WASHINGTON -- Bomber crews across the nation unloaded their thermonuclear weapons yesterday and ended a decades-long vigil under which such aircraft could take off on 15 minutes' notice if the United States was attacked.
This action, ordered by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, was the most immediate, visible and dramatic follow-up to President Bush's far-reaching plan for both unilateral nuclear cuts and new negotiations with Moscow.
Announced in a televised speech at the White House on Friday night, the presidential initiatives would bring about "the single biggest change in the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons since they were first integrated into our forces in 1954," Mr. Cheney said at a one-hour Pentagon news conference yesterday.
And if Moscow responds favorably, as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev seems to be doing, what Mr. Cheney called the "size and shape" of the huge nuclear arsenals of both countries will change significantly.
Mr. Bush's plan calls for the destruction or withdrawal from military units and safe storage of thousands of short-range tactical nuclear weapons, now mostly in Europe and on Navy ships.
It is hoped and expected that Moscow will do the same, since it is no less concerned about the risks of so many weapons in the turbulent Soviet Union than Washington is.
The president and the Pentagon were far more cautious in their approach on strategic nuclear weapons -- the intercontinental types delivered by bombers and by land- and submarine-based missiles.
NTC Mr. Cheney ordered 40 bombers in 11 states to unload about 700 nuclear weapons. Like 240 other Air Force bombers, they now will need many hours to prepare for takeoff.
He also ended the alert status of 450 single-warhead Minuteman II missiles that were to be eliminated eventually anyway under the treaty signed July 31 in Moscow.
The aim of such moves is to ease tensions and reduce worries about hair-trigger weapons in a time when the danger of nuclear war seems to have gone off the radar screen.
While the bombers and older Minuteman rockets went off alert, however, missile-carrying submarines were still on alert with more than 5,000 nuclear warheads available. And Air Force Minuteman III and MX missiles were similarly on call, with 2,000 warheads.
Mr. Bush's major proposals for negotiations with Moscow -- distinct from actions the United States will take on its own -- called for eliminating intercontinental missiles that carry more than one warhead and for negotiations to allow deployment of ballistic missile defenses.
The proposal on multiple-warhead missiles -- such as the U.S. MX and Soviet SS-18 -- would reduce the U.S. strategic arsenal by 1,500 nuclear warheads, Mr. Cheney said. That would leave the U.S. total at about 9,000 weapons -- and the Soviet arsenal presumably at not many fewer -- far higher than urged by advocates of new deep cuts in Congress and elsewhere.
Further, the idea of replacing the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty with a looser arrangement allowing for extensive defenses (the "star wars" idea) has been anathema to Moscow. It has been seen there as a U.S. way of gaining military superiority and anyhow a frightfully expensive bit of arms-racing.
Mr. Cheney was steadfast yesterday in his support of ground- and space-based non-nuclear defensive weapons. The Persian Gulf war showed the need for them, he said.
Savings to be gained under the Bush plan are hard to estimate, Mr. Cheney acknowledged. But the planned cancellation of two mobile-missile programs and a short-range attack missile carried bombers could save an estimated $20 billion over a period of years, he said.