Reneging on SALT II

THE Reagan administration last week disavowed SALT II, the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. This has been followed by rejection of the Kremlin's bid for a long-term extension of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Both actions are unfortunate, particularly the decision on SALT II.

Even granting, for the sake of argument, the Reagan administration's complaints over Soviet noncompliance with the unratified treaty, the stronger case argues in favor of keeping on with SALT II as a whole, while countering in specific areas. If the Soviets have moved ahead with a second new type of missile, for example, the more appropriate and proportionate response would be to continue development of a second US missile. If the Soviets are laying out a radar warning system in violation of the treaty, a similar proportionate response would be in order.

While the pattern of Soviet noncompliance is disconcerting, none of the compliance issues seriously threaten US security. There is, of course, argument over the administration's allegations. And if Washington's allies thought the gravity of the ``violations'' outweighed the value of holding to SALT II, they would not have argued so heatedly against President Reagan's declaring SALT II finished.

The administration fares even worse with its second argument: that the President primarily wants deep cuts in nuclear arsenals, while the Soviets have used SALT II as a cover for expanding its nuclear forces. Dropping SALT seems more likely to accelerate any buildup. The President says he reserves the right to match any Soviet lead: This could prompt a US response to produce more warheads and delivery missiles, analysts say -- hardly the direction of deep cuts.

The administration's coveted Strategic Defense Initiative program could also be jeopardized by abrogating the treaty, since such a system requires offensive missile limitations if the defense is not to be overwhelmed.

Disavowed, the treaty is de jure dead. But for some months at least, it remains de facto alive. The President is taking out of service two more nuclear-armed submarines, ostensibly because they are outmoded; this conveniently keeps Washington in compliance with SALT II, however. It will not be until the fall, when the US goes ahead with modernizing its B-52 bombers, that the actual US breakout from SALT II will occur.

This leaves time for maneuver on arms negotiations, if there is a desire to maneuver.

Conceivably, the administration's hard line on SALT II could lead to greater Soviet concessions at the bargaining table. This is the case it has made on SDI. If so, the proof will have to be seen in arms talk results.

Giving up on SALT further detracts from the administration's credibility on arms control. It plays to those around the President who think that the United States can outrace the Soviets on arms, or that the superpower relationship is so fundamentally fixed as to be impervious to negotiations.

If the administration can show how reneging on SALT can lead to a more positive Reagan-Gorbachev summit agenda or to arms control progress in Geneva, we look forward to seeing it.

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