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Building New Weapons Regardless of Arms Control Becomes a Dead-End Street

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<i> Robert E. Hunter is the director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington</i>

There will be no more U.S.-Soviet arms-control agreements during the Reagan Administration, in part because of the ticking clock. But there are also substantive disagreements. Although most issues have been resolved, a few still bedevil the negotiators. Among the most prominent is the fate of the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), which also illustrates a serious deficiency in U.S. strategic planning.

The Navy’s SLCM is the maritime version of the air-launched cruise missile that, mounted on B-52 and B-1 bombers, is a mainstay of the manned-bomber part of the strategic nuclear force. It is similar to the ground-launched cruise missile that was banned under last December’s U.S.-Soviet missile treaty. Yet the United States doesn’t want to treat the SLCM like either its air-launched or its ground-launched cousin, for a simple reason: It can also be useful as a non-nuclear weapon. Indeed, that is its primary value. Based in a sub-marine, the SLCM can attack surface ships and even some land targets with high accuracy, thus reducing the need to rely on expensive and vulnerable aircraft carriers.

This premier value of the sea-launched cruise missile as a conventional weapon means that the United States doesn’t want to ban it, like the land-based variety that had only a nuclear role. But a missile that can be armed with both conventional and nuclear weapons ineluctably becomes part of the Geneva arms talks. Not surprisingly, the Soviets want to count sea-launched cruise missiles along with all other nuclear weapons as part of the total U.S. arsenal that will be limited to 6,000 warheads. If Moscow gets its way, it means that all U.S. SLCMs--even those that have only conventional warheads--will be counted as though they carry nuclear bombs.

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The implication is clear. If the United States can’t get the Soviets to back down--to exclude, at a price, SLCMs from the nuclear count--then it must either sacrifice some other part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in order to keep some of these missiles with conventional warheads, or it has to give up that option. If the latter, it would thus lose a conventional weapon that would be highly important to U.S. naval forces in the 1990s. And it’s too late just to put conventional warheads on all the SLCMs: The precedent in U.S.-Soviet arms-control talks is that once a missile is tested as a nuclear weapon it must be counted as such forever more.

The experts have tried to solve this problem by some ingenious techniques of differentiating between the two kinds of sea-launched cruise missiles. Soviet inspectors could be stationed at submarine bases--American inspectors could do the same in the Soviet Union--to scrutinize boats from stem to stern before they put to sea. Tamperproof tags could be attached to “clean” SLCMs--that is, those certified to be non-nuclear. Very soon, however, the idea becomes absurd, and it could hardly be expected to work in a crisis.

The U.S. dilemma over SLCMs is one of a class of difficulties now being caused by the way in which the U.S. government has made key decisions in the nuclear age. Most of the time defense officials decide what they want for the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Diplomats accept these decisions and then try to fashion agreements with the Soviets to limit the numbers. For years arms builders and arms controllers hardly talked to one another, and there was little effortto plan America’s deterrent posture with an eye to what might happen at the negotiating table.

Ronald Reagan exposed the folly of this approach when he created a new agenda for arms talks with the Soviets. Now, instead of just trying to slow the arms race, the superpowers have agreed to cut their strategic arsenals by up to 50%. That has put a premium on deciding which specific weapons to keep--and especially to retain those least vulnerable to attack.

Unfortunately, more than a decade ago the Navy decided to build a new class of nuclear-missile submarines, the Trident. But instead of putting 16 or even fewer missiles on each boat, as in the old Polaris and Poseidon submarines, the Navy chose a behemoth with 24 missiles with 8 warheads apiece--a big bang in each boat. Thus if the arms-reduction treaty goes through and the United States has to make a 50% cut in warheads, the concentration of so many warheads in each submarine will require the scrapping of many of the boats. The United States might find itself with only eight or nine boats at sea at any one time--many eggs in a few baskets. And that is a number small enough to spur the Soviets to new and potentially lethal efforts at anti-submarine warfare.

The same has been true with the MX missile. Instead of building a successor to the Minuteman with a single warhead that could be widely dispersed, the Pentagon argued for a blockbuster with 10 warheads each, and it built 50 of them. But with an arms agreement the 500 warheads on these relatively few missiles, a major fraction of the total force, will tempt Soviet strategic planners.

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By spending many billions of dollars the United States can, at least partly, correct these gross errors in military judgment--which were foreseen at the time but dismissed by the critics of arms control. But the errors will be repeated unless U.S. political leaders force a change. We can-not afford again to let the arms builders decide what they believe to be best, without considering the effect of arms control. As we are seeing today, that way can weaken, not strengthen, U.S. security.

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