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Reagan’s SALT Stand May Not Affect Buildup : NATO Allies, Many in Congress Unhappy, but Soviets Signal New Flexibility in Arms Talks

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan’s declaration that he will stop complying with the second strategic arms limitation agreement, coming on the eve of a Soviet decision to show new flexibility at the Geneva arms control talks, has created an extraordinary political outcry at home and abroad.

But available evidence suggests that the two events are unlikely to change drastically the pace of the critical nuclear arms talks or of the moderate but relentless buildup of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the world’s two superpowers.

“Their accelerator is already to the floor,” said Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in describing Soviet production of strategic weapons. “We projected a 5% to 7% annual rise in Soviet warheads into the 1990s, as in the past, from the present 9,000 level.”

Surge in Arms Feared

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And, while some Administration critics express fear that Washington and Moscow may be on the brink of an ominous new surge in the arms race, other arms specialists note that the agreement itself imposed almost no immediate obstacles to a continued nuclear buildup on either side. As Adelman noted, Moscow “could legally increase to 12,000 warheads under SALT II.”

The SALT II agreement signed in 1979 would have limited both sides to 2,250 long-range missiles and bombers, with sub-ceilings on the number of land-based missiles, of multiple warhead missiles and of bombers carrying cruise missiles.

The treaty was to expire Dec. 31, 1985, but was never ratified, having been withdrawn by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. Nevertheless in 1982, the Reagan Administration promised “not to undercut” the provisions of the treaty as long as the Soviets showed equal restraint.

Attacks From Home, Abroad

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Its decision now to abandon that policy has triggered a vitriolic attack by critics in Congress, where a spate of resolutions have been introduced seeking, paradoxically, to give legal authority now to the agreement. It also spread consternation among many of this country’s European allies, especially the British and West Germans.

But the Kremlin, while warning that it will accelerate its own weapons programs to match any American increase, stopped well short of threatening to abort the next U.S.-Soviet summit meeting or walk out of the Geneva talks again.

More significantly, Reagan’s action did not deter the Soviets from sending what appeared to be a signal of new flexibility at Geneva. Two days after the Administration’s SALT II announcement, Soviet diplomats suggested a 50% cut in offensive weapons on both sides, as part of a new SALT III agreement, if the United States would agree to a 10-year or 20-year prohibition on deployment of space-based missile defenses.

Movement in Geneva

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This was the first time that the Soviets had recognized a link between defensive and offensive arms, and the first real movement in Geneva since the talks resumed in January, 1985, according to a senior Administration official.

Moreover, the Soviets reversed a long-standing position by indicating that basic research on space defenses would be permitted. Moscow also appeared willing to discuss an earlier U.S. proposal that both nations open their space defense laboratories to visits by scientists from the other side.

Conservatives instinctively rejected the Soviet move as another ploy to kill the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Reagan’s proposed space-based anti-missile program more commonly known as “Star Wars.” But as one senior Administration official acknowledged, Moscow “may now be willing to discuss critical issues in Geneva in a more serious vein.”

Soviet Plan Welcomed

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Several members of Congress involved in arms control welcomed the Soviet offer enthusiastically. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of a U.S. congressional arms control delegation that visited Geneva during the week of the U.S. and Soviet actions, came away optimistic about the potential for serious negotiations.

So did Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), members of the congressional group, though they expressed fear that what Dicks called Reagan’s “absurd” SALT II decision could imperil the new opportunity at Geneva.

How these two contrasting episodes--the SALT II decision and the new Soviet overture--will play out in coming months is impossible to forecast. But clearly, a new chapter in arms control history has opened.

The point of most direct dispute between the Administration and its critics now is whether Reagan’s SALT II decision will usher in a new arms race.

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The President’s critics insist that it will.

“To scrap SALT II means there will inevitably be increases in the Soviet arsenal,” according to Paul C. Warnke, chief negotiator of that agreement when he was director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Carter Administration.

New missiles will be deployed by the Soviets, but old weapons will not be destroyed to stay within the treaty’s numerical ceilings, he complained. And the Soviets will put a larger number of warheads atop their existing missiles to insure penetration of the SDI missile defense system, Warnke predicted.

Arsenals Will Grow

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Administration spokesmen, while acknowledging that both superpowers’ nuclear arsenals will grow in coming years, insist that abandoning SALT II will not be the reason.

“I don’t believe the Soviets will do anything more (to increase their arsenal) with or without SALT II,” Adelman said at a debate with Warnke last week.

Adelman said the Soviets would not drastically accelerate warhead production, because to do so would represent overkill and aggravate current economic problems. He admitted, however, that the Soviets have the capability to go to 18,000 warheads or more by 1995, if unrestrained by SALT II, by adding warheads to their larger missiles.

Adelman conceded that without SALT II the Soviets could retain rather than retire obsolete weapons. But he noted that they have dismantled aged and obsolete intermediate-range missiles as new ones were deployed even though no arms agreement covers these so-called Euromissiles.

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Soviets May Wait

Two senior Administration arms experts, speaking on condition that they not be further identified, predicted that the Soviets would not decide what to do until the United States actually violates SALT II, either by breaching the numerical limits or by failing to destroy weapons as they are retired. Accepted practice, as negotiated in previous arms agreements, specifies that retired bombers must have their tails cut off and dismantled missile silos must have their hatch covers blown off.

“But the Soviets will not gain much by keeping their superannuated SS-11s, any more than we would have gained by keeping our old Titan ICBMs,” one of the senior officials said. “Some weapons you’d rather not have after a certain point.”

The Soviets have been retiring their SS-11 intercontinental missiles as they deploy SS-25s, and the United States is simply retiring its Titan missiles because of age.

