The United States is about to be confronted with a significant new military threat, Soviet cruise missiles. In his widely publicized speech on new arms control proposals, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov disclosed that the Russians are testing a new, long-range cruise missile.
Actually, the Soviets have already deployed a number of cruise missiles designed to attack naval targets. What is different about the new weapon is that it will be similar to American cruise missiles starting to be deployed. Small, accurate, long-range, and extremely difficult to detect, the Russian cruise missile will be nuclear-armed and designed to attack land targets. It can be launched from naval vessels, aircraft, and mobile launchers on land.
Development of the new cruise missile seems to have begun in the mid-1970s. In 1977, following a Russian concession in the SALT II negotiations agreeing to continued testing of cruise missiles, American officials admitted the concession was probably made to allow the Soviets to match US cruise missile technology. By the beginning of 1979, testing of a Soviet missile began and, after a short lull , was stepped up.
Last spring Secretary of the Air Force Vernon Orr admitted that the Russians ''are developing a small cruise missile comparable in size and performance to our air-launched cruise missile.'' Dr. Richard D. DeLauer, under secretary of defense for research and engineering, stated the Soviets had several missiles under development, including ground- and sea-launched versions. The first-generation Soviet cruise missile could become operational by the mid-1980s if not sooner.
Soviet incentives to produce this new weapon seem to be linked to the arms control process as well as broader perceptions of national security requirements. Since 1974 and the Ford-Brezhnev summit in Vladivostok, the Soviets have emphasized the military threat posed by this new technology while unsuccessfully attempting to stop it through mutual arms control agreements. In lieu of an early solution, Moscow would seem to have had little choice but to begin its own countervailing program to pose a similar threat to the US while pursuing arms control solutions.
This dual strategy continues up until the present day. While continuing cruise missile development, the Soviets advocate banning all cruise missiles in the strategic arms reduction talks (START) and the ground- and sea-launched versions in the intermediate nuclear force (INF) talks.
American plans for deploying new intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe may have provided a major incentive to build a sea-launched land-attack cruise missile. Since 1979 the Russians have made ambiguous threats against the US as part of their campaign to prevent the European deployments. These threats have been widely misinterpreted, particularly in the Western press , as implying Soviet retaliation by reinstalling Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. The Russians have flatly denied this implication. Rather, they have hinted that a response would involve cruise missile deployments aimed directly at the US. On occasion, Soviet officials have implied sea-launched versions are a particularly attractive option.
What are the potential military implications of Soviet cruise missiles? New Soviet strategic bombers, already under development, could be armed with air-launched missiles designed to threaten a wide range of targets in the US. A sea-launched cruise missile could be deployed on Soviet naval vessels, particularly submarines, patrolling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans within range of the North American continent. In Europe, Soviet cruise missiles - ground- sea- or air-launched - could be used to strike stationary targets in the rear, such as hardened command posts, or slow-forming, mobile military concentrations. Compounding the threat is the overall sorry state of systems designed to warn of cruise missile attacks and the prospect that, even with costly improvements in warning systems, these weapons will still be able to slip by undetected.
Perhaps of more concern is the degree of new instability cruise missiles will add to a strategic balance already undermined by other technological developments. The Soviets long have argued that cruise missiles pose a surprise attack threat because of problems in detecting and identifying them while in flight. Moreover, unrestricted cruise missile deployments threaten to aggravate the nuclear arms race.
While this position has some validity, many in the US have either rejected or been slow to accept this argument. Rather, the focus has been solely on the potential strategic benefits of American cruise missiles. This is not surprising. After all, the US proceeded with the deployment of multiple warhead missiles (MIRVs) in the early 1970s, ignoring the consequences of similar Soviet deployments. The resulting land-based missile vulnerability problem still plagues the US.
The opportunity to place bilateral constraints on cruise missile deployments still exists. However, the Reagan administration has been reluctant to discuss possible comprehensive measures in either the START or the INF talks. It is hoped that the approaching deployment of Soviet cruise missiles and increasing recognition of their implications will stimulate a reevaluation of this position.