Strategic arms: fewer is better

President Reagan's proposed solution for United Stats strategic vulnerability avoids some problems but leave others.If attacking Soviet missiles can destroy existing Minuteman silos, surely they can take out the MX fortifications, too, no matter how much concrete surrounds them.

Frantic anxieties about the Soviet threat lead the US from one misguided effort to another, each one making the nation less secure then before. The present problems began when President Nixon authorized deployment of multiple warheads in 1970 instead of banning them in SALT I. After all, it was argued, the US had a huge lead.

But then Russia began MIRV test three years later, eventually giving the Kremlin the warhead arsenal to challenge the US lead. Even so, the Politburo would be mad to risk a first strike, since it could never be sure of destroying all the planes, submarines, and ICBMs in the American triad. If the Soviets are suicidal, more American missiles won't deter them.

The US is therefore reacting to a nonproblem. The Kremlin leaders will never have a foolproof system for neutralizing the American deterrent; nor are they mad. Rather, they are engrossed in mastering economic and social problems even more severe than those that stalk the West.

Reacting to a nonproblem, the US makes all its other problems worse. Any new strategic weapons it devises will be costly, enriching some thousands of defense plant workers but eroding the economy as a whole; they will make a nuclear war more destructive if it ever occurs; and they may make it more likely, in case one side decides time runs against it. More money for strategic arms also means less funds for general purpose forces, where US weaknesses are more palpable.

Signs of a more militaristic American also alienate wide segments of European and third-world opinion, while Pentagon propaganda brochures about the Soviet threat inspire either disbelief or fear in those very nations we want to trust America. Having spent billions to build the world's most powerful armed forces (even stronger when allied power weighs in), why denigrate them?

If we carry out the President's wishes and build more and mightier missiles and bombers; deploy thousands of cruise missiles on land, sea and air; revive active and civilian defense programs; put even more warheads on submarine missiles -- probably exceeding the limits of SALTI an II -- will the Russians sit on their hands? No, they will march in similar directions, changing America's present worries into persistent nightmares.

Since more strategic forces make the problems worse, why not try fewer? A deterrent capable of staying the hand of any rational foe could number hundreds of weapons rather than the thousands that the US and Moscow now deploy.

Disarmament has been a pipe dream, but now it is feasible. Verification is now possible by "national means." Both sides have roughly the same quantity and kinds of weapons so that reductions to a common level would not disadvantage either party. Both superpowers have "redundancy" so that cutting their arsenals even by half (as proposed earlier this year by Ambassador George Kennan) would leave them with forces quite adequate to fend off any aggressors. Even if one side retained a few more weapons than permitted, this would not seriously affect the balance.

If limited disarmament is attractive, what's holding up negotiations? At bottom a deep mutual distrust, rooted in Washington's failure to normalize trade and ratify SALT II, and in Moscow's operations from Angola to Afghanistan. Perhaps a face-to-face dialogue at the summit would reduce the self-righteous indignation on both sides.

But there are also two technical problems. First, how to link talks on intercontinental and European theater forces? Simply by agreeing to regard as "strategic" any weapon that could reach US or Soviet territory. Second, how to set a common ceiling for US and Soviet forces when Moscow must worry about NATO and China? By seating British, French, and Chinese representatives at the same table with the US and the Soviet Union.

What principles might then guide five-power talks? We could return to the ratios developed by another Republican administration in 1921-22 for the Washington Naval Conference. The conference set ceilings for the two superpowers (then Britain and the US); lower limits for the medium power of that day, Japan (today, China); and still lower limits for France and Italy (today, France and Britain).

Technical solutions to problems of arms reduction are available. Where we hit blind alleys is in arms buildups which make everyone's problems worse.

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