Reversing the SALT II decision

PRESIDENT Reagan's May 27 repudiation of SALT II, if nothing else, was startling for its lack of ambiguity. The decision document stated: ``The United States will later this year continue deployment of B-52 heavy bombers with cruise missiles beyond the 131st aircraft, without dismantling additional US systems as compensation under the terms of the SALT II Agreement.'' Some seasoned Washington cynics, however, have interpreted the President's decision as a calculated political move to appease the right wing of the Republican Party, while simultaneously keeping his options open for the future. These same Reagan-watchers undoubtedly believe their views were vindicated by the President's recent press conference, in which he appeared to soften the impact of his May 27 decision by saying the final decision had not been made. Presidential arms control adviser Paul Nitze gave more ammunition to this view the following day. In testimony to Congress, he said he ``anticipated'' that at least one Poseidon submarine would be dismantled this fall. Such an action could have the effect of keeping the US in technical compliance with SALT through 1986. While declaring that ``SALT II no longer exists,'' presidential spokesman Larry Speakes proceeded to add to the confusion by explaining that de facto adherence to the SALT II limits could continue if Soviet behavior were to improve in the three key areas identified by the President in his May 27 statement.

First, the President will assess the Soviet ``performance in Geneva and whether or not there are prospects for true arms reductions.'' Second, the Soviet Union must ``reverse'' its massive buildup. And third, the Soviet Union must ``redress'' US concerns about alleged Soviet noncompliance. If one or all of these conditions are met, the United States will ``take into account'' improved Soviet behavior. The appropriate question at this point is: Can these conditions be met?

Despite President Reagan's recent encouraging and hopeful remarks at Glassboro, N.J., the prospects for genuine progress in Geneva are very bleak indeed. While the Soviet Union has continued to put forward negotiating proposals largely for their political impact, the fundamental problem is not Soviet intransigence. Instead, no serious progress can be expected on reducing nuclear arms until both sides indicate their willingness to negotiate acceptable limits on strategic defenses. But President Reagan has consistently rejected any limitations whatever on the SDI missile-defense program. And Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger recently repeated that guaranteeing the ABM Treaty for 10 to 15 years -- which was recently proposed by the Soviets -- or taking any action that would interfere with SDI ``is something obviously we would be very much opposed to.'' Furthermore, breaking the existing agreements on offensive arms hardly seems the best way to induce the Soviet Union into negotiating a new one.

The second condition -- reducing the Soviet buildup -- is equally unlikely to be fulfilled. Not only has there been a decade-long dispute regarding the pace and scope of the Soviet buildup, but now serious questions have been raised about whether or not a buildup has even occurred. In March, in testimony to the Joint Economic Committee, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged that the Soviet Union had not significantly increased its spending on weapons procurement for the last decade and that such spending might even decline over the next five years.

Moreover, the suggestion that the Soviet Union must reduce its weapons buildup, however defined, is tantamount to believing that the Soviets will engage in ``unilateral disarmament.'' It is difficult to envision the Reagan administration -- which has consistently cited the Soviet buildup as the rationale for its arms policies -- actually believing the Soviet Union would suddenly shift gears and disarm unilaterally.

Nor does it seem even remotely possible for the Soviet Union to redress alleged breaches of SALT II that it insists are not violations. On the contrary, just one week after the President's decision was announced, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of staff of the Soviet military, in the most comprehensive public discussion to date on the question of whether or not the SS-25 is a permitted new missile, charged that the United States had created this problem by ``deliberately distorting'' treaty provisions related to the definition of a ``new type'' of ICBM. Secretary Weinberger's demand that the Soviet Union ``take out these 72 illegal missiles'' cannot be achieved. General Akhromeyev's reaction underscores that, rather than inducing the Soviet Union to resolve compliance questions, highly publicized threats of the kind contained in the May 27 decision are more likely to harden the Soviet position.

It is not realistic to expect any or all of these three requirements to be met. While President Reagan may, in the end, choose to reverse his May 27 decision and stay within the limits of SALT II, it will not be as a result of improved Soviet behavior in the three prescribed areas. Instead, a reversal of the May 27 decision will come only as a result of direct pressure by Congress, the NATO allies, and perhaps even US military leaders -- all of whom recognize that adherence to SALT II by both sides will continue to serve the security interests of the United States.

James P. Rubin is the senior research analyst at the Arms Control Association, Washington. The views expressed are his own.

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