WASHINGTON -- The new U.S.-Soviet arms treaty will barely dent the Pentagon's $50 billion-a-year strategic nuclear weapons budget, according to government officials and independent analysts.
They see the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed Wednesday by President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow, as a huge boost to national security -- contributing to international stability and reducing the chances of nuclear war -- but as a near-pygmy in the budget arena.
There are three main reasons:
* The first, which complicates any estimate of savings, is that the Bush administration cut back several major missile and bomber programs last year, and it is hard for analysts to assess how much that was done for budgetary reasons and how much it was done in anticipation of a treaty.
* START permits the United States and the Soviet Union to continue modernizing their strategic weapons arsenals as long as they keep the numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles -- missiles and bombers -- within prescribed limits.
* The predicted modest savings could be largely offset by the new costs of inspection systems to verify compliance with the treaty and of destroying excess arms.
"In short, START will not be a money-saver," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., told the Senate. "It will serve our security but not our pocketbook -- unless we capitalize on the opportunity to move forward toward truly deep cuts" in follow-up negotiations.
Mr. Biden sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must recommend whether to ratify the treaty.
Rough estimates of savings, more or less attributable to the treaty, run from several hundred million dollars to possibly $8 billion a year.
In a preliminary assessment for Mr. Biden, the Congressional Budget Office compared START-mandated cuts with the administration's current strategic arms program -- which Defense Secretary Dick Cheney says already reflects arms control savings.
"Compared with the current administration plan for nuclear forces, there would be savings of a few hundred million dollars" in operating expenses and warhead-fabrication costs, the CBO said. The estimate assumed the retirement of certain Minuteman missiles.
The savings could be "wholly or partially" offset by costs of inspectors and treaty-monitoring systems. They would be "a small part" of the $50 billion annual outlay for buying and operating nuclear forces, the CBO said.
It said the United States was cutting its arsenal of strategic nuclear warheads by 3,300. All but 1,000, atop 150 missiles, would have been cut regardless of the treaty, it said.
Granting that the administration may have made earlier cuts in anticipation of START, the CBO compared the Pentagon's 1990 plan with prospective START savings.
It took account of proposed cuts in the B-2 bomber program from 132 to 75, in the Trident missile submarine plan from a possible 24 ships to 18 (as insisted on by Congress) and the decision to abandon a railroad-mounted MX missile system.
On that basis, the CBO said, savings could average $5 billion to $8 billion a year over the next 15 years.
The independent Defense Budget Project, a research organization here, took a different approach and reckoned that the government would have a one-time saving of at least $10 billion -- possibly $15.4 billion -- on purchases and an annual saving of $2 billion in operating costs.
The saving on weapons would come from the curtailment of the Trident sub and missile program and the reduced purchase now planned for advanced cruise missiles.
START could generate "substantial savings" from present plans if the government went below the treaty limits and "refrained from deploying new systems" or cut its planned deployments, the CBO said.
Arguing that Moscow was ready to negotiate further reductions, Senator Biden urged that course, to bring "superpower arsenals into line with post-Cold War realities."