Arms Control Chances Slim and Fading Fast

<i> Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr., president of the Arms Control Assn., is a former deputy director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. </i>

The prospects for strategic arms control have never been bleaker. The Geneva negotiations are stalemated. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, keystone of the arms-control framework created over 25 years by five Presidents, faces increasing jeopardy. And last week the President repudiated the unratified SALT II treaty in announcing his decision to violate its limits later this year.

There are still some who would have us believe that President Reagan will negotiate a new strategic arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union before he leaves office. The Administration’s ability to maintain this myth is a tribute to its deftness at managing the news in order to disarm critics of its military buildup.

But this latest presidential statement should make clear to all that Ronald Reagan is not prepared to bargain seriously on arms control. He is obviously more interested in challenging the Soviet Union to an open-ended nuclear arms race than in constraining Soviet strategic forces by an agreement. The fact that the Soviet Union, with active missile production lines, will be able to expand its forces far more rapidly than the United States was subordinated to an ideological opposition to arms control as a method of enhancing U.S. security. The President’s argument that abandoning existing arms-control constraints will lead to Soviet concessions can hardly be taken as a credible assessment of superpower behavior.

An even more fundamental barrier to arms control is Reagan’s personal vision of an impenetrable defensive shield that will make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” The President’s vision of strategic defense shattered the consensus that the defense of populations and urban society was not possible given the tremendous destructive power of thermonuclear weapons. The world was told that the United States would seek to change its long-held deterrence strategy to a “defense-dominated” plan. The Strategic Defense Initiative, to build the President’s impenetrable shield, quickly became the most ambitious research and development project in human history.


Despite widespread criticism from the technical community--and the flat statement of SDI’s director that “a perfect Astrodome defense is not a realistic thing"--the President has held firmly to his original vision of an essentially impregnable shield against nuclear weapons. He has also made it absolutely clear that SDI is not on the bargaining table. The President has given this message repeatedly to the nation, to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev personally at the Geneva summit and to the world at the United Nations.

Gorbachev’s response is that the Soviet Union will not agree to reductions in strategic missiles unless the United States agrees to limit its efforts to develop a nationwide defense against those missiles. This view should not be dismissed as Soviet intransigence. Rather it is a sound military position, certainly shared by most Pentagon planners. The objective of a “Star Wars” defense is the elimination of Soviet ability to retaliate. But the ability to retaliate is what deters nuclear war. In other words, if war seemed inevitable and defenses were deployed, it would be better to go first than second. This is precisely the dangerous, unstable situation we have sought to avoid in the nuclear age.

History attests to the logic that a buildup in strategic defenses will lead to an acceleration in the strategic arms race. In the late 1960s, the United States was concerned that the Soviet Union might be undertaking a nationwide ballistic defense system. In response, the United States introduced land- and sea-based multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), to ensure its ability to penetrate the projected Soviet defenses under any circumstances. Similarly, in the face of vast Soviet investments in its air defense system over the past 30 years, the United States has continuously upgraded the ability of its strategic bombers to penetrate Soviet air defenses.

The objectives of SDI are on a direct collision course with those of the ABM Treaty. The Administration states that SDI research conforms with treaty provisions. But tests planned for SDI will not in themselves provide the basis for a rational deployment decision, and the necessary testing program will violate the treaty long before such a decision can be made.


In anticipation of this problem, the Administration revised 14 years of history and announced last fall that the ABM Treaty allowed, rather than banned, the testing and development of space-based and other mobile ABM systems and components, provided they were outgrowths of advanced physical principles such as lasers. This interpretation was directly contrary to the meaning of the treaty’s language, underlying objectives, ratification process, operation and the Administration’s previous interpretation.

This action was greeted with disbelief and outrage by congressional committees, North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, the Soviet Union and the treaty negotiators themselves. Secretary of State George P. Shultz straddled the issue by announcing that, although the new interpretation was correct, the United States would continue to operate under the old interpretation. But other Administration spokesmen continue to lobby for the new reading. This unseemly legal maneuvering is an ominous precursor of the impending clash between SDI and our most important arms-control treaty.

In these circumstances, it should not have been surprising that the Administration decided to revoke its “political commitment” to the unratified SALT II treaty. This repudiation comes even after the Administration declared it would dismantle two Poseidon submarines, for economic reasons--thus temporarily keeping the United States within SALT II limits despite the addition of the eighth Trident submarine. However, the White House has formally announced plans to deploy cruise missiles on additional bomber aircraft later this year. This will place the United States in clear violation of the treaty.

Congress will soon have to make a choice that will affect security for decades to come. It can allow the SALT II limits to lapse and pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative in the vain hope of finding a technical means of eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons. This course will lead to a most dangerous and extremely expensive nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Or it can insist that the Administration continue to adhere to SALT II and place budgetary limits on SDI. Only then will the United States be in a position to test Soviet willingness to carry out major reductions in the level of strategic nuclear arms.


President Reagan appears to have made his choice. Only if Congress, supported by the American public, intensifies its call for an end to the arms race can we hope to change his mind.

There are still some who believe that Reagan will negotiate a new arms-control pact. The Administration’s ability to maintain this myth is a tribute to its deftness at managing news.

This repudiation of SALT II comes even after the Administration declared it would dismantle two Poseidon submarines--thus keeping the U.S. within treaty limits.