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SALT successes and the Geneva summit

By Dale Bumpers / November 19, 1985



IN the weeks preceding the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the administration sought to dampen expectations that any major arms control agreements will be reached. While White House aversion to disappointing the American people on this important issue is understandable, it overlooks the real possibilities for limited but significant steps to slow the arms race. The Reagan administration has sought to keep down expectations that a major breakthrough is likely, particularly on arms control. It should not be surprising that Americans have high hopes for the summit: all five summits of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations yielded important arms accords. Given the absence of any arms control progress during the five Reagan years, it is natural that the public would look to the first Reagan summit for hope of at least some curbs on the arms race.

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While the United States and Soviet Union are miles apart on almost every arms control issue, from strategic arms and antisatellite weapons to nuclear testing, there is one area where their positions are similar and the potential for agreement is high: a framework for keeping existing arms restraints in place while we continue the task of negotiating a new one.

President Reagan made an important first step in this direction when he said in June that ``despite the Soviet record over the last years, it remains in our interest to establish an interim framework of truly mutual restraint on strategic offensive arms as we pursue . . . the ongoing negotiations in Geneva.'' Surely we are better off with SALT than without it. SALT has forced the Soviets to dismantle over 450 nuclear-tipped missiles vs. only 16 for the US, and it will force them to dismantle over four times more than we do by the end of 1987. It also recognizes that the Soviets would have thousands more nuclear warheads without SALT than with it.

While SALT II was never ratified and the SALT I offensive arms limits technically expired eight years ago, each side has announced separately that it would abide by them. This informal and very fragile arrangement is under new attack by some political appointees in the administration who have a long track record of unremit- ting hostility to SALT and other realistic arms control measures, such as the ABM Treaty. In addition to the usual litany of Soviet arms violations, they also argue that since SALT II would have expired on Dec. 31 of this year anyway, we should stop complying with it.

Renouncing SALT would be a dangerous decision that would trigger an all-out offensive arms race which studies show could double the already bloated nuclear arsenals of both sides in less than a decade. Furthermore, the pressures on SALT will increase in the months ahead as we approach the time when our eighth Trident sub goes out to sea in May, and as the Soviets start to deploy their new MIRVed SS-24 ICBM. Both these events would violate SALT ceilings unless offsetting actions are taken. Renouncing SAL T would also damage US relations with our NATO allies, who strongly support the SALT restraint framework. At a minimum, our policy of maintaining existing SALT limits while trying to negotiate new agreements needs to be reinforced. Recent comments by a senior administration official that SALT II could be extended past 1985 constitutes sound advice.

Given how far apart both sides are in the arms talks, I believe the President when he says a new agreement may well not be reached in the next several years. This makes it all the more important to strengthen the currently shaky interim restraint framework the President discussed in June. There is great similarity in the public statements on SALT made by both sides, so agreement on a common position should be possible. This could also be accomplished by language dealing with avenues for resolving our co ncerns about certain alleged Soviet SALT violations. The alleged ABM Treaty violations could be dealt with similarly.

Reaffirming SALT would have important benefits for US security. Continuation of SALT will force the Soviets to dismantle older SS-11 and MIRVed SS-17 missiles as they deploy their new SS-25s and MIRVed SS-24s. SALT will also force them to dismantle additional missile-firing submarines as they deploy new ones. (SALT has already forced them to dismantle 13 since 1978.)

If the President wanted to make a bolder move, he could offer a mutual cut of 10 percent in the existing SALT II ceilings. This would force the USSR to dismantle 500 missiles and bombers, including 30 giant SS-18 ICBMs, with about 1,000 warheads. The US, benefiting from the fact that we are already under most of SALT's ceilings, would only have to dismantle as few as 130 vulnerable ICBMs with fewer than 400 warheads. Other kinds of interim agreements are possible as well.

For someone who campaigned in 1980 on a platform that mistakenly claimed SALT II was fatally flawed, this 10 percent cut in SALT ceilings might be too much for the President, despite its clear advantages. At the summit he should seek the realistic goal of ensuring that there will be at least some restraints on offensive arms in place in the crucial next few years before a new agreement is reached. We must have the wisdom and courage to take these small steps to strengthen US security and set the stage f or further arms control progress.

Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas is on the Appropriations Committee.