The Senate, anticipating a U.S.-Soviet agreement to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear missiles, on Friday approved a first step toward modernizing part of this country's arsenal of shorter-range nuclear weapons on the European continent.
Accepting arguments that improving such weapons could help compensate for those to be destroyed under the treaty, the Senate agreed to let the Army begin studying the need for a nuclear warhead for its Tactical Missile System--known by the acronym ATACMS.
The Army missile, still in the development stage, is a small ground-launched ballistic missile designed to loft conventional explosives to ranges of 150 miles and envisioned for deployment in the early 1990s.
The agreement on intermediate range nuclear forces, or INF, now in the final stages of negotiation between Washington and Moscow would remove from Europe--and the rest of the world--two classes of ground-based nuclear weapons, those with ranges of 300 to 600 miles, and those of 600 to 3,000 miles.
The prospect of losing the protection of allied intermediate nuclear weapons has raised concerns among Washington's European allies, West Germany in particular, about the Warsaw Pact's numerical advantages in conventional forces.
Problem of Deployment
If, as expected, the Defense Department decides to seek approval to develop the weapon, congressional sources predicted Friday that deployment on West German soil would pose major political problems there. Lawmakers probably would seek assurances that Bonn would accept the new deployment before permitting production, congressional aides said.
Recognizing the potential problem, Pentagon planners emphasize that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has made past commitments to modernize short-range nuclear forces.
"The elimination of two classes of missiles as foreseen in the INF negotiations never meant to us that NATO was going to denuclearize," said Frank J. Gaffney Jr., the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, who lobbied for the looser strictures adopted by Congress.
Approval of the ATACMS study was contained in the fine print of the Senate's 1988 Defense Authorization bill, which won final passage Friday.
Its approval marks a significant victory for the Pentagon. The Army has long argued that it should move toward a nuclear tip for its ATACMS missile. Until now, the Senate has insisted that only conventional weapons be developed for the weapons system. But this week the two senators who previously had insisted on the restriction--Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)--took the lead in removing it.
'Study the Option'
"The Defense Department should study the option . . . in the larger context of the options available to maintain NATO's agreed strategy of flexible response in the aftermath of an INF agreement," said Nunn in presenting the measure.
The flexible response strategy commits NATO to maintaining a range of nuclear responses to potential Soviet aggression.
The original non-nuclear ATACMS--a relative of a similarly named Air Force weapon--was strongly supported by Congress as a way to bolster NATO's conventional defenses in Europe. Its supporters argued that by strengthening the conventional forces facing the Warsaw Pact forces, NATO would not be forced to resort to the early use of nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet attack.
Kennedy and Nunn, both strong advocates of stronger conventional forces, had led the successful Senate effort to bar development of a nuclear warhead for the short-range missile for the past four years. But with the imminent prospect of a U.S.-Soviet accord banning intermediate-range missiles, the Defense Department's pleas took on new urgency. Nunn and Kennedy, prodded by Republican colleagues, reversed themselves and backed the amendment permitting the preliminary study.
Congress' Approval Required
The Army still must seek Congress' approval before developing or building such a weapon, a provision Kennedy said "strikes the right balance."
Armed with a nuclear warhead, the ATACMS missile could replace the 1960s-vintage Lance missile, slated for retirement in the mid-1990s.