Bush Signals Wrong Turn on Road to Arms Control

<i> William H. Kincade teaches in Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program. Jonathan L.A. Shrier is the research director at ACCESS: A Security Information Service. The views expressed here are their own</i>

George Bush, despite bipartisan advice to the contrary, seems ready to redefine arms control by emphasizing conventional and chemical negotiations and putting nuclear arms talks on the back burner.

The premises of a changing course are beguiling: Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s military reforms remain an uncertain basis for “deep cuts” in nuclear arms, conventional force reductions could lessen U.S. nuclear leverage and Soviet decline allows the United States to call the arms-control tune. There is also the view that Ronald Reagan’s arms-reduction legacy is a fluke, seen by liberals as product of Reagan’s opportunism and Gorbachev’s initiatives and by conservatives as a sellout, an aberration, ripe for replacement by a more cautious approach.

Yet the Reagan legacy is consistent with the basic themes of American national strategy over the last dozen years: seeking deep cuts in nuclear forces while reducing the risks of inadvertent nuclear war and ensuring that arms control is not detached from U.S. concerns about regional conflict and human rights. Progress made in these areas by Reagan will be jeopardized by Bush Administration “bait and switch” tactics that attempt to substitute a chemical arms agreement for a strategic nuclear one.

Two realities further mock a postponement of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in favor of progress in the Conventional Forces in Europe talks and negotiations for a chemical weapons pact:


-- Before a START agreement, the Bush Administration cannot wisely make the urgent budget choices called for on two expensive bomber programs (B-1B and B-2) and two costly and uncertain missile programs (rail-mobile MX and Midgetman).

-- Americans and West Europeans are concerned about the nuclear dilemma; conventional forces cuts are not likely to come soon enough or be deep enough, in the first instance, to ease budget problems or impress voters in North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries.

The worthy efforts for a chemical-arms agreement do not respond to concerns of publics or security elites. Granted, chemical arms are weapons of mass destruction, but not of possible social or national destruction. There are no itchy trigger fingers capable of firing all our chemical weapons, should we decide the Soviets were thinking about firing theirs. Bush’s vow last Oct. 21 had a hollow ring: “If I’m remembered for anything, it would be this: A complete and total ban on chemical weapons. Their destruction for ever. That’s my solemn mission.”

Such a pact would resound politically with the noise of a feather, doing nothing to satisfy the deep, if now muted, public desire for cuts in strategic nuclear weapons. Finally, Bush cannot deliver on his “solemn mission.” Any country with a fertilizer plant can make chemical weapons, the poor nation’s deterrent.


Against this backdrop, the case for ignoring the Reagan agenda needs testing; up close, the arguments don’t add up.

Change in the Soviet Union. Soviet foreign-policy changes in the late 1980s--withdrawing from Afghanistan, paying U.N. debts, freeing emigration, settling regional issues and initiating arms accords--do not depend on Gorbachev. They stem from an elite consensus that previous policies were counterproductive and costly. Gorbachev is the agent of change, but the impulse for such reform predates his rise. Support from the military and lack of dissent from the Politburo indicates the trend will continue even if resistance to domestic economic reform ends in Gorbachev’s ouster.

The consensus is that Moscow needs relief from security burdens and pressures to remedy chronic deficiencies of crisis proportions. Military leaders see economic stagnation and decline as long-term threats to Soviet security. They also entertain the notion that military exertions stimulate responses adding to insecurity and are trying to define a strategy of “reasonable sufficiency.”

Western Leverage. “Go slow” advice to gain concessions in the conventional-force talks before a START accord on nuclear arms presumes the United States has nuclear bargaining leverage to alter a Warsaw Pact numerical edge in conventional forces. This neglects evidence of Warsaw Pact determination to achieve conventional cuts. With Moscow’s support, the Warsaw Pact sought new negotiations for asymmetrical European force reductions in the first place, a change indicating readiness for concessions.

Further, nuclear-force cuts would not yield opportunities for resource transfers in the economically beleaguered Warsaw Pact nations, except the Soviet Union, and would not provide Moscow the industrial and manpower resources needed for economic reforms. Significant deactivation of conventional units drives Warsaw Pact interest in conventional-force reductions.

Nuclear and conventional negotiating situations and any agreements that emerge must be judged by how they serve Western security--individually and together. This does not mean one must wait upon the other. Rather, the Western conventional negotiating posture is influenced by developments in START. More linkage than this risks a failure to gain the security advantages of both.

Vulnerability/Survivability. A major plaint of START critics is that the treaty would not reduce and might even increase the vulnerability of U.S. land-based ICBMs. But although START was never intended to remedy the vulnerability of fixed, land-based ICBMs, it would, nonetheless, be complementary.

