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Chipping Away at Weapons : Even 30% Would Be a Welcome Cut

When the United States and the Soviet Union began paring down the size of their long-range nuclear arsenals, the goal was a 50% cut in warheads. At next week’s Washington summit, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev probably will settle for cuts of 30%. Even that would be a dramatic and welcome turnabout in the superpower approach to arms control treaties, made possible by the fact that arms control no longer is the only enlightened aspect of East-West relations.

For perspective, consider the first treaty to clamp limits on superpower nuclear weapons in 1972, SALT I. Four years later, the Soviet Union’s supply of land-based warheads had soared from 1,500 to 4,000, all perfectly legal under the best arrangement that military leaders on both sides would stand for.

A side agreement to SALT II placed a two-year moratorium on mobile missiles. Washington chose two years because it would take that long to get ready to deploy its own mobile missile.

The latest agreement, START, close enough to completion to allow Presidents Bush and Gorbachev to go ahead with their May 31 summit meeting, is altogether different. It will call for actual cuts in the most deadly weapons mankind has ever devised, missiles that can streak thousands of miles to their targets in half an hour. The biggest of these missiles will, in fact, be cut by 50% under the current draft. Special rules for counting cruise missiles on bombers, seagoing cruise missiles and other warhead launchers will mean a smaller overall reduction--between 30% and 35%.

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Bush and Gorbachev expect to agree to a first round of cuts and direct their negotiators to begin a second phase of the arms treaty. That could mean a nuclear weapons cut over the next few decades to perhaps as few as 500 in both the United States and the Soviet Union.

Bush had hoped to have something to sign that would lead to major reductions in ground and tactical air forces in central Europe, but Moscow is balking. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and a reunified Germany close at hand, the Soviet Union seems unable to calculate what forces it wants to keep. So far, there is no reason to suspect that this involves more than a delay.

Despite the START draft’s sharp break with the pattern of past treaties, it has one thing in common with them. Critics are lining up to snipe at it because it goes too far or does not go far enough.

Arms control still is less a marathon than a series of wind sprints, the idea being to cut as much as possible now and then move on to the next field of weapons to make more cuts. Because Gorbachev’s future seems permanently uncertain, that pattern makes more sense than ever. It is very unlikely that a new face in the Kremlin could find the wherewithal to revive tensions. A formal treaty that would have to be torn up in full view of the world would make him less likely even to try.

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