The key arms control issue of 1985, raised publicly by President Reagan himself Friday, will be whether the United States will continue to observe the unratified SALT II agreement after it expires in December, according to senior Administration officials, influential congressmen and non-government experts.
Among the questions in the debate are whether the President might trade continued compliance with the second strategic arms limitation treaty for a Soviet concession in current arms control talks, to what extent Moscow has already violated the agreement and whether dropping the agreement would backfire by clearing the way for an open Soviet missile buildup.
‘No Need to Continue’
At a press conference in Lisbon on Friday, the President said “there’s no need for us to continue” abiding by the agreement if the Kremlin has violated it. That statement raised the possibility that the United States will end its restraint despite the serious military and political risks involved.
The issue seems certain to be the main arms control topic at--and perhaps even to dominate--the meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, which is expected to take place in New York in September, several officials said.
The possibility of the President’s offering continued U.S. compliance with SALT II for some Soviet concession on arms control is already a matter of speculation among congressmen and Administration officials. The Geneva arms talks, which resume in two weeks, have made very little progress so far, as the Soviets focus on banning space defense research while the United States emphasizes cuts in offensive nuclear weapons.
“The President has a good hole card there,” according to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), leader of the Senate group monitoring the Geneva arms talks, “and I expect he’ll use it when he talks to Gorbachev.”
Stevens said in an interview last week that he favors extending the agreement “for two years, as long as the negotiations continue.”
“If the talks break down, we should look at it again,” he added, “but there’s no reason to disturb the status quo while they are still going on.”
Both Washington and Moscow have promised not to undercut the SALT II agreement as long as the other continues to respect it. Reagan said Friday, however, there is “considerable evidence” that the Soviets have been violating the agreement.
Reagan also indicated that any U.S. decision to break out of the agreement should come only when and if the United States stands to benefit militarily from the action. It is not clear that such a move would be to the U.S. advantage, at least in the short term.
The President would also risk serious political fallout if he withdrew from the agreement. The move could undermine the Geneva talks, making a new agreement far more difficult and increasing nuclear anxiety among U.S. allies.
The issue of extending SALT II must be addressed by Dec. 31, 1985, when the agreement--signed in 1979 by former President Jimmy Carter and the late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev--formally lapses.
It may have to be decided earlier, however, because the United States is scheduled to break through the SALT II ceiling on multiple warhead missiles in September when its newest Trident missile submarine, the Alaska, begins sea trials.
Under the terms of arms agreements, the new submarine’s 24 missiles would at that point be counted as part of the U.S. arsenal. They would bring the U.S. total of multiple-warhead missiles to 1,214, which is 14 more than the limit of 1,200 multiple-warhead land- and sea-based missiles allowed by SALT II.
To avoid breaking the agreement, an old Poseidon submarine with its 16 missiles would have to be retired. To stay within the agreement over the years, the United States has retired 10 old missile submarines as new ones took their place, and the Soviets have retired 11.
Now, though, Reagan Administration charges of Soviet treaty violations have made retiring the submarine to comply with the agreement far more controversial.
The Administration alleges that the Soviets have cheated on the SALT II agreement in several ways. Most important has been the construction of two new types of intercontinental missiles, the SS-24 and SS-25, when only one new ICBM is permitted. Moscow claims that the SS-25 is merely a new version of an old ICBM, and therefore allowed by the agreement.
Assistant Defense Secretary Richard N. Perle told a congressional hearing last week that the United States should not extend SALT II because it must retire a “significantly larger number” of weapons than the Soviets to stay within its limits. He did not elaborate.
However, a study by the Congressional Research Service indicates that the Soviets are facing a similar decision this year when they launch a new Typhoon submarine, with 20 missiles. An older Soviet sub of the Yankee class, with 16 missiles, would have to be retired to stay within SALT II limits.
The Soviets might end up with a net gain of about 100 warheads from the exchange, because the older missiles they would retire have only one warhead, while older U.S. missiles have at least 10 warheads each. However, arms control experts say this advantage is marginal at a time when both sides have over 8,000 strategic nuclear warheads each.
“The question,” one senior defense official said, “comes down to whether the agreement is keeping us and/or them from doing anything (to improve arsenals). It’s very difficult to answer.”
Arms control experts and several congressmen who want the agreement extended insist that the United States would get relatively little and the Soviet would get a lot if the pact--particularly the 1,200-missile ceiling--were breached.
Specifically, Moscow is now in a much better position to exploit such an opening. It could deploy the new SS-24 missiles, each with 10 warheads, without having to retire any older weapons, for example. These land-based missiles are the very weapons the Reagan Administration considers most threatening and most wants to curb, as Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and others have said.
While conservatives have repeatedly called for canceling the agreement, political sentiment for maintaining the status quo appears considerably stronger. Last year, for example, the Senate voted 82 to 17 for an amendment to the defense budget that called on Reagan to continue his “no undercut” policy toward SALT II.
A concurrent resolution supporting a continued policy of “interim restraint"--abiding by SALT II as long as the Soviets do--has been introduced in Congress this year by Bumpers. It enjoys the support even of senators such as John Chafee (R-R.I.), who opposed ratifying SALT II in the first place.
The prospect of extending an unratified agreement has made some senators uneasy.
“The Senate ought to pass on it in some way,” said one of them, Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.). “Otherwise, we would be evading the Constitution.”
A senior Pentagon official agreed: “The symbolism of formally adhering to an agreement that was never ratified, will have expired and (one that) has been violated by the Soviets certainly creates an unusual situation.”
The legal objection appears secondary, however, to the broader military and political issues involved.