Since the 1960s the United States compensated for the increasing vulnerability of ICBMs in fixed silos by dividing its nuclear forces among bombers, submarines and ICBMs, a hedge against increases in vulnerability of any one leg of the triad. (The Soviets, in contrast, have emphasized land-based ICBMs.)


Some critics have complained that under START the ratio of Soviet warheads to U.S. missiles could rise by over a third (from 2.93:1 to 4.2:1). However, because of the rule of thumb that a prudent targeter will assign two warheads to every missile silo, this change would be militarily insignificant, since the Soviets would be able to double-team each U.S. silo with or without a START agreement. On the other hand, the ratio of U.S. MX missile warheads (the most accurate U.S. ballistic missile) to Soviet SS-18s would more than double (from 1.6:1 to 3.25:1), making the SS-18 force actually vulnerable to the MX force.

START would be militarily significant in two other ways. First, it would prevent the Soviets from building new strategic weapons targeted against Europe to offset the intermediate-range forces being eliminated under the INF Treaty. Second, START would make it feasible to reduce U.S. ICBM vulnerability. A consensus exists among politicians and policy analysts for START plus ICBM modernization, reflecting a view that modernization will be more effective if the Soviets are prevented by a START agreement from counterbalancing deployments. Those most concerned about ICBM vulnerability should be leading supporters of START.

Verification and Compliance. The Reagan Administration pioneered innovative and intrusive verification methods; the Soviet Union broke new ground by accepting them. Opponents say these techniques lack proved reliability and place Soviet spies in our midst (though this means both denying their previous charges that the U.S. was an “open book” for Soviet intelligence and renouncing the U.S. quest for intrusive verification). Insistence on perfect verification overrates the risks of a militarily significant violation going undetected and underrates those of nuclear uncertainty and rivalry.

Both START and the conventional talks impose verification challenges more demanding than INF, which banned a whole class of weapons rather than limiting them. The logical next step is to pursue opportunities for verification measures relevant to strategic and conventional forces, capitalizing on the INF momentum to establish new standards for force visibility and data exchange.

Some observers have taken a contrary step--imagining exaggerated scenarios in which the Soviets suddenly “break out” of prospective START limits and spring a huge arsenal on an unsuspecting United States. They suppose the Soviets could cheat on an unprecedented scale without a hint reaching the United States. Given that such a revelation would galvanize U.S. opinion and restart the missile race (without eliminating the U.S. nuclear retaliatory capability), it is more plausible that risks of exposure would deter the Soviets from militarily significant cheating. Sensible studies--ones that include assessments of the reasons why or the conditions under which the Soviets might attempt to break out of a treaty--are prudent and would aid in planning verification to guard against realistic risks. But nightmare scenarios are obstructionist distractions.

Reaping the rewards of Reagan’s course in arms cuts and avoiding pitfalls requires a farsighted, integrated and comprehensible approach. The zigzag quality of much U.S. arms-control policy has made it mysterious to the public and open to criticism from left and right. Bush must establish realizable objectives and priorities among various initiatives--strategic, conventional, chemical--and show how they can mesh in U.S. security policy. He should avoid nuclear-balance dogmatism, specifically the idea that a reduction in or addition to numbers or performance in either superpower arsenal leads easily to nuclear blackmail or nuclear war.

Arms accords can produce a less volatile strategic environment that enhances Western security by: 1) reducing specific threats and contingencies, 2) diminishing uncertainty in military and political planning, 3) aiding strategic intelligence and 4) permitting more orderly procurement. Unilateral American or Soviet force cuts, like those Gorbachev advanced in New York last December, cannot contribute to a stable nuclear setting; neither side knows where or when such reductions might come or how deep or lasting they may be.

A more stable nuclear balance safeguarded by arms limitation won’t yield a quick “peace dividend” for domestic programs or tax cuts. That could come later, by skillful resource planning. Agreements increase costs for verification capability and for hedges to cope with risks in the early years of significant reductions. But stable strategic planning does mean forgoing expenditure in nuclear-related forces and diverting funds to deficiencies in readiness, air-lift and sea-lift. Arms limitation assists both peace and strength.


The fundamental goals of negotiation are to improve Western security through nuclear threat-reduction and to keep American security requirements in line with available resources. This latter consideration has grown in importance as U.S. resources have declined relative to other countries. Effective arms agreements also provide incentives for compliance with existing accords and negotiating new ones, thus helping to avoid the delay and mistrust of stop-and-go negotiating.

The benefits of negotiated security are not available without a policy specifically designed to gain them, one that is sustainable over time in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations and domestic support. Reagan’s deep cuts can be managed if they are related sensibly to conventional reductions and phased in with confidence-building measures to allay anxiety.

A disjointed approach to arms control--lacking a broad view of opportunities in security policy and East-West relations, failing to enunciate a clear picture of aims and steps to accomplish them and prizing novelty over continuity--runs a high risk of eventually failing at home, whether or not it succeeds at the bargaining table.