The who, what, where, and why of arms talks

A primer for the European nuclear arms control talks opening Nov. 30 in Geneva would look something like this: What is being negotiated?

European continental-range (intermediate) nuclear weapons. This encompasses a range from about 750 to 5,000 kilometers (465 to 3,100 miles).

The United States wants to concentrate initially on the most accurate, penetrating, and swift - and therefore most threatening - weapons, the land-based missiles. The Soviet Union wants to include from the beginning what it calls America's ''forward-based systems,'' i.e., nuclear-armed aircraft and submarines.

Who are the negotiators?

The US and the Soviet Union, with Western Europe listening in. For the first time in nuclear arms control talks, Washington is representing not just its own position, but a position formally agreed on by all the NATO allies.

What is the present intermediate-range nuclear balance in Europe?

More than 2 to 1 in favor of the Soviet Union (International Institute for Strategic Studies figures), even including the independent French systems, which are not under NATO command. The figures for the most threatening weapons, the 1, 000 to 5,000 kilometer-range land-based missiles, show an even greater disparity of almost 50 to 1: 875 Soviet warheads vs. 18 Western warheads (all of them French). If British and French subs are included, the NATO warhead total still reaches only 162, for a Soviet-NATO ratio of 5 to 1. (American strategic subs are not counted, since they are offset by Soviet strategic subs that are also not counted.)

Moscow does not contest the Western missile figures by much; it claims 838 Soviet warheads. Moscow still claims an overall East-West balance in intermediate-range nuclear weapons, however, of 986 (NATO) vs. 975 (Soviet Union). It achieves this by (1) counting weapons instead of warheads (each of the 175 SS-20s targeted on Europe has three warheads), (2) simply not counting almost 1,000 Soviet planes that are the equivalent of planes Moscow does count on the Western side.

Why is there such Soviet nuclear superiority in Europe? Has NATO been negligent?

NATO's failure to deploy as many intermediate-range warheads as the Warsaw Pact was a deliberate choice.

First, until the advent of the SS-20 in the late 1970s the Soviet Union had not modernized its intermediate nuclear missiles for almost two decades. It did not have the accuracy to hit military targets (as distinct from cities) with any discrimination. NATO's qualitative superiority offset Moscow's quantitative lead in intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

Second, nuclear deterrence was viewed as a continuum, resting more on the ultimate retaliation of America's intercontinental strategic weapons than on European-theater retaliation. It was not deemed necessary to match tank for tank , intermediate missile for intermediate missile in Europe.

The 10 to 15 minute, 320-meter accurate, relatively invulnerable SS-20 changed the equation from 1977 on, however. NATO decided the European disparity was becoming too great and would have to be offset by deploying 572 new single-warhead missiles in the mid-1980s.

What are the two sides proposing at Geneva?

The Soviet Union wants a ''moratorium,'' the US ''zero option.''

The moratorium would freeze present levels - and present Soviet superiority. ''Zero option'' would have the Russians dismantle all their SS-20s, SS-4s, and SS-5s in return for NATO's not installing those planned new missiles two years from now.

Why on earth would the US accept the Soviet moratorium? Why on earth would the Soviet Union accept NATO's zero option?

They wouldn't. Those are the maximal opening positions, as presented on the first day in any negotiation. They will presumably be modified.

Is the US position, as Soviet President Brezhnev charges, an ''alibi'' set up to ensure Soviet rejection and the failure of the negotiations?

Some people in the Defense Department wanted to make it such, especially by requiring inclusion of shorter-range missiles like the Soviet SS-22s in the ban. This was not done. How negotiatiable the rest of the package is remains to be seen.

Already, however, the US has given up considerable flexibility to make the zero option proposal. In the current nuclear balance it would make much more sense for NATO to shift away from battlefield weapons (which would devastate, say, lower Saxony), to longer-range weapons (which would devastate, say, parts of the Ukraine). Under zero option it would never have such capability.

Does that mean there really is some incentive for the Soviet Union to move toward zero option?

Yes, some. If it doesn't, those 572 NATO missiles will be deployed. The 108 Pershing IIs, would be able to hit Soviet targets - and do so as fast as the SS- 20s can hit European targets with even greater accuracy, within 20 to 40 meters. For the first time those 464 cruises - despite their longer flight time of close to two hours - would render much of the vaunted Soviet air defense obsolescent and require enormous new investment in it. Scaling down their own existing weapons - however much it goes against the Russian tradition - just might be preferable.

So which side has the initiative now?

The answer has to be subjective, of course. But a strong case could be made that NATO's zero option suddenly has the initiative. For 10 months the Soviet moratorium had the stage all to itself, as the Russians talked peace while the Reagan administration worried Europeans with its emphasis on confronting the Russians and downplaying peace. Now, however, following Reagan's Nov. 18 speech, it's zero option and not the moratorium that everyone is responding to. And the Russians are going to have to fish or cut bait with their peace campaign: either live up to it or admit it was fraudulent by shifting to use the current Soviet European nuclear superiority to bully Western Europe into not accepting the new NATO missiles.

Moreover, the Russians as well as NATO preach the virtues of East-West equality as a goal. And the more military figures become public in the course of the negotiations, the more obvious will become the present inequality in favor of the Russians. And the harder it will be to explain to open-minded peace demonstrators why the Soviet Union should not in fact reduce its arsenal.

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