Myths About START


August 01, 1991|By JOSEPH K. LYOU

Los Angeles. -- Complexity begets confusion. It is not surprising that misconceptions and myths persist about the extraordinarily complicated U.S.-Soviet agreement to reduce long-range nuclear weapons signed by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in Moscow this week. Unfortunately, these misconceptions erode public support for promptly ratifying the treaty and then building upon it to negotiate truly significant and stabilizing reductions in nuclear-weapons arsenals.

Myth 1: The Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty mandates deep cuts in U.S. and Soviet strategic-weapons arsenals.

This misconception is based on initial reports that START would reduce strategic nuclear weapons by 50 percent. The media revised its estimates to ''reductions of up to one-third,'' but even this revised estimate is in error. START will result in strategic-warhead reductions of about 15 percent for the United States and 25 percent for the Soviet Union. After these reductions are realized, each side will retain roughly the same number of strategic warheads it had when negotiations began in 1982. Thus, follow-on negotiations will be necessary to obtain truly significant reductions in strategic nuclear weapons.

Myth 2: START limits the United States and the Soviet Union to 6,000 warheads, which reduces destructive capabilities and makes any near-term START II talks unnecessary.

But the actual limit is 6,000 ''accountable'' warheads. The counting rules do not include thousands of missiles in long-range bombers and sea-launched cruise missiles. After the START reductions, the United States will have approximately 10,400 actual -- as opposed to ''accountable'' -- strategic warheads, and the Soviet Union about 8,000. Both sides will retain needless overkill capabilities. The follow-on agreements envisioned even by former President Reagan could lower START limits to more rational levels -- perhaps as low as 25 percent of current levels.

Myth 3: START will limit the overall size of U.S.-Soviet nuclear arsenals.

This misconception is based on the failure to discriminate between overall and strategic nuclear arsenals. Overall arsenals include long-range (strategic) and short-range (tactical) nuclear weapons. Analysts estimate U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals to include roughly 45,000 weapons all told. Strategic nuclear weapons make up less than half of this total. Thus, START leaves most nuclear weapons unrestrained. Follow-on talks are needed to address the tactical nuclear weapons.

Myth 4: START reductions are focused on the most destabilizing weapons.

The United States negotiated significant reductions in the size of land-based and submarine-based ballistic missile arsenals under the assumption that these weapons represent the greatest threat to military stability. While this is an important achievement, several technological developments, unconstrained by START, may undermine this assumption.

Increased warhead accuracy, stealth technology, advanced cruise missiles, strategic defenses, anti-satellite weapons and other developments may offset gains in stability that result from ballistic-missile reductions. Follow-on agreements are necessary to control potentially destabilizing weapons modifications on both sides.

START sets many important precedents, including the first negotiated reductions in strategic-warhead arsenals and extensive verification provisions. It also lays the foundation for future agreements that would call for truly deep and stabilizing cuts in nuclear arsenals. START is not, however, an end to arms control, as some observers claim. It is merely another big step forward.

Joseph K. Lyou is executive director of the START-Watch Project, an arms-control monitoring organization.

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