Unwelcome mats for US `nukes' . New Zealand's rejection of warship is part of bothersome trend
Washington — Difficulties over the ``nuclearization'' of United States and alliance forces are erupting in several places this week. Officials in Britain evicted demonstrators protesting the deployment of cruise missiles at an air base there. Greece refused to let the US replace stockpiled battlefield nuclear weapons with newer models. New Zealand said no to a visit by a US Navy ship that may be carrying nuclear weapons.
Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke -- scheduled to meet with President Reagan here today -- is under political pressure to withhold his country's cooperation with MX missile tests in the South Pacific. He is also less than enthusiastic about the President's plans for a space-based missile defense system.
Meanwhile, the US Navy is moving steadily to increase the nuclear capability of its warships, and this could add to problems with alliance relations and future port visits.
At the moment, 289 of the 342 major combatants in the US fleet (85 percent) are able to carry nuclear weapons. These weapons include not only 5,700 submarine launched ballistic missile warheads, but 2,700 tactical nuclear weapons. Among the Navy's current nuclear arsenal are bombs aboard aircraft carriers, rockets to be used against ships and submarines, antiaircraft missiles, and depth charges dropped by helicopters.
The latest addition is the Tomahawk cruise missile, which has a 1,500-mile range. The Navy plans to acquire 4,000 Tomahawks, which it began to deploy last summer. Of these, 758 will be nuclear-armed with a 200-kiloton warhead (more than 10 times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). More than 170 ships (attack submarines, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers) will be able to carry the missile.
The United States has always had a love-hate relationship with its allies over nuclear weapons. This country's strategic ``nuclear umbrella'' has generally been welcomed. So, too, has the proliferation of US-built tactical nuclear weapons abroad as a means of ``defense on the cheap'' to offset large Soviet advantages in many conventional weapons.
Less controversial than nuclear weapons at sea -- for the moment at least -- are the thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons deployed (as they have been for years) in NATO countries.
While it is deploying new Pershing II and cruise missiles, NATO is also reducing its overall nuclear arsenal (about 6,000 weapons) by 1,400.
Gen. Bernard Rogers, the NATO commander, argues that the alliance should beef up its conventional military power so that it no longer relies on a ``nuclear crutch.'' This is unlikely to happen soon, however, and the United States is producing new nuclear artillery shells for potential use in Europe.
For years, US ships with nuclear weapons have visited such countries as Japan which, despite large antinuclear movements, have looked the other way. US officials are concerned that New Zealand's refusal to receive any nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ship could set an example for other countries. And they want to make very clear that this is unacceptable to the US, and that it will not happen without possible adverse reaction. ``We are not going to take economic retaliation against New Zealand,'' a senior administration official said. ``It is also true that where pleas for special consideration come up -- as they have come up repeatedly in the past -- the argument that New Zealand is a loyal and faithful ally, which has been very useful in the past, is not available.''
It has been suggested that the US could retaliate against New Zealand by ending the preferential treatment of that country's wool and lamb or by selling surplus US dairy products abroad. Officials here discourage speculation that this will in fact happen, however.
``We're not in the business of sanctions,'' said the official. ``It's not our practice to go about the world dumping [surplus products]. We're free-traders, and dumping is an exported form of protectionism. We're trying to put an end to that and not encourage it.''
The US has asked Australia to refuel US aircraft monitoring the test flights of MX missiles. Officials say they are ``looking at the availability of alternatives'' should Australia decide not to provide refueling.
Prime Minister Hawke is meeting with senior foreign policy, defense, and arms control officials as well as the President. Officials say there is no question that Australia will continue to host US ship visits. And they say there is ``no comparison'' between the MX issue and that of accepting US ships without questioning their armament.
Official sources here point to the growing Soviet Pacific fleet and say US naval activity in the region -- including ship visits to allied ports -- is just as fundamental to military alliance relations as the deployment of US troops to West Germany.