before to the US position of 1983. The US then proposed a subceiling of 2,500 ICBM RVs (reentry vehicles). The new Soviet offer would establish a subceiling of 3,600.

The ambiguity arises in particular in what another US official termed the ``vaguest'' area, Euromissiles, or intermediate nuclear forces. Here the Soviets are calling for an agreement separate from any strategic accord, and they have proposed Soviet negotiations with Britain and France. Both London and Paris have rejected such negotiations until the superpowers make major reductions in their huge arsenals.

A major surprise of the Soviet proposal is that it is so unappealing to the Europeans. Many Westerners had expected that Moscow would try to ``drive a wedge'' between the US and Europe by offering an attractive deal that would, however, require US renunciation of any post-research development in President Reagan's space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars''). Then Europe would want to accept the bargain, the reasoning ran, while Washington would want to reject it.

Far from wooing Europe, though, the USSR has made a bid that would patently reduce European security. Moscow's proposal of a moratorium on Euromissile deployments and a ban on all cruise missiles would initially leave the Soviets with their present 7-to-1 superiority of Europe-theater warheads over US-theater warheads. Then, if US cruise missiles already deployed in Britain, Italy, and Belgium were to be withdrawn later, West Germany would be the only country in Europe with US intermediate-range missile s, the Pershing IIs. This would be unacceptable to Bonn, which has insisted it not stand alone in any category of weapons.

The Soviet proposal also leaves open the possibility that the current 243 Soviet intermediate-range SS-20s targeted on Europe might even be increased as Britain and France modernize and increase their nuclear warheads -- even though today's number of SS-20 warheads exceeds by far the sum of British and French warheads.

Against this backdrop, the senior US official viewed the surprise Soviet offer to negotiate a separate European nuclear balance with Britain and France as an attempt to divert attention and prevent observers from noticing just how bad a deal the Soviet proposal would be for Europe. The Soviets have not specified what reductions they would seek -- or even what they would talk about -- in negotiations with Britain and France.

A further rebuff to speculation about an attractive Soviet offer to Europe pegged to renunciation of SDI development comes in the Soviet failure to distinguish between research and post-research SDI activity. Instead, the US official said, the Soviets continue to call for a ban on all SDI ``creation'' -- a word that in Russian usage encompasses laboratory research as well as field testing and later development. This is an untenable position, since lab research -- as Soviet officials have previously ackn owledged -- cannot be verified.

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European governments, therefore, far from rallying to the Soviet banner, share Washington's skepticism about the Soviet offer as it now stands.

The basic joker in the whole proposal is Moscow's reversion to the 1969 Soviet definition of strategic weapons as nuclear weapons capable of targeting the other superpower. In the Soviet definition that would include all US medium-range missiles and dual-capable aircraft (those capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear weapons) in Europe but would exclude comparable Soviet medium-range missiles and planes targeting Europe.

This definition was rejected by the US in 1969, because it would deny the Europeans any US nuclear protection against the Soviet threat. The Soviets acceded, and neither the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) nor the signed but unratified SALT II followed that definition. Nor did the separate strategic and Euromissile talks in Geneva from 1981 to '83 do so.

The Soviet definition would give the US a base of some 12,000 nuclear ``charges'' (warheads, bombs, short range attack missiles, etc.) to be reduced under the proposal by 50 percent. The Soviets are calling for 50 percent reductions of both launchers and charges, and stipulate that no more than 60 percent of charges could be on one leg (land-, sea-, or air-based). The subceiling would hardly affect the US distribution of strategic nuclear warheads, but it would trim somewhat the Soviet reliance of more than 60 percent on land-based ICBMs.

These are the weapons that most trouble the US -- for two reasons. First, out of all the strategic launchers, ICBMs in general and the unique Soviet heavy ICBMs in particular have the greatest accuracy and therefore the greatest ``hard-target kill'' capability against vulnerable enemy ICBMs. Second, all fixed-base ICBMs are vulnerable, given today's accuracies, and a disproportionate reliance on them means that they have to be fired off in the first minutes of any nuclear exchange if they are not themse lves to be destroyed. This puts the superpowers in an increasingly hair-trigger situation in time of crisis; it creates ``crisis instability.''

The Soviet Union, while refusing to negotiate about ``crisis stability,'' does acknowledge its own fear of a US first-strike capability against Soviet ICBMs when the MX and Trident II submarine with the D5 missile become operational in the late '80s and '90s.

A major problem with the proposed Soviet combination of launcher and warhead cuts is that the mathematics works out to increase, rather than decrease ICBM vulnerability -- and therefore to increase that hair-trigger crisis instability. This is precisely the opposite effect of the declared aim of arms control cuts: to increase stability and reduce the risk of war.

The numbers look like this: The probable US deployment of ICBM launchers under such a system would be 300, and the probable Soviet ICBM deployment would be the full quota of 3,600. This would mean an overwhelming ratio of 12 Soviet ICBM warheads with hard-target kill capability for every hard target in the US.

By contrast to the Soviet offer, the standing US proposal seeks to promote crisis stability by decreasing the ratio of warheads to launchers -- and encouraging a shift back toward old-fashioned single-warhead launchers.