Nuclear freeze: dollars and sense

Two important political movements seem about to converge in the United States , one from the left and one from the right. The grassroots campaign for a bilateral freeze on nuclear weapons has begun to be felt in Washington, witness the joint resolution initiated by Senators Kennedy and Hatfield, cosponsored by numerous colleagues and endorsed by many private citizens. And from the other end of the spectrum, fiscal conservatives have joined moderates in advocating a cut in the rate of growth of defense spending in order to reduce projected deficits.

The nuclear weapons freeze is gaining momentum among voters from California to Vermont because it is a simple concept which answers the concerns of ordinary people about the growing danger of civilization's suicide. It gains force from a growing realization that more numerous, more powerful, and more accurate nuclear weapons will not give the US more security from ordinary military pressure, and may make it even less secure from nuclear disaster.

Some who are disturbed by the Soviet military buildup may find the bipartisan freeze resolution introduced in the Congress more attractive than the freeze advocated by public groups such as the American Friends Service Committee. While the latter calls for an across-the-board freeze of all nuclear weapons and delivery systems, including medium-range weapons in Europe, the congressional resolution limits the freeze to strategic weapons. (Apparently failing to read the text of the resolution, the administration directed its criticism at the mistaken interpretation that it would simply freeze Soviet weapons in Europe.)

Unlike some other proposals, the congressional resolution envisages a negotiating route to the freeze, rather than unilateral initiatives to get it started. And, by singling out ''destabilizing'' weapons for special attention, it makes clear that weapons should be individually addressed in negotiations.

Although President Reagan complained that a freeze ''doesn't go far enough,'' the congressional resolution in fact advocates that the strategic freeze be followed by ''major'' reductions, not limited to strategic forces and therefore embracing medium-range and even tactical weapons.

Meanwhile, prominent Republicans as well as Democrats are saying that in the face of projected budget deficits in coming years the defense budget cannot grow at the rate the administration desires. They should be listening with care to what the proponents of a nuclear freeze are saying. If nuclear ''superiority'' has become meaningless as well as unattainable for either side, why should we waste our money building useless weapons?

Some who have looked for savings in the strategic weapons program have concluded that, for example, eliminating the MX program would not save many billions in fiscal '83, since the heavy outlays will come later. But that should not deter those who are worried about the even larger deficits predicted for fiscal '84 and '85.

Others argue that nuclear systems are a cheap way to flex our muscles. Aside from being a dangerous cop-out, this argument is not based on sound facts. New strategic systems will not be cheap. Several are estimated by their advocates in the tens of billions of dollars, but if experience is any guide the eventual cost in some cases may be in the hundreds of billions.

Some systems which might be dropped as part of a negotiated freeze are potentially destabilizing as well as wasteful. Such as the MX missile -- a tempting target if put into silos as planned. Others, such as the B-1 bomber, would not be destabilizing but might be wasteful. Sea-launched cruise missiles will not only stymie verification but could be more dangerous to the US than the Soviet Union if both sides build them, in view of America's more exposed coastal concentrations of industry and population. On the other hand, Trident submarines are expensive, but submarines are the most survivable and therefore the least destabilizing weapons and should be among the last to be frozen.

Several undertakings planned by the administration would not necessarily be banned by a strategic weapons freeze, although they could be considered for budget-cutting purposes: air defenses, an expanded civil defense program, and improved command-and-control systems (which, for everyone's peace of mind, should not be significantly cut).

All of these items together might not fully meet the target for cutbacks in defense outlays called for by Senator Domenici, not to speak of Senator Hollings , especially in fiscal '83. But they would make a big dent. Every billion dollars cut from unnecessary and dangerous nuclear spending would be a billion that would not have to be cut from the muscle of conventional preparedness. And the growing ranks of Americans who feel threatened by the spiralling growth of nuclear weapons would breathe a little easier.

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