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“But whether or not they keep older systems, it will have very slight strategic significance,” he added.

Without SALT II, this official said, the Soviets will also be able to deploy new weapons and to do so at a faster rate, he added. But he called both courses unlikely in the short term. New weapons take five to 10 years to develop, and even increasing the deployment rate cannot be done overnight.

On the U.S. side, the present modernization program will continue to increase this country’s arsenal of ballistic missile warheads, now at about 8,000, with or without SALT II. Fifty MX missiles with 10 warheads each are replacing 50 three-warhead Minuteman IIIs, for example, and the Administration wants 50 more MXs.

The equipping of B-52 bombers with 14 long-range cruise missiles replacing their bombs has continued at an even faster rate. Given the current array of other U.S. forces, up to 130 such bombers are permitted under SALT II, and Reagan, in scrapping SALT II, said he would go beyond this ceiling starting in November. But he did not say whether other adjustments in U.S. forces--the dismantling of some older nuclear-armed missiles or submarines, for example--might leave the United States in compliance with SALT II.

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Door Open to Offer

More broadly, Reagan’s SALT II decision left the door open to matching the Soviet strategic arsenal--now at least 2,504 land-based and sea-based missiles and intercontinental bombers, compared with fewer than 2,000 for the United States. SALT II would allow the United States to make up only about half the gap.

“In the future,” Reagan said, “the United States must base decisions regarding its strategic force structure on the nature and magnitude of the threat posed by strategic forces, and not on standards contained in the SALT structure.”

But the President pledged that the United States would not exceed the number of Soviet ballistic missile warheads or delivery vehicles. That, coupled with the anti-defense sentiment growing in Congress, makes it very unlikely that the United States will embark on a new offensive weapons spurt, Administration officials contended.

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If the military impact of canceling SALT II proves minor, Richard N. Perle, the influential assistant secretary of defense who is the leading intellectual among the Administration’s hard-liners on arms control, said that “the political consequences are profound.” He saw the decision as a step toward restoring Soviet respect for the United States and laying the groundwork for a new and better arms reduction agreement. The chief U.S. arms negotiator in Geneva, Max M. Kampelman, and senior arms adviser Edward L. Rowny have argued in a similar vein.

A senior Administration official who asked not to be identified predicted: “The Soviets will not let the President’s decision interfere with what they want to do at Geneva. They may exploit it with propaganda to exacerbate our differences with allies and with Congress, but it will not have a substantive affect on them.”

Even Warnke, the former arms control and disarmament agency chief, concurred. “It is most discouraging,” he said, “but I totally agree that Geneva will go on as before.”

Summit Chances Harmed

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But critics warn that ending SALT II may have killed plans for another summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, which had been expected later this year. “It is very unclear what’s happening in Moscow today regarding summit plans,” said a ranking State Department official who opposed Reagan’s decision.

At the White House, a senior national security staffer said: “SALT II might be an excuse if the Soviets want to wiggle out of a summit, but that wouldn’t be the crucial issue on which their decision would turn. I still think it will occur.”

In Congress, the Administration is taking intense heat over SALT II. Legislators are likely to vent their anger by cutting Reagan’s $4.8-billion request for “Star Wars” even more than the expected 50%, and the Administration has little chance of winning its extra 50 MX missiles. Beyond that, defense critics will undoubtedly try to curb defense modernization programs such as the conversion of B-52 bombers to cruise missile carriers.

Yet after two weeks of wrangling between Administration officials and congressional critics--Perle challenged Congress “to stand with the Administration or . . . stand with the Soviets"--no consensus has emerged on how to proceed toward reversing or modifying Reagan’s action.

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“The SALT II decision is a more serious rupture in relations with U.S. allies than with the Russians,” said a North Atlantic Treaty Organization diplomat here. Reports from capitals abroad by Times correspondents confirmed this assessment.

In Moscow, the Kremlin was predictably upset but careful with its condemnation. Promising to match any U.S. arms increase, Moscow deplored the decision’s negative effect on U.S.-Soviet relations generally and plans for the next summit in particular. But the Soviets stopped short of ruling out another summit and apparently still hope for a new arms accord during Reagan’s tenure.

In London, Reagan’s announcement increased the domestic difficulties of his closest ally, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and added to the widespread disquiet there about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Thatcher Criticized

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Thatcher, who refrained from open criticism of the Reagan decision, was accused by the Labor opposition of “always dancing to Reagan’s tune.” Conservative as well as liberal newspapers bemoaned Washington’s lack of concern about alliance sentiments. The Guardian, on the left, predicted that U.S. abandonment of SALT II would change European-American relations “for all time.”

In Bonn, West Germany Chancellor Helmut Kohl, while also publicly silent, was reported to be upset by the decision. His party faces a key state election next week and national elections later this year. His conservative colleagues, however, complained that the SALT II decision ignored the unanimous opposition of the NATO allies, while his Social Democratic opposition called for the alliance to reverse the “ominous decision.”

In Paris, reaction was much more muted, perhaps because of President Francois Mitterrand and Premier Jacques Chirac are from different parties. Le Monde, France’s most influential newspaper, issued a restrained criticism and said Reagan’s arguments had some merit. Like those in other NATO nations, French newspapers also complained that their government had not been consulted.

‘To scrap SALT II means there will inevitably be increases in the Soviet arsenal.’

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‘The SALT II decision is a more serious rupture in relations with U.S. allies than with the Russians.’

Times staff writers William J. Eaton in Moscow, Stanley Meisler in Paris, William Tuohy in Bonn and Tyler Marshall in London contributed to this story.


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