Arms control: proposals and commitment

WITH the opening in Geneva this week of the fourth round of the arms talks, the two superpowers begin ``accelerated'' negotiations on their publicized presummit proposals calling for a 50 percent cut in strategic offensive weapons. The United States plan would reduce nuclear arsenals from about 10,000 strategic weapons at present to 4,500 warheads on 1,450 ballistic missiles on each side. It would also ban the deployment of mobile land-based missiles (including the proposed US Midgetman) but permit the deployment of 1,500 air-launched cruise missiles on 350 heavy bombers. The Soviet proposal, while it differs considerably on a number of crucial details, would result in the same overall number of weapons (6,000) on roughly the same number of delivery systems.

Pious protestations of commitment to deep reductions notwithstanding, if the USSR announced tomorrow that it could accept the US reduction plan without substantive changes, there would likely be panic in the Pentagon. Panic because the US negotiating position is completely at odds with key elements of the Reagan administration's strategic modernization program, as well as with its professed arms control objectives. And panic because any back-of-the-envelope analysis reveals how poorly positioned the US is and, conversely, how well positioned the Soviet Union might be, to fit existing and projected forces into any reasonable permutation of the warhead/delivery system limits now under discussion.

Simple arithmetic indicates that in order to take optimum advantage of the key provisions of our own proposal, i.e., 4,500 warheads and 1,450 missiles, the US should develop and deploy weapons with three or fewer warheads. Instead, the US plans to deploy 50 to 100 MX missiles with 10 warheads each and to develop a Trident II missile with 8 to 14 warheads. Unless a single-warhead missile, similar to Midgetman, is added to the US arsenal, these highly MIRVed sea- and land-based systems would exhaust the 4,500 warhead limit long before the US could field the 1,450 missiles permitted. The resulting force would perpetuate -- if not exacerbate -- the high weapons-to-target ratio which the administration itself claims is destabilizing.

The new US proposal also runs counter to ill-conceived administration efforts to develop an effective US strategic defense. Although the proposal would reduce the size of the ballistic missile forces such defenses would face, it would leave relatively unconstrained the air-launched cruise missile and bomber threat and apparently would place no limits on sea- or ground-launched cruise missiles. Since low-flying, stealthy cruise missiles and long-range heavy bombers are two of the most likely countermeasures to a ``star wars'' type of ballistic missile defense, a truly serious US arms control proposal should seek to limit these systems.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, has just begun the deployment of a single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile (the SS-25) in both fixed and mobile basing modes, and it already has large numbers of single-warhead submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Soviet planners have a greater number of options among their existing and evolving systems to undertake steep reductions and to exploit fully the proposed limits.

It seems quite evident from the nature of our current and future strategic programs that the administration has not taken seriously its own reduction proposal, nor has it appeared to pay much attention to the effect this proposal would have on its stated arms control goals. While this lack of coordination between arms control policy and defense policy is neither new nor likely to disappear soon, some steps, if adopted, would signal the beginning of coordination:

If the administration is committed to reducing and restructuring US forces, it should develop a new generation of single-warhead ballistic missiles to be deployed both on land and at sea.

If the administration believes that a reduced strategic force must be both diversified and survivable, it should either cancel the 8- to 14-warhead Trident II missile and retain the 8-warhead Trident I, or design the Trident II as a longer-range missile with fewer warheads. Otherwise, our emphasis on a highly MIRVed sea-based force could preclude us from deploying a land-based force sufficiently large and diversified to be survivable.

If the administration believes it wise to develop and deploy a large-scale strategic defense, it should seek in Geneva to limit those systems, such as cruise missiles and bombers, which can circumvent that defense.

Since strategic arms negotiations began in earnest in 1969, the US has generally put forward proposals which, at the very least, were compatible with the forces it believed were desirable. This compatibility between an arms control proposal and current or evolving force structures is what makes a position ``realistic.'' At present, this realism is lacking. Until it is reflected in the proposals we have put forward in Geneva and in the kinds of systems we are planning for the balance of this century, there will be doubts about the administration's commitment to even its own vision of arms control.

Jack Mendelsohn, former member of the US SALT II and START delegations, is deputy director of the Arms Control Association. James P. Rubin is a senior research analyst with the same organization. The views expressed are their own.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.