The bargaining chip theory

The surest sign of a weapon system in trouble is its characterization as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Soviet Union.

To one who has been involved in such negotiations, the current talk of the MX as a bargaining chip by the Reagan administration has a familiar ring. Virtually every strategic weapon program advanced by the Pentagon during the decade of SALT negotiations was, at one time or another, characterized by its supporters as a bargaining chip. All such systems were deployed in quantity.

For example, cruise missiles were bargaining chips; the United States now plans to purchase over 8,500 long-range cruise missiles. The Soviets will no doubt follow suit. And now the MX.

Our experience with bargaining chips leads to the conclusion that they lead to agreements to arm rather than to arms control agreements. There was one significant exception to this general rule - the case of antiballistic missiles, or ABMs.

Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations proposed nationwide ABM defenses. The administration's rationale for ABMs fluctuated wildly. At one point it was even argued that ballistic defense was required to protect the US from Chinese attack. The ABM proposal encountered strenuous congressional opposition; major technical questions were raised about the viability of the concept; important political questions were raised about the impact of ABMs on the arms race; budgetary questions were raised by the enormous and open-ended cost of the program; and it was argued that the system would not work. In short, the ABM program ran afoul all the key issues now besetting the MX.

The Congress was told time and again that a vote against the ABM program would be a vote to undercut our SALT negotiator. These entreaties had some effect, and ABM funding barely passed the Senate. But the nationwide system was scaled back drastically and, eventually, an agreement was reached in SALT to limit ABMs to two sites per side. A protocol to the ABM Treaty later reduced this to a single site per side.

Of course, we each interpret such events in different ways. I know that many interpret the ABM episode as giving force to the bargaining chip theory, but I find it instructive that in the only case where a bargaining chip was cashed, there was extraordinarily strong congressional and public opposition to spending cash for the program in question.

The START negotations do not appear to be making much headway in Geneva. The public record of many of those connected with these negotiations on the US side indicates a consistent belief that the Soviets aren't really interested in arms control agreements except on their terms. If so, how would the accumulation of bargaining chips by our side alter their behavior? On the other hand, many observers of this administration believe that the President and his advisers won't agree to anything with the Russians except on our terms.

As I understand the essence of the Reagan administration's negotiating position, we are proposing reductions by two-thirds in Soviet land-based missiles and increases in US strategic forces, as improvements in bomber and cruise missile forces are to be outside the scope of our proposed agreement. Will any number of bargaining chips compel the Russians to accept these terms?

We and the Russians could have agreed to no new MIRVed land-based missiles in the SALT II agreement, but the Carter administration declined to do so. If the Congress funds production of the MX, would the Reagan administration be any more inclined to cash this particular chip than its predecessor? I doubt it. The best way to prod the negotiators at Geneva to agree to a ban on new MIRVed land-based missiles is to deny production funds for the MX.

The former chief US negotiators at SALT, Gerard Smith and Paul Warnke, recently made the sensible point that weapon systems necessary for our security need no bargaining chip rationale - they stand on their own merits. But as one House member said after the MX vote, the bargaining chip rationale is ''the only decent argument the administration has'' for the ''Peacekeeper'' missile. It has not been shown that the MX will increase our security; it has not been shown that it will lead to a more stable strategic balance, and it has not been shown that it will promote arms reductions. Nor has the administration proposed a sensible and practical basing system.

Until and unless these burdens are met, it makes no sense to fund production of the MX

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