WORLD

Arm now and talk later

Arms control talks are on the back burner as Reagan's team chooses its weapons

Michael Posner July 6 1981
WORLD

Arm now and talk later

Arms control talks are on the back burner as Reagan's team chooses its weapons

Michael Posner July 6 1981

Arm now and talk later

WORLD

Arms control talks are on the back burner as Reagan's team chooses its weapons

Michael Posner

Sometime in August, the Reagan administration will confront two tough and far-reaching defence decisions: what to do about the MX missile and the B-1 bomber. On Pentagon drafting boards for more than a decade, the MX is America’s newest generation of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), designed to replace an aging and increasingly vulnerable arsenal of land-based Minuteman IIs and IIIs, which themselves form the core of U.S. nuclear deterrence. As originally conceived, some 200 MX missiles—each carrying 10 nuclear warheads—were to have been shuttled continuously among 4,600 underground silos in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada. In the acronym-panelled world of the military, this elaborate shell game was known as MPSP—for multiple protectible shelter plan. Its root assumption: with less than five per cent of the silos occupied at any one time, the Soviet Union would never be able to predict accurately where the U.S. missiles were located.

But while few question the looming vulnerability of the present ICBMs, many influential voices have declared stiff opposition to the MX system. At a bare minimum, MX deployment will cost American taxpayers $48 billion; if the grand design were fully implemented, the final tab could reach $121 billion by 1995—easily the most expensive undertaking in history, military or civilian. Others oppose it on environmental grounds, arguing that its construction would wreak unspeakable havoc on the fragile desert ecology. Even strategically there are reasons to believe the MX system is less than it seems. New satellite technology, a congressional report suggested last week, might permit the Soviets to detect which shelters contained missiles and which did not. In combination, the arguments add up to substantial political pressure. In Utah, the Mormon Church has taken a firm stand against MX. Last week, two western senators, Utah’s Jake Garn and Nevada’s Paul Laxalt—Ronald Reagan’s closest congressional confidants—recommended the president find some other way to deploy it.

There are other basing options, as the congressional report outlined, but none is risk-free. Putting the MX in existing Minuteman silos offers no strategic ad-

vantage. Building an antiballistic missile defence system to protect MX shelters would mean an arms race in defensive weapons. Within the U.S. military establishment, there is some support for a sea-based MX, but at present the missile is too large to be fitted on the navy’s nuclear submarines. Moreover, if the Reagan administration were to choose a sea-based system, it is likely its NATO allies would quickly press for naval deployment of the theatre nuclear weapons it wants to site on land, to the mounting objections of Europe’s left wing. In short, fielding the MX is a considerable dilemma. A blue-ribbon panel of nongovernment experts is expected to deliver its final report to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger early this month.

That decision is complicated by a second controversy on the merits of constructing the B-l strategic bomber (at as much as a tidy $240 million each) or its alternative, the radar-eluding Stealth bomber, to replace the B-52s that will be obsolete by the end of the decade. If Reagan chooses the B-l, which had already cost $7.2 billion be-

fore Jimmy Carter cancelled it, the Stealth bomber will be delayed for lack of funds. If he chooses Stealth, because Soviet advances may already have made the B-l impotent, the nation will have to wait to secure the nuclear triad.

Whatever Reagan’s choice, it is bound to carry profound implications for U.S. foreign policy. The administration is even now facing increasing pressure to engage the Soviet Union in serious arms limitation or arms reduction talks. As it did in 1969, shortly after Richard Nixon’s inauguration, Moscow has been holding out a long carrot to Washington, offering immediate negotiations on strategic and theatre nuclear forces. With the fate of Poland hovering perpetually on the brink, it does not hurt Leonid Brezhnev to be perceived as the eager peacemaker, especially since the Reaganites, new to power and slow to frame their policies, are scarcely liable to accept the offer.

The Reagan response has been in some respects not unlike Nixon’s. Trying to go one better, the president has suggested he is more interested in actually reducing the number of weapons

than in the abstract and difficult-toverify limits set out in the still unratified 1979 SALT II agreement. At the same time the administration has repeatedly insisted, as Nixon did, that any serious arms talks with Moscow must be linked to the Kremlin’s actions around the globe—intervention in Poland by Warsaw pact forces being the principal American concern. Predictably, the Soviets have rejected such linkage, lest it appear they need arms control agreements more urgently than does the U.S. But even some Americans, including Gerard Smith, chief negotiator at the SALT I talks, believe limitation treaties ought not to be made conditional on the actions in the other areas of a rival nation. Writes Smith in Doubletalk, a chronicle of SALT I: “In this nuclear age, living under the threat of almost instant destruction . . . adversary nations should grasp any opportunity to reduce that threat.” Such agreements have, Smith contends, “independent value.”

Looking beyond the rhetoric, few analysts doubt the two sides will meet when the moment is mutually propitious. The White House likes to say that the process is already under way, evidenced by Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s continuing dialogue with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. But this is talk, not negotiation. The first significant encounter will come this fall at the special UN session on disarmament, where Haig will meet his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko. Nevertheless, formal negotiations are unlikely until next spring. As Eugene Rostow, desig-

nated head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, candidly told his Senate confirmation hearing last week: “Maybe a brilliant light will strike our officials, but I don’t know anyone who knows what it is yet that we want to negotiate about.”

The longer it takes to begin modifying SALT II or initiating SALT III, the more strain will be placed on Washington’s relations with Europe. Commencing in 1983, five NATO nations have agreed in principle to host 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles, intermediate nuclear weapons that constitute the alliance’s answer to the Soviet Union’s mobile SS-20. But their agreement is contingent on simultaneous progress toward arms limitation.

To these diplomatic delicacies has now been added another potential difficulty—the effectiveness of the cruise missile itself. Recent studies have raised questions about the weapon’s performance; in 10 missile launches, four crashed, and changes may be required before the first 160 units—earmarked for Britain in December, 1983can be installed.

It all amounts to a confusing matrix, obscured by claims from both sides about the other’s arms buildup or warhead advantage. Out of it must somehow emerge commitments by Soviets and Americans alike to begin reducing their immense nuclear arsenals. Or else, as Einstein warned, there is nothing ahead but general

annihilation._

With files from Keith Charles in Moscow and Ian Mather in London.