THE arms control changes President Bush laid out last week represent some of the most profound alterations in United States nuclear-weapons policy since atomic warheads were first bolted to the top of ballistic missiles.Yet with some of the moves the White House is seizing the opportunity to take credit for the unavoidable. Take Mr. Bush's pledge to bring battlefield nuclear arms back to US depots: The rationale for keeping these short-range weapons in Europe has collapsed along with the Soviet threat, and political and budget pressures have already been building for their removal. In Washington, Bush's sudden proposals were also widely seen as an attempt to preempt any wider debate about cutting nuclear forces and as a means to promote the Pentagon's endangered B-2 bomber and the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). "The administration is trying to get out ahead of everyone on what has been a dramatic change in peoples' perceptions of our past adversary," says Stan Norris, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I give them high marks here. They are seizing an opportune moment to do things which have long been proposed." The president called on the Soviet Union to match the boldness of his moves, and the initial response seemed positive. Soviet President Gorbachev on Saturday praised Bush and said he would reciprocate "warhead for warhead." But as of this writing no detailed Soviet response had been released (see story, Page 3). One of the most sweeping points of President Bush's new nuclear plan was his announcement that the US would unilaterally withdraw and destroy all land-based short-range tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe and South Korea. Bush said he would similarly order withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from Navy ships and submarines - including some 350 modern Tomahawk nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Tactical nuclear weapons have been an integral part of US military contingency plans since the dawn of the atomic age. But the increasing accuracy and lethality of conventional bombs and shells has made this weapon class somewhat obsolete, and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe has eliminated the massed echelons of armored units that would have been their primary targets. Still, the president was careful to emphasize that the US would retain tactical nuclear bombs carried on aircraft.
A halt to the mobile MX On the crown jewels of the nuclear arsenal, long-range strategic weapons, Bush said the US would halt development of a rail-mobile version of the 10-warhead MX missile. In this the president was yielding to the inevitable; last week the Senate voted to strike this MX model from the 1992 defense spending bill. More important, Bush proposed that the Soviets and the US agree to reduce and eventually eliminate all land-based ballistic missiles with multiple warheads (MIRVs). Nuclear theorists have long considered that these weapons could destabilize the arms race, as their tremendous striking power might tempt an adversary to try to hit them preemptively in a crisis. But land-based MIRVs are an area where the Soviet nuclear arsenal far outstrips that of the US. No mention was made of any controls on submarine-based multiple-warhead weapons, where the US is far superior. The US quietly proposed just such a land-MIRV ban last year, only to be quickly rebuffed. At a Saturday briefing for reporters, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said land-based MIRVs are simply much more dangerous than their sea-based brethren - and that single-warhead submarine missiles would be too expensive. "If you were to de-MIRV the sea-based leg, you'd be in a position where we're going to spend a lot of money buying one submarine that would have 16 missiles on it, each with one warhead," said Secretary Cheney. Bush also called for a joint US-Soviet agreement on deploying limited missile defenses. The purpose of this "star wars" shield, he said, would be protection against the inevitable day a third-world despot obtains an intercontinental ballistic missile. Deployment of missile defenses remains a highly controversial item in Congress. Continued US work on SDI "threatens the ABM treaty, the cornerstone of arms control," claims Mendelsohn.
Need seen to modernize Yet administration officials are taking pains to insist that just because nuclear forces can be reduced, this doesn't mean money shouldn't still be spent on new weapons. "It's important to maintain modern, up-to-date forces," said Cheney. Among President Bush's other proposals is one that had already created much anguish in the Pentagon: a melding of Air Force and Navy strategic weapon units together under a single unified command. Neither service has taken lightly the prospect of having their most potent weapons under the operational command of the other.