Reagan, Nuclear Deployer, Turns Into Nuclear Defuser

Michael Krepon is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ronald Reagan is the most anti-communist and anti-nuclear President the country has ever had. The confusion wrought by this rare combination has been compounded by divisions among the President's advisers. As the Administration's push to ratify the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty demonstrates, the President's anti-nuclear instincts and his pragmatic advisers have triumphed. One legacy of this Administration is clear, regardless of what happens in strategic-arms reductions or the Strategic Defense Initiative at the Moscow summit: The utility of nuclear weapons has dropped considerably during the President's two terms in office.

No one would have predicted such a reality when Reagan was elected. His campaign dwelt on the need to reverse a "decade of neglect" in defense capabilities, including a "dangerously weakened" strategic nuclear deterrent. The prospects of a nuclear weapons buildup seemed likely when key jobs in the Pentagon, State Department and Arms Control Agency were given to strong proponents of nuclear strategies of deterrence.

What irony: Administration officials who were so bullish about nuclear options have left their successors a bearish market. The economic and political costs of deploying new weapon systems continue to rise. The INF Treaty removes important rationales for nuclear weapons, and longstanding trends promise to reduce other kinds of nuclear forces even if no new agreements follow the INF Treaty.

The devaluation of nuclear weapons has been by design and by accident. The President's dislike for them is reflected by his penchant for deep cuts and support for SDI, both of which decrease future nuclear options. Presidential advisers with quite different agendas unintentionally reinforced this result with outlandish statements about how the nation should strengthen nuclear deterrents.

Richard Burt, once the secretary of state's most important adviser, wrote about the need for "escalation agility" and the urgent improvement in "nuclear battle management" capabilities--and he was widely regarded as one of the Administration's most sensible strategic analysts. Pentagon officials led by Richard Perle made no secret of their dislike for previous strategic arms limitation agreements, which in their view constrained U.S. nuclear options far more than Soviet capabilities. After a concerted effort, they succeeded in obtaining presidential endorsement for ending U.S. compliance with SALT limits on offensive forces. But they also succeeded in generating a powerful political opposition.

The INF Treaty is the most obvious example of diminishing nuclear options. The elimination of intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear missiles will also make it far more difficult for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to accept new battlefield nuclear weapons. And the treaty accentuates long-term trends. At one time, the United States relied heavily on nuclear weapons to carry out other military objectives, including anti-submarine warfare, air defense and anti-ballistic-missile defense. Now these missions are likely to be carried out almost exclusively by conventional weapons. The U.S. inventory of tactical nuclear weapons has decreased by approximately 30% since the peak period of 1967.

To be sure, improvements in nuclear-weapons capabilities have taken place on Reagan's watch, especially in strategic nuclear forces. The President has been quite willing to purchase new weapons, despite his anti-nuclear stance. New B-1 bombers, MX missiles and cruise missiles have been deployed; the level of warheads deployed on these long-range forces has never been higher. But overall, the U.S. nuclear stockpile has decreased about 3% percent during the Reagan years. More important, little has been done to improve the infrastructure for building new warheads, a harbinger of further reductions in the years ahead.

If a START agreement is negotiated, deployed strategic nuclear forces will drop, but not by the advertised 50%. Even without START, U.S. missile-carrying submarines will continue to decline in number as more expensive, newer platforms replace older forces produced in larger quantities. Nor will the deployment of new B-1 and stealth bombers result in an expanded strategic bomber force, as older B-52s are retired from strategic service. And only 50 MX missile deployments have been authorized, as Administration plans for new land-based missiles are mired in controversy.

Dramatic negotiating initiatives by the Reagan Administration have accentuated the declining value of nuclear weapons. SDI poses real problems for strategic modernization programs, since the public is unlikely to spend large amounts for simultaneous offensive and defensive deployments. The President's support for SDI and his anti-nuclear rhetoric undermine nuclear war-fighting strategies of deterrence and the programs needed to carry them out. If, as Reagan repeatedly states, "A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought," why should congressional majorities support new earth-penetrating nuclear warheads to destroy underground bunkers for the Kremlin's leadership?

The Administration's performance at the Reykjavik summit is also likely to have a lasting impact in Europe, the primary zone of "extended deterrence" for U.S. nuclear forces. NATO's policy of "flexible response" has always been a hard sell for Western leaders, since large segments of their publics are dubious about the Soviet threat and increasingly ornate nuclear options to counter it.

The problems of defending Europe with nuclear weapons have traditionally been smoothed over by ham-fisted Soviet security policies and NATO perceptions of reliable U.S. leadership. Both comforts were clearly absent in the high-stakes bargaining at Reykjavik. As Harvard's Thomas Schelling has noted, both leaders came to Iceland looking for a public-relations coup; Mikhail S. Gorbachev achieved it, while Reagan lost his head. The Administration's apparent willingness to trade in two-thirds of the strategic triad for the promise of SDI may have permanently shaken NATO attitudes about the reliability of the U.S. nuclear guarantee.

Nuclear options have been further constrained by a growing allergic reaction to deployments overseas, symbolized by the U.S.-New Zealand rift over the entry of American warships that may or may not carry nuclear weapons. The Danish government recently fell over this issue.

But tens of thousands of these weapons still exist in superpower arsenals. Nuclear proliferation, meanwhile, is more, not less, of a concern. Domestic arguments on questions of nuclear weapons and arms control persist. Our next President will be buffeted by fierce debates on SDI and a new window of vulnerability opened by a START agreement. Yet nuclear weapons are losing military roles and political leverage, at least for the superpowers. Early in the Cold War, the potential for using these weapons was great. But with every year of non-use, the political stigma attached to them has grown and their military utility diminished.

As a consequence, testing and deploying increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons systems have become the superpowers' substitute for using them. Since resolve cannot be shown by firing these powerful weapons in anger, it is shown by detonating them at test ranges or by accepting the large expense of purchasing them. Now, public enthusiasm for this symbolic exercise of power is on the wane; oddly enough, the Reagan Administration accelerated the process.

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