Getting some good out of those European arms talks

The United States and Soviet negotiators who will meet later this year to talk about limitations on theater nuclear forces in Europe will face the classic arms control dilemma: since the two sides are not equal, should parity be achieved by increasing forces on one side or by reducing them on the other? Will agreed "limitations" result in more arms or fewer arms?

The West, though deeply divided, has already answered this question. The answer is more arms. The West will increase its nuclear forces to counter a Russian build-up and -- it asserts -- to provide the "foundation for negotiations."

At present, the East has more theater nuclear weapons than the West, a point implicitly acknowledged by Soviet leader Brezhnev when, in a speech in October 1979, he offered to reduce Soviet nuclear weapons in return for a commitment by the West simply not to deploy additional ones.

On Dec. 12, 1979, NATO decided to deploy 108 Pershing II missiles and 464 ground- launched cruise missiles in Western Europe, beginning in late 1983. These weapons, which could strike Russia and which in Russian eyes are therefore most threatening, are designed to balance new Soviet weapons, the SS-20 missile and the Backfire bomber.

The priority which the US is giving to the NATO buildup -- the buildup is not negotiable, although exact numbers may be -- creates certain problems. The ground-launched cruise missile may not be verifiable by national intelligence means. Once deployed, the could rule arms control altogether. the Pershing II missile could reach Moscow in four minutes. That would make the Kremlin anxious to fire first in a crisis.

The justification for the new Western deployments is political, not military. Yet the NATO plan and the Reagan administration decision to produce the neutron bomb are raising most difficult political problems within the alliance in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. It is argued that these weapons are needed to provide a deterrent in Europe separate from the American strategic deterrent. But the American President would find it no easier and no harder to fire these weapons at the Soviet Union than he would to fire America's strategic weapons, knowing that the Soviets would retaliate against the US in either case. They would not add to deterrence.

There is an alternative to an arms control agreement based on a NATO buildup: negotiate Soviet reductions instead.

The West already has a counter to the SS- 20 missile in the British, French, and American NATO-assigned missiles based at sea. Compared to the Soviet SS-20, these Western sea-based missiles are more survivable, just as numerous, and about as accurate. At present, there are about 170 SS-20 missiles targeted on Western Europe carrying just over 500 warheads, and 184 Western sea- based missiles carrying 544 warheads. There is no need for additional American missiles. But to establish parity, the Soviets would have to agree to a ceiling on their growing number of SS-20s and would have to agree to dismantle their 400 or so older and obsolete medium-range missiles, the SS-4s and SS-5s.

Because of major dissimilarities, negotiating limitations on medium-range aircraft may be difficult and time-consuming. In the meantime, disparities in Moscow's favor would grow. To avoid this, the West might propose limitations designed to stop quickly the Soviet buildup but not necessarily to establish numerical equality (less useful anyway because of aircraft mobility). A ceiling might be established on only the most threatening aircraft -- the soviet Backfire bomber and the American F-111 fighter bomber based in the United Kingdom. Other, mostly aging, aircraft could be covered by a noncircumvention clause prohibiting significant improvement in capability.

To accord with their wishes, France and Britain would not be parties to this US-Soviet agreement: there would be no restrictions on their forces. But if their theater nuclear force level went up, the American level would have to go down by the same amount -- a not undesirable shift in the burden of Western defense -- to maintain overall parity with the Soviet Union.

A US-Soviet agreement based on Soviet reductions rather than on a Western buildup would have advantages: It would enhance stability by getting rid of the vulnerable Soviet SS-4s and SS-5s and by putting a ceiling on the newest and most threatening Soviet weapons. It would result in an equilibrium between East and West in these theater weapons, an equilibrium which West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt defines as the basic Western goal in the negotiations. It would avoid adding priority targets in crowded and populous Western Europe. It would save money. It would end the serious rift within the Atlantic alliance on this issue. And it would strengthen the hand of moderates within the Kremlin and lessen tension with the Soviet Union. East and West would be more secure.

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