WASHINGTON — MULTIPLE-warhead missiles are the nuclear weapons military planners are most concerned about. Accurate and fast, they have been the heart of superpower strategic arsenals for some 20 years. Thus, new controls on multiple-warhead weapons (MIRVs), which President Bush is expected to propose in his State of the Union address, could make the world a much safer place. All-out nuclear war is already less likely than it has been for decades, but if political tensions between the superpowers ever rise again, few er MIRVs would mean that a sudden attack would be less likely to spiral out of control.
Details of Mr. Bush's MIRV proposal were not available at this writing, but its general outline seems clear: a sharp reduction or complete ban of land-based MIRV missiles, and smaller cuts in less-threatening submarine-carried MIRV missiles.
It is not yet clear what leaders of the ex-Soviet republics might have to say about the proposal. As part of his sweeping arms-cut proposal of last fall, President Bush offered a mutual ban on only the land-based MIRVs, and US Department of State officials were on ex-Soviet territory last week discussing nuclear issues.
"It's safe to say we have had discussions with the [ex] Soviets about the follow-up to the president's initiative," said Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall.
Getting rid of only land-based MIRV missiles such as the US MX missile and the ex-Soviet SS-18 is widely seen as a formulation that would greatly favor the US. What is now the Commonwealth of Independent States has a much higher percentage of its nuclear forces on land-based MIRVs than does the US, which has put more emphasis on submarine-based weapons.
Sea-based MIRVs are considered stabilizing weapons by many nuclear theorists, because they aren't nearly as fearsome as land-based models and are currently invulnerable to preemptive attack. But curbs on sea-based MIRVs could well be necessary to entice the commonwealth into any new mutual strategic reductions. And the US military might have its own reasons to want some restrictions on sub missiles.
Not that the US Navy is ever happy about anyone telling it what it can or cannot do. But the problem, as explained in the draft of a Pentagon report on nuclear weapons in the new world order, goes like this: The US strategic nuclear stockpile is going to shrink smaller than the 9,000 warheads allowed by the recent START treaty.
To make sure the US has enough missile subs to cover two oceans, while allowing time for overhaul, "some way must be found for the [Trident] to not count as 192 weapons," says the report. The report indicates that an agreement that sub missiles will carry fewer warheads than they are designed for is likely.