Nuclear-Arms Cuts: Further Steps Needed

INITIAL reactions to last month's historic nuclear-arms reduction agreement were justifiably favorable, focusing on the unprecedented two-thirds cut in United States and Russian strategic nuclear arms and the elimination of multiwarhead land-based missiles, including the SS-18, long the backbone of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. But closer inspection reveals some shortcomings in the agreement that the US and Russian negotiators must rectify when they draft the final treaty in the coming weeks.

As with the still unratified Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the agreement only calls for a withdrawal of missiles and warheads from active service - not their destruction. Thus, while active forces will be reduced to 3,000-3,500 on each side in a decade, the number of existing weapons may be higher.

In addition, to achieve the required reductions, warheads can simply be taken off missiles, and bombers redeployed to bases where nuclear weapons are stored. Hence, for the US to deploy no more than the 1,750 warheads on nuclear submarines it is allowed under the Bush-Yeltsin agreement, it merely has to remove four of the eight warheads on each of the 432 missiles it will deploy aboard 18 Trident subs. Similarly, once shorn of their nuclear payload, up to 100 bombers can be deployed to conventional-bombe r bases to achieve the reductions.

If neither side is required to dismantle the nuclear warheads they must reduce under the agreement, the possibility of either side's rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal remains. Though likely to be of concern during ratification hearings, this prospect is mitigated both by the present state of political relations and by the fact that, with 3,500 weapons, the US will have force enough to deter any new authoritarian Russian regime.

BUT if the potential for breaking from agreed force levels is of no concern, there remains the problem of losing control over the nuclear weapons and material removed from active forces. Indeed, the fear of loose Soviet (now Russian) nukes has driven the Bush administration since last September to propose drastic cuts in tactical and strategic nuclear arms.

However, the Bush-Yeltsin agreement does little to address this problem in the short run. Actual nuclear reductions will occur over eight to 10 years, thus essentially leaving current forces in place for some time. Moreover, since missiles and warheads need not be dismantled, their removal from active service leaves the loose-nukes problem unresolved.

One way to address these problems head-on is to speed up the timetable by which nuclear arms will be reduced. A first step would require taking off alert, and deactivating immediately, all missiles and bombers to be reduced by the agreement. Both sides have taken steps in this direction. Last September, the US decided to take bombers off alert and deactivate the Minuteman II and Poseidon missiles slated for destruction under START. The Russians have also deactivated land- and sea-based missiles; just las t month President Boris Yeltsin promised to deactivate all SS-18 missiles targeted at the US. Both sides should build on these steps by removing from active service all missiles and redeploy all bombers they plan to reduce under the Bush-Yeltsin agreement.

A second step would go further by immediately removing from active service all warheads and bomber weapons slated for withdrawal under the agreement. Within a matter of months, therefore, both could reduce their active nuclear inventory to the 3,000-3,500 level. To ensure their safety and security, all weapons removed from service could be placed in central storage sites under either joint US-Russian or international supervision.

Finally, in drafting the treaty to reflect last month's agreement, and proposed changes, Washington and Moscow should agree not just to remove missiles and warheads, but to destroy them.

Together, these steps will ensure that actual force levels will be reduced to 3,000-3,500 by the end of 1992. There would also be sufficient time to dismantle those weapons removed from active service in a safe, secure, and economically viable manner.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.