Trimming the Nukes

PRESIDENT Bush's State of the Union speech highlighted yet another proposal for reducing the nuclear arsenals of the United States and former Soviet republics. Like earlier such steps, it was welcome.

The president's main target is land-based multiple-warhead missiles. He breached the subject back in September when he announced a plan to substantially cut back on tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapons, but didn't give any specifics. Now it's clear the US is ready for big reductions.

The motives are obvious. First, the nuclear competition between the US and USSR is history. Neither Washington nor the four missile-owning members of the Commonwealth of Independent States can afford to maintain these Cadillacs of the nuclear standoff. Second, the Bush administration is under pressure to show that it's willing to make deeper cuts.

Even hard-line defense analysts think the US can go way down on the number of nuclear warheads at its command. Most feel the number could shrink to 3,000 from today's 12,000 without affecting current targeting policy. The START treaty, yet to be approved by the Senate, would take the total down only to 9,000.

Another prime motive in pushing for the reduction of missile warheads is the political climate in Russia and the other republics. The future is foggy, with unease among the military and the possibility that nationalism could surge. Arms agreements should be made as quickly as possible.

With 60 to 70 percent of their nuclear arsenal on missiles - versus 20 percent for the US - the Soviets were in the past leery of cuts in these weapons. But that reluctance has ebbed, and the US is willing to put submarine-based missiles on the table too, as an incentive to the Russians and others.

The reduction of nuclear arms remains an important goal. The sprawling arsenals of the cold war should be junked, and Presidents Bush and Boris Yeltsin of Russia should take significant strides toward that goal before the week is out.

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