Gorbachev's Sly Naval Proposals

By , Perry L. Wood is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute,, and Jimmy W. Wheeler is the director of Hudson's Asia-Pacific program.

NAVAL arms are now the big issue in superpower arms control. Not surprisingly, Soviet President Gorbachev is a strong advocate of mutual naval-force reductions and naval arms control. The Soviets would derive a significant strategic advantage from linking any future talks on conventional-arms reductions in Europe or elsewhere to parallel reductions in naval forces. But the United States and the Soviet Union face radically different strategic realities. The US is dependent on naval power to preserve its nuclear retaliatory capability, to implement its forward defense strategy, and to meet its defense commitments to its allies in Europe and the Pacific, as well as to protect important American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere in the third world. The Soviet Union is not similarly dependent on naval power for its strategic goals.

Indeed, Mr. Gorbachev has significantly reduced the status and resources of the Soviet Navy as a result of budgetary restrictions and changing Soviet strategic priorities. A new generation of Soviet mobile, intercontinental ballistic missiles has reduced the importance of the Soviet Navy to the USSR's nuclear retaliatory capability. And Gorbachev has downgraded the importance of the Navy for power projection by reducing Soviet military activity in the third world.

Gorbachev would like to use his naval arms control proposals to undermine US capabilities and thereby preserve relative Soviet naval power, while still cutting costs by reducing absolute Soviet naval power. This reflects his overall strategy of employing diplomatic initiatives to enhance Soviet influence and security, despite cuts in military outlays.

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This basic strategy is particularly evident in Gorbachev's Pacific initiatives. He has proposed that naval and air forces in the northwest Pacific should be frozen as a first step toward future reductions; that the US and the USSR agree to keep warships armed with nuclear weapons beyond the range of their respective coasts; that antisubmarine forces should be limited in agreed-upon zones and eliminated in others; and that major naval exercises should be limited.

Gorbachev also supports the idea of nuclear free zones in the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia and has decried the presence of foreign military bases and troops in the region.

These proposals are calculated to compensate for Gorbachev's relatively weak position and cost him little or nothing. Required Soviet concessions under these proposals have already begun as part of their efforts to cut costs and reorient naval strategy. Furthermore, the Sea of Okhutsk and other key regions for Soviet naval operations are excluded from his proposals. The proposals focus on areas - such as Southeast Asia and the south Pacific - that are critical for American operations and interests in the Pacific.

Some of the proposals directly enhance Soviet naval capabilities. The proposal for the establishment of antisubmarine free zones would create a safe haven for Soviet ballistic-missile submarines in the Seas of Okhutsk and Japan, while allowing the Soviets' nonnuclear submarines to pose an increased threat to American and Japanese sea lanes of communication in the Pacific. Similarly, Gorbachev's demand that restrictions should be established on the movement of nuclear-capable air and naval forces within range of either superpower's coast would facilitate his efforts to create a Soviet defensive naval buffer zone in the Far East.

The only real concessions under Gorbachev's proposals would be made by the United States. If the US agrees to them, it would significantly reduce the nation's ability to protect its interests in the Pacific and elsewhere.

Arms control agreements can enhance stability and reduce the risk of warfare, but not all arms control agreements have these results. The naval arms control agreements proposed by Gorbachev would not significantly reduce the risk of war. Instead, Gorbachev's proposals would only reduce American deterrence capabilities vis-`a-vis both the Soviet Union and third countries, and weaken America's ability to meet its defense commitments and to project its power to third-world trouble spots. Gorbachev's proposals are inequitable and destabilizing and should be rejected by Washington.

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