Scrapping SALT II

The Reagan Administration should remember the old saw about not cutting off your nose to spite your face. Tearing up the SALT II arms-control agreement at this time would not be in America’s own interests.

The treaty was never ratified by the Senate. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became President, however, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to adhere to the treaty provisions anyway.

Last Friday Reagan repeated allegations that the Soviets have not lived up their side of the bargain. He suggested that Soviet non-compliance may cause America to break the agreement, too.

The question will be directly posed when the Navy begins sea trials of the new Trident submarine in September. The vessel carries 24 missiles; unless a 16-missile Poseidon-carrying submarine is decommissioned, the Trident will put the United States above SALT II’s ceiling of 1,200 land- and sea-based multiple-warhead missiles.


Meanwhile, there is reason to believe that the Soviets have violated one provision of SALT II, and may be in the process of violating two others.

Among other things, SALT II prohibits the encrypting of telemetry data from missile tests to impede the other side’s ability to verify compliance with the treaty. It limits each side to one “new” type of land-based intercontinental missile. And it obliges the Soviet Union not to produce, test or deploy SS-16 missiles--which are SS-20 missiles of the sort being deployed in Europe with an added third stage to give them intercontinental range.

The Soviets have in fact made a general practice of encoding data from their missile tests. The Soviets have designated the SSX-24 as their allowable new missile, but are also proceeding toward deployment of still another new missile-- the SSX-25. Although the evidence is “ambiguous,” Washington believes that Moscow is also violating the constraints on the SS-16.

As a group of powerful pro-arms control Democrats warned Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in a letter two months ago, seeming Soviet violation of existing agreements makes it more difficult to negotiate and win ratification of new ones. The Soviets should take the point seriously.


Washington should remember, however, that an abandonment of SALT II could have some unfortunate results for the United States. The treaty, for example, prohibits the placement of more than 10 warheads on each ICBM. Without that restraint, the Soviets could load as many as 30 warheads on their huge, superheavy missiles.

U.S. interests would be best served by decommissioning a Poseidon-firing submarine next fall to remain within SALT II limits, and by negotiating a one- or two-year extension of the U.S.-Soviet agreement to adhere to terms of the unratified treaty. The SALT II compliance issue could then be wrapped into the arms-reduction talks in Geneva.

A double standard on treaty compliance, however, is not acceptable. If the Soviets can’t be dissuaded from doing things that violate the letter or plain intent of existing agreements, the future of the whole arms-control process is grim indeed.