RONALD Reagan faces the kind of tough decision only presidents can make. Both the superpowers are bumping up against the SALT II agreement's numerical limit on multiple warhead launchers. So far, both have complied with the terms of the agreement by dismantling older weapons when new missiles are deployed. But charges of Soviet cheating on some provisions of SALT II, and the fact that deployment of a new Trident submarine in May will put the United States over the limit on multiple-warhead launchers, have raised the question of whether we should continue to comply with the unratified agreement.
The President has reportedly been presented two options to consider.
The first is to continue to comply with the numerical limits of the treaty by dismantling a Poseidon ballistic missile sub when our new Trident sub goes to sea. This is what we have done in the past.
Proponents of this option, including Secretary of State George Shultz and arms negotiator Paul Nitze, argue that it is in our interests to comply with the limits as long as the Soviets do the same.
The second option, supported by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and his deputy, Richard Perle, is to exceed SALT II limits on multiple-warhead missiles by ``dry-docking'' a Poseidon missile sub instead of dismantling it.
I do not particularly like either option.
There is evidence that the Soviets have, at the very least, played fast and loose with their compliance with certain provisions of SALT II. They have coded their missile test telemetry, which is a violation if it impedes our ability to verify other provisions. Indeed, that encryption of test data contributes to real uncertainty about whether they have violated a prohibition on the deployment of two new types of land-based missiles. When asked to explain apparent violations, the Soviets have denied committing them, without adequate explanation.
In the face of such Soviet actions, a US decision to comply with SALT II in a ``business-as-usual'' manner would send an undesirable signal to the Soviets. For this, and other reasons, I think dismantling a Poseidon sub is an undesirable option.
Being the first to violate the numerical limits of SALT II is not, however, in our interests. An explicit treaty violation by the US would be a propaganda windfall for Moscow. It could damage our position in the Western alliance.
In addition, most experts agree that the Soviets are better prepared than we are to expand their strategic arsenal if the SALT II limits are abandoned. Both the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the President's apparent lack of interest in trading it for reductions, create strong incentives for the Soviets to greatly expand their offensive arsenal. A US violation of the SALT II numerical limits would provide the Soviets with a cheap way out.
Having examined and rejected both options, I humbly propose a third.
Instead of dismantling a Poseidon sub so as to comply, or ``dry-docking'' it so as to violate the limits, why not remove the ballistic missile launchers from the sub and replace them with cruise missiles? It is the ballistic missiles that violate the treaty. Sea-launched cruise missiles are not covered.
The modification I propose would require replacing 16 Poseidon ballistic missile launch tubes with at least 30 Tomahawk cruise missile vertical launchers. A rough estimate says this could cost about $300 million, roughly half the cost of a new attack submarine. ``Dry-docking'' could be almost as expensive.
The advantages of this approach are many. The US would not undercut SALT II, thus avoiding political problems with our alliance partners and denying the Soviets a cost-free way out of the treaty limits. By deploying a modified Poseidon sub as a powerful cruise missile carrier, we would end up with more sea-based nuclear warheads than we have now. This would demonstrate our resolve to respond to Soviet noncompliance in a potent fashion. If in the future we continued to comply by modifying Poseidons, we would avoid a potentially dangerous move toward having fewer nuclear deterrent platforms at sea.
We would also significantly enhance our conventional capability. The Tomahawk can be fitted with either a nuclear or conventional warhead, thus making a converted Poseidon sub an extremely potent anti-ship weapon.
Converted Poseidons would also improve our antisubmarine-warfare capability by helping to alleviate our shortage of torpedo-armed attack submarines.
It is understandable if Mr. Reagan feels we cannot simply continue to comply as we have in the past. If we exceed the SALT II numerical limits, however, an unrestricted offensive arms race could result. Such a race would probably preclude the conclusion of a nuclear arms reduction agreement in the Reagan presidency. It could make the President's dream of transition to a defense-dominated strategic balance even more likely.
I think the middle ground I have proposed is the answer to his dilemma. It would leave the burden of violating the SALT II numerical limits where it belongs, on the shoulders of the Soviets. It would be a serious and meaningful reaction to legitimate concerns about current Soviet compliance. Finally, it would be a sensible action that contributes significantly to our military capabilities at reasonable cost. That's my proposal. Mr. President, the decision is up to you.
US Rep. Charles Bennett (D) of Florida is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Seapower Subcommittee.