Needed: a new approach on theater nuclear arms

If the United States and the Soviet Union stand pat on their opening proposals for reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons, there will be no real negotiations and no agreement. So, after consultation with its allies, the US should introduce a new proposal when the negotiations resume in Geneva on Sept. 30.

This new proposal should meet the interests of both sides - US and allied concerns over the Soviet buildup of SS-20 missiles and Backfire bombers, and Soviet concern over present and planned American weapons and British and French weapons.

The proposal which the US has tabled in Geneva, the ''zero option,'' meets Western concerns but not Soviet concerns. It is too one-sided to be negotiable. The Soviets would have to dismantle nearly 600 land-based missiles. The US would dismantle none (it has no land-based missiles of this range). Western sea-based missiles and aircraft would be left unconstrained. The Soviets call this unilateral disarmament.

The proposal which the Soviet Union has tabled is equally one-sided and nonnegotiable. It would require the dismantlement of almost the entire American force but would leave a substantial Soviet force.

Without a new approach, the US will risk yet another fissure in its strained relationship with its West European allies. The already strong opposition in Belgium, the Netherlands, and West Germany to the American deployment of the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles, in accordance with the NATO two-track decision of December 1979, will grow. The US will have failed to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union to ban or limit these weapons. And the US will have failed to establish a sound political basis for deployment of its weapons in Western Europe. Both tracks of the NATO two-track decision will be dead.

Some in the Reagan administration who want to stand pat on the admittedly one-sided US proposal argue that the Soviets will not negotiate seriously until late 1983 or early 1984 when the Pershing II and the ground-launched cruise missiles are actually being deployed. This argument is specious.

At present, and until the new missiles are deployed, the American bargaining position is strong. The US negotiator can threaten to deploy or agree not to deploy these weapons. The negotiator has a usable bargaining card. Once the missiles are deployed, their bargaining value drops sharply not because the Soviets would not pay a price for their removal, but because the US would be unwilling to give them up. The MIRV experience would be repeated - a short-term gain while the US has monopoly of the weapons but a worsening of US security in the somewhat longer run when the Soviets acquire the weapons.

The principal Western objective in these negotiations would be met if the Soviets agreed to make substantial reductions in their land-based missile force targeted on Western Europe. In return, the West, while not reducing any of its weapons, could offer to:

* Cancel the deployment of the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles if the Soviets dismantle missiles carrying an equivalent number of warheads;

* Take account in the resulting balance of all missiles regardless of nationality (British and French, and American missiles assigned to the NATO commander) and whether launched from the land or sea;

* In an interim agreement freeze the most threatening aircraft - the F-111 and the Backfire bomber - and constrain other aircraft with a noncircumvention formula that sidesteps the potential problem of East-West data discrepancies on aircraft.

Britain and France are not parties to the Geneva negotiations and their forces should not be limited by a US-Soviet agreement. But they do share responsibility for the defense of Western Europe and for the deterrence of the Soviet Union and therefore their forces should be taken into account in calculating the balance.

The US should discuss this proposal with the United Kingdom and France and with other allies who are becoming anxious about the lack of progress in Geneva.

This proposal could break the deadlock in Geneva, result in significant Soviet reductions, take account of allied nuclear forces while imposing no limits on them, and reduce the risk of nuclear war in Europe.

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