Try banning nuclear cruise missiles at sea

Beginning in September, US Navy submarines and surface vessels will have operational cruise missiles on board. These are weapons launched from ships which fly like aircraft to their targets. The first cruise missile will have a range of some 300 nautical miles. As of March 1984, some of these missiles are expected to carry nuclear warheads; by next June, these ships will have missiles with ranges of up to 1,500 nautical miles. The Russians seem about to do something similar.

The cruise missile is a relatively cheap and increasingly accurate weapon. By deploying it on surface ships, the Navy increases the distance at which warships can strike enemy vessels and targets on land. Deploying cruise missiles on attack submarines, which can fire from submerged positions, gives these silent, hidden hunters, which once had only anti-submarine or anti-ship functions, new roles against targets on land.

All to the good? Not entirely.

The prospect of nuclear warheads for some of these missiles has complicated arms control negotiations in a way that can be compared only to deploying multiple warheads on strategic missiles 10 years ago. Everyone regrets that decision now. From it came the vulnerability of the US land-based strategic missile force, and almost all the strategic missile problems the administration is trying to correct with the START proposal. Deploying sea-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads has the same kind of effect. There is no way the Americans or the Russians could tell which ship has nuclear cruise missiles on board and which has only conventional ones. Thus, in arms control negotiations both sides must count all long-range cruise missiles as nuclear-armed.

Thus, once the long-range cruise missiles are deployed, the Soviets will want to take account of them in START. Under existing rules, they will count the entire US sea-based cruise missile force as nuclear, insist on limiting their numbers, or on reducing them or getting compensation for them out of other parts of the US strategic forces.

More likely, they would insist on the right to deploy equal numbers of nuclear-tipped missiles of their own. The latter case would make a mockery of START; no one would know how many nuclear weapons would actually be deployed at sea. What then would be the value of the remaining proposed START limitations? How could one negotiate them? START could stop.

Because both the US and the USSR have tested air-, ground-, and sea-launched cruise missiles, and because they have a useful conventional role, banning them altogether may no longer be practical, although this would be the optimal solution. In START, the Soviets have proposed limits on long-range cruise missiles, defined in SALT as over 600 kilometers (324 nautical miles). This idea is to the Soviets' advantage because it prevents deployment at sea of the more versatile cruise missiles in the American inventory; unless there were some offsetting advantage to it, it would be hard for the US to accept.

That very proposal presents the US with an opportunity. The President could show his interest in arms control - often avowed but seldom demonstrated - by offering not to deploy nuclear cruise missiles provided the Soviet Union did the same. Non-nuclear missile deployments could proceed on schedule. The offer would depend on the development of new, mutually acceptable counting rules or mutually acceptable verification procedures during a two-year period. During that time both sides would have a chance to work out ways to assure themselves beyond a reasonable doubt that the other was not cheating, such as permitting a limited number of in-port challenge inspections, for example. During the moratorium period, evidence of even one violation would serve to end the offer.

If this proposal doesn't work, nothing that matters will have been lost. If it does, fundamental complications will be removed from START negotiations.

There is even a strategic benefit to the US in this proposal. Targets in the USSR will be mostly out of range of the American cruise missiles, but this will not be the case for Soviet sea-based cruise missiles.

Not deploying nuclear cruise missiles at sea and challenging the Russians to do likewise would cost little, but would gain time. It might even convince some of the administration's critics that the President really cares about verifiable arms control, instead of just saying so.

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