THE number of nuclear weapons deployed on warships and aircraft at sea could be dramatically reduced without negotiations between the two superpowers, according to independent naval experts. These weapons are not on the agenda in the arms control talks now under way in Vienna and Geneva. And one former United States defense official says that to include them in formal negotiations would delay the voluntary phase-out of such weapons.
Reductions in naval nuclear weapons would lower the risk of unintentional nuclear war. It would also improve combat readiness of navies by removing cumbersome security controls and training requirements for nuclear weapons, according to British and American naval experts.
Tactical nuclear weapons at sea ``were the product of a naive view of nuclear warfare that prevailed 30 years ago,'' said John Lehman, former US Secretary of the Navy, at a meeting on naval arms control organized by the independent Council for Arms Control in London. The US Navy is in the process of phasing out short-range nuclear weapons, and their removal would not affect US ability to deter Soviet attack, he said.
The Soviets have welcomed the US Navy's initiative but have not indicated whether they will be making any reciprocal reductions.
``The prospect of eliminating nuclear weapons at sea coincides with the long-range Soviet objective of eliminating all nuclear weapons by the year 2000,'' said Vladimir Kulagin of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ``The US Navy is making its first step into the field of arms control. It will be very difficult to retreat, I hope.''
William Arkin of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington revealed to the New York Times last month that the US Navy had begun quietly phasing out three missiles from its nuclear inventory. These are the anti-submarine ballistic missile or ASROC, a submarine-launched missile which carries a nuclear depth bomb, known as SUBROC, and the Terrier, a shipboard missile used to intercept enemy aircraft.
According to Mr. Arkin, the US has some 3,700 nuclear weapons at sea, including over 1,700 anti-submarine weapons and 1,500 aircraft bombs for use against sea targets. The US Navy has retired 1,100 of these weapons, because of improvements in conventional weapon systems and the onerous system of security, training, and inspections to monitor their deployment.
The US Navy, however, is firmly committed to the deployment of a new generation of surface-launched cruise missiles or SLCMs, known as the Tomahawk, which will eventually be carried on 250 US warships. With a range of 1,500 miles and an accuracy within 10 feet, these weapons are considered by some observers to be strategic and not tactical. Lehman said they should not be negotiated away until there are substantial reductions in Soviet strategic and conventional forces.
The decision to retire shipboard tactical weapons was taken by the Pentagon without consideration of the politics of arms control, according to independent observers. If the decision had been part of the arms control process, Lehman said ``it would have taken 10 years to get rid of these weapons.''
Despite some reductions in tactical nuclear weapons at sea, the prospect of general naval arms control appears remote. The global confrontation between the US and Soviet Navies has been eased by a navy-to-navy agreement, signed in 1972, which eases tensions from incidents at sea.
But both NATO and the Warsaw Pact maintain sizable fleets and the superpowers rely on submarine forces armed with long-range nuclear missiles as the most easily concealed components of their strategic defenses. NATO's position is that any talks on reducing the size of these navies should follow substantial progress in reducing conventional and nuclear land-based forces.