With the expected signing of a START treaty this summer, thethird generation of U.S.-Soviet strategic offensive arms control negotiations since the 1960s will slip into history. A fourth generation will surely follow, and it is not too early to begin thinking about how the radically changed strategic landscape will shape this next round.
For more than 40 years, U.S. national-security policy has been dominated by the Soviet expansionist threat and a strategy of deterrence. While the Soviet nuclear and conventional capabilities remain formidable, the extraordinary events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe over the past two years have substantially reduced the threat of Soviet armed adventures beyond their borders.
To some it is tempting to seize upon this relaxation of tensions to argue that nuclear weapons have become obsolete. Unfortunately, we are more likely to see in the 1990s a swelling in the ranks of the ''nuclear club'' than the club's demise. Thus, policy makers should recognize that, for the foreseeable future, nuclear capability will remain a requisite component of U.S. deterrent strategy.
Thinking through what kind of capability will be needed has led me to a number of conclusions that challenge prevailing assumptions about nuclear weapons and may point the way to a fresh appraisal of their role in a post-Cold War world.
First, apart from the brief U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons at the dawn of the atomic age, it has long been evident that, regardless of the intentions, efforts, doctrine or resources of either side, neither can achieve a disarming first-strike capability against the other. It is this certainty of devastating retaliation to a nuclear attack that has enforced the strategic balance through four turbulent decades.
Second, however, our reliance on the threat of nuclear escalation to deter even non-nuclear aggression -- so-called ''extended deterrence'' -- has produced a schizophrenia in our deterrent policy. We have seemed to be attempting simultaneously to make nuclear war both impossible and possible: impossible insofar as an attack on the United States is concerned, but possible as a consequence of escalation if the Soviets attacked in Europe. History may record the fact that both policies worked for so long, despite the apparent contradiction, as one of its supreme ironies!
Third, the changing European military environment and the conventional-force reductions resulting from the recently completed Conventional Forces in Europe treaty not only reduce the likelihood of a war in Europe, but they also present an opportunity for radically reducing the role and the quantity of nuclear forces.
This opportunity springs from the growing realization that conventional forces can be reduced to a level at which nuclear weapons are no longer required to carry the major burden in underwriting conventional deterrence.
More fundamentally, parity in conventional capability at lower levels opens the door to a major reversal in thinking about nuclear policy. So long as we must continue to rely so heavily on extended deterrence, a credible capability for attacking the opponent's forces, especially his strategic capability, remains a top priority. This imperative accounts for such features as large numbers of warheads, MIRVed systems and an emphasis on targeting mobile missiles.
However, if the need for extended deterrence were substantially reduced and the principal burden on both side's strategic forces were deterrence of direct attack, the entire logic would reverse. Survivability of both sides' forces would become paramount for stability and mutual security.
A final conclusion from the foregoing rationale is that, if the strategic balance is more stable than we thought, if deterrence of a first strike is not extremely difficult and if the demands of extended deterrence can be reduced through major reductions in conventional forces, then there is less urgency to pursue simultaneous modernization of all three legs of the nuclear weapons triad.
Moreover, I believe that we can safely negotiate reciprocal reductions to an eventual level of about 2,000-3,000 warheads for both sides. As the strategic environment continues to evolve in the next century, a continuing appraisal will be warranted on the levels, configuration, mix and characteristics of future strategic forces.
Thus, the next round of strategic-arms control will be both easier and more difficult than any in the past: easier because the basic political relationship between the two superpowers is on a new footing, but more difficult because a whole set of lifetime assumptions will have to be re-examined in order to make fundamental changes in both the size and character of each side's strategic arsenal.
Our goals ought to be mutual recognition of the futility of a first-strike option, a focus on mutual survivability rather than mutual vulnerability, and a reciprocal, phased reduction in strategic weapons.
Gen. David C. Jones, former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chairman and chief executive officer of the National Education Corp.