An arms reduction plan worth talking about
Soviet leader Yuri Andropov has made the first potentially significant move by either the United States or the Soviet Union since bilateral negotiations began a year ago in Geneva to reduce intermediate-range nuclear weapons. In a speech on Dec. 21, Andropov said that the Soviet Union would reduce its intermediate-range missile force in Europe to the British and French level if the US would cancel the deployment of the Pershing II missile and ground-launched cruise missile in Western Europe.Skip to next paragraph
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The proposed Soviet reductions would be substantial - about 260 old SS-4 and SS-5 missiles and about 90 multiple-warhead SS-20 missiles. The Soviets would retain a sizable land-based force - 262 SS-20s, 100 of which would be targeted on Asia and 162 on Western Europe, equal to British and French nuclear missile deployments.
The Western reaction - British, French, and American - to the Andropov proposal was swift and negative. Britain and France do not want their forces to be involved in the negotiations. American spokesmen asserted that the proposed Soviet reductions would still leave the United States at a disadvantage - 262 missiles for the Soviet Union and none for the United States.
Yet the Soviet proposal could in fact provide a way to bring about a substantial reduction in the Soviet nuclear threat to Western Europe and President Reagan would have achieved one of his major goals.
As it stands, the Andropov proposal contains serious shortcomings and ambiguities.
The Soviet intermediate-range missile level would be reduced to that of the British and French - 162 missiles. But the remaining Soviet missile, the SS-20, carries three warheads while the British and French missiles carry only one. Thus, by the most telling measure of nuclear capability, the Soviet force would be three times as powerful as the Western force.
Andropov said the Soviets would ''retain in Europe'' only as many missiles as are kept there by the British and French. Is he counting only weapons literally ''in Europe'' or is he also counting weapons targeted on Western Europe but located East of the Urals? And what happens to the reduced missiles? Are they dismantled, or are they simply transferred to other locations where they would still be a potential threat to Western Europe?
Andropov said nothing about Soviet SS-20 missiles targeted on Asia. Would the Soviets agree that these missiles could not be redeployed against Western Europe , and that their numbers should not be increased?
Andropov conditions Soviet missile reductions on an accord ''reducing to equal levels on both sides the number of medium-range nuclear delivery aircraft stationed in this region by the USSR and the NATO countries.'' But this condition adds to the negotiations a time-consuming element of considerable complexity because there are wide differences between Soviet and American data about the number and capability of aircraft.