Bush proposal makes a virtue of the inevitable ARMS CUTS

September 30, 1991|By Peter Grier | Peter Grier,Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON -- The arms control changes President Bush laid out last week represent some of the most profound alterations in U.S. nuclear weapons policy since atomic warheads were first bolted to the top of ballistic missiles.

Yet with some of the moves the White House is seizing the opportunity to take credit for the unavoidable.

Consider Mr. Bush's pledge to bring battlefield nuclear arms back to U.S. depots: The rationale for keeping these short-range weapons in Europe has collapsed along with the Soviet threat, and political and budgetary pressures have already been building for their removal.

In Washington, Mr. Bush's sudden proposals were seen as an attempt to pre-empt wider debate about cutting nuclear forces and as a means to promote both the Pentagon's endangered B-2 bomber and the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative.

"The administration is trying to get out ahead of everyone on what has been a dramatic change in people's perceptions of our past adversary," says Stan Norris, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

At the same time, Mr. Norris adds that "I give them high marks here. They are seizing an opportune moment to do things which have long been proposed."

One of the most sweeping points of Mr. Bush's new nuclear plan was that the United States would unilaterally withdraw and destroy all land-based short-range tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe and South Korea.

Mr. Bush said he would similarly order withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from Navy ships and submarines -- including some 350 modern Tomahawk nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Tactical nuclear weapons have been an integral part of U.S. military contingency plans since the dawn of the atomic age.

But the increasing accuracy and lethality of conventional bombs and shells has made this class of weapons somewhat obsolete, and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe has eliminated the massed echelons of armored units that would have been the primary tactical nuclear targets.

Still, the president was careful to emphasize that the United States would retain tactical nuclear bombs carried on aircraft.

On the crown jewels of the nuclear arsenal, long-range strategic weapons, Mr. Bush said that the United States would halt development of a rail-mobile version of the 10-warhead MX missile.

In this the president was yielding to the inevitable; last week the Senate had already voted to strike this MX model from the 1992 defense spending bill.

More important, Mr. Bush proposed that the Soviets and the United States agree to reduce and eventually eliminate all land-based ballistic missiles with multiple warheads (MIRVs). Nuclear theorists have long considered that these weapons could destabilize the arms race, as their tremendous striking power might tempt an adversary to try to hit them pre-emptively in a crisis.

But land-based MIRVs are an area in which the Soviet nuclear arsenal far outstrips that of the United States.

No mention was made of any controls on submarine-based, multiple-warhead weapons, in which the United States is far superior. The United States quietly proposed just such a land MIRV ban last year, only to be quickly rebuffed.

Mr. Bush also called for a U.S.-Soviet agreement on deploying limited missile defenses. The purpose of this "star wars" shield, he said, would be protection against the inevitable day that a Third World despot obtains an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Deployment of missile defenses remains a highly controversial item in Congress.

Administration officials are taking pains to insist that just because nuclear forces can be reduced doesn't mean that money shouldn't still be spent on new weapons. "It's important to maintain modern, up-to-date forces," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said over the weekend.

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