Time to get on with START

EARLIER this year Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev called reductions in strategic offensive arms the ``root problem'' of arms control. He's finally realized the importance of something President Ronald Reagan has stressed since 1982. While we all welcome recent Soviet willingness to negotiate seriously in intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), that alone is not enough. It's now time for Mr. Gorbachev to get on with deep reductions in the superpowers' strategic arsenals. As the Soviets are so fond of saying, it's deeds not words that count. It's time for the Soviets to get on with strategic arms reduction talks (START). At the 1985 Geneva summit, President Reagan and the General Secretary agreed to speed up work toward a 50 percent cut in strategic offensive forces. But the Soviets failed to follow through; instead they have created a link between START and defense and space issues. This artificial linkage is clearly intended to hamstring and, if the Soviets can get away with it, emasculate the United States Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Almost a year after the Geneva Summit, the two leaders met again, in Reykjavik. This meeting resulted in considerable progress in START. They agreed to reduce strategic nuclear delivery vehicles to 1,600 on each side, with no more than 6,000 warheads. They also agreed on a method of counting and limiting heavy bombers and their weapons. These are significant accomplishments. Yet the Soviets have continued to stonewall by linking progress in START to defense and space issues.

The Soviets had earlier complained that the reductions proposed by the US, including sublimits on the most destabilizing systems, would require substantial restructuring of their forces. In an effort to accommodate these Soviet concerns and break the deadlock, Secretary of State George Shultz made a new proposal this April in Moscow. Instead of reducing strategic forces by 50 percent in five years, as the US originally proposed, Mr. Shultz offered to stretch out the reductions over seven years. The new US proposal would give the Soviets additional time to reduce to the new limits. Yet rather than embrace this offer, the Soviets disingenuously charged it with being a step backwards. They also criticized it for failing to include restrictions on advanced strategic defense research.

The Soviets agreed in February to remove the unwarranted linkage they had imposed between SDI and an INF agreement. It's now high time they follow suit by removing this same artificial roadblock to progress in START. The USSR is aggressively pursuing a broad-based effort to develop its own advanced strategic defenses. Yet the Soviets simultaneously claim we must eliminate or emasculate our defensive research. In fact, such research is fully compatible with deep cuts in offensive forces. The Soviets should cast off the artificial linkage to SDI and move forward in the area of greatest common concern to us both: a 50 percent reduction in strategic offensive arms - the central systems on both sides.

The Soviets have argued that they cannot reduce their offensive forces in the face of our determination to proceed with SDI. However, when we offered to stretch reductions over seven years, we also offered to forgo deployment of strategic defenses through 1994. Thus, despite our opposition to the Soviet-imposed linkage, we again tried to meet Soviet concerns.

A START treaty that reduced delivery vehicles to 1,600 and warheads to 6,000, with appropriate sublimits on the most destabilizing systems, would be mutually advantageous and desirable in its own right. It would actually reduce strategic nuclear weapons rather than legitimize further increases. Thousands of nuclear weapons on both sides would be eliminated. Forces on both sides would be reduced to lower levels that promised greater stability.

A treaty along these lines would lessen the first-strike advantage posed by the massive Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) forces. The Soviets would also stand to gain a great deal, since the US would be required to limit significantly the potential of its land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. For example, the US would have to cut back its submarine-launched ballistic missile forces, including planned deployments of the highly accurate Trident D-5 missile.

In short, an agreement to reduce strategic offensive arms by 50 percent, with appropriate sublimits, would benefit both superpowers. It would go a long way toward removing the nuclear ``Sword of Damocles'' that hovers above us today. For our sake, for the Soviets' sake, and for the sake of the world, it's time for the Soviets to abandon their linkage of strategic arms reductions to SDI and allow us both to get on with START.

Ambassador Edward L. Rowny is special adviser to the President and to the secretary of state for arms control matters.

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