Slowing Down the Arms Race
(TIME, June 1, 1992) -- Despite the justifiable fanfare in Moscow over the U.S.- Soviet agreements on limiting strategic nuclear weapons, the summit signing was, except for a few last-minute technical hitches, mainly a formality. The details had been worked out in tough, painstaking but nonpolemical SALT negotiations extending over 2 1/2 years. Through some 130 separate meetings, alternating between Helsinki and Vienna, the talks were often deadlocked and agreement seemed improbable. But in the end, both sides showed a realistic willingness to compromise. The result should be a historic slowdown in the costly and dangerous arms race. It does not end that race, however, and even more painful bargaining lies ahead.
In broad perspective, the agreements formalized the U.S. shift from the Eisenhower-Kennedy insistence upon "nuclear superiority" to what the Nixon Administration terms "nuclear sufficiency." Since the Soviet Union was intent upon reaching at least parity with the U.S. and since both sides possess a tremendous overkill capability, the new U.S. stance makes sound sense. In agreeing that defensive missiles will be limited to two sites in each nation and that no more offensive ballistic missiles will be installed, the U.S. risks little; the "balance of terror" will not be upset to the advantage of either side.
The initial impasse came when the Soviet negotiators wanted to tackle limits on defensive systems first; the U.S. insisted that offensive and defensive weapons should not be considered separately. Later, the Russians demanded that some 600 U.S. aircraft carrying tactical nuclear weapons from bases in Europe or with the Sixth Fleet be classed as offensive systems, since they could strike the U.S.S.R. But Moscow regarded its own tactical nukes, capable of reaching NATO forces in Europe, as defensive. The U.S. finally agreed to discuss ABMs first, and the Russians agreed to exclude short-range nuclear weapons from the freeze on offensive systems.
Freeze. The ABM treaty allows each nation one defensive installation at an ICBM site and one at its capital, with a maximum of 100 missiles at each location. Thus the U.S. will be able to complete its Safeguard ABM facility near Grand Forks, N. Dak., but must discontinue the other one it is building near Montana's Malmstrom Air Force Base. New appropriations would be required for an ABM array around Washington. The Soviet Union already has ABMs protecting Moscow; where it will place its second site is not known.
On the surface, the freeze on offensive weapons looks like a Soviet gain. The executive agreement will permit the U.S.S.R. to hold a lead (1,618 to 1,054) in land-based ICBMs. It will be allowed to overtake the U.S., by an insignificant single vessel, in nuclear-missile submarines (42 to 41), since Russia will be permitted to complete 17 such subs.
The agreement allows some shifting in the particular mix of land- and sea-based ICBMs each nation wishes to deploy, so long as the total number of missiles is not affected. But it says nothing at all about how many warheads each missile can contain. Therein lies a huge advantage for the U.S., at least for now. Since the U.S. has missiles that carry up to ten independently targeted warheads (MIRVs) and these systems are far ahead of the Soviet multiple warheads, which fall in a cluster but cannot be individually directed (MRVs), the U.S. maintains an overwhelming edge of 5,700 to 2,500 in warheads.
Warhead Gap. There is not, however, any limitation on improving existing ICBMs under the executive agreement. Thus the arms race is expected to turn to qualitative rather than quantitative efforts. U.S. experts estimate that it will take the Russians until the late 70s to develop and deploy MIRV missiles and thus close the warhead gap -- if the U.S. stops further MIRV deployment. The U.S., meanwhile, is free to go ahead with advances like its ULMS longer-range submarine-launched missile system, which involves at least ten advanced subs with 24 missiles each. Both sides are expected to spend heavily on observation satellites to detect any cheating by the other. They can also spend heavily, if they wish, on new nuke-carrying bombers. As both nations continue to spar for technical advantages, no immediate savings in weapons costs are expected.
New SALT negotiations, tagged SALT II, are expected to begin soon. They will concentrate at first on putting the offensive weapons agreement into treaty form. Then the Russians will undoubtedly renew their demand that U.S. tactical nukes in Europe be limited; the U.S. will resist. The U.S. may also demand some limitation on the megatonnage of ICBMs. The U.S.S.R. has shown a preference for far bigger bombs than the U.S.; it is known to be working on a 50-megaton missile (the biggest U.S. weapon is the 5- to 10-megaton Titan II). Toughest of all will be any attempts to write detailed limits on the improvement of existing weapons, especially since such changes are difficult to detect without on- site inspection -- something the Kremlin has always adamantly opposed.
The key to future progress in arms limitation may well be the confidence each nation has in its ability to detect violations by the other. Both have agreed on an "open skies" policy of non-interference with observation satellites. These are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but whether they can detect how many warheads hide within a missile may remain an uncertainty beclouding the outcome of SALT II.
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