Bush Plan Would Drop 40% of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

October 06, 1991|By CHARLES W. CORDDRY | CHARLES W. CORDDRY,Charles Corddry writes about defense and security issues from the Washington Bureau of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Bush's bold plan for a less-nuclear world has been widely acclaimed in its broad outlines, at home and abroad. Now comes the inevitable haggling with Moscow, and maybe with European allies, over details. That, as often remarked, is where the devil resides -- in the details.

Though it has been little noted, the president's plan will sideline close to 40 percent of the nuclear weapons (the smallest ones, to be sure) in the U.S. arsenal. He is urging Moscow to do as much or more, and the sooner the better for a fragmenting Soviet Union with nuclear weapons stashed in several of its republics.

At the end of the first week after Mr. Bush's surprise speech to the nation, these points seem fairly clear:

* He may have put together bits and pieces of not-so-new proposals from Moscow, Europe, Congress and elsewhere, as some, including Moscow spokesmen, have thought worth underlining. But Mr. Bush jumped out in front of the pack, as only the American president could do, with a far-reaching, coherent plan that dealt with revolutionary change, got the world's immediate attention and guaranteed action.

* Domestically, he scored a political plus by undercutting some Democrats' ardor for nuclear cuts. But he apparently misjudged the impact his plan would have in Congress on his defense budget. The first impulse of some majority party members was to pocket the Bush cuts and head down from there. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., began to talk of reopening Congress' deal with the administration fixing defense and domestic spending limits for 1992 and 1993.

* Moscow responded favorably, with Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin promising a "dramatic response." Doubtless so. But there has been no hint yet that the Soviets would respond by canceling any of their intercontinental strategic missile programs. Mr. Bush canceled the rail-mobile version of the MX (which Congress was about to do anyway), the mobile version of the future Midgetman missile and the SRAM (short-range attack missile) designed for the B-1 and B-2 bombers. Thereafter, the single-warhead, silo-based Midgetman would be the only new-type U.S. missile, and the president urged a similar Soviet ,, limit.

"Both Presidents [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev and [Boris] Yeltsin have talked about their desire to reduce the nuclear arsenal," said Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. "We want to give them an opportunity to do this -- to match their words with their deeds."

The Soviets seem to want a lot of clarifications, and have raised some old issues about submarine missiles, nuclear-armed fighter planes and nuclear testing. Reginald Bartholomew, the under secretary of state for international security affairs and a longtime arms negotiator, has taken a team of defense, nuclear weapons and arms control specialists to Moscow with explanations and requests for reciprocal actions.

Mr. Bush plans to destroy, store or remove from ever-ready alert status a total of more than 7,000 of America's estimated 18,000 nuclear warheads and negotiate with Moscow for further cuts in nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles.

He appears to have two main goals:

The urgent one -- not allowing for old-style, years-long superpower negotiations -- is to force Moscow to come clean on who controls upward of 16,000 tactical nuclear warheads on ships and spread around various republics, and nail down commitments to destroy, dismantle or store them in safe custody.

Tactical nuclear weapons include short-range battlefield missiles, artillery shells and land-mines, anti-aircraft rockets and certain cruise missiles aboard ships.

All these, like American counterparts being sidelined, are Cold War weapons from a time when it was thought they could deter, stop or win a war in Europe and on the oceans.

The economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of its Warsaw Pact and freeing of Eastern Europe and finally the hard-liners' failed August coup in Moscow -- all this made tactical nuclear weapons look useless in the East-West context and possibly frightening within the dissolving Soviet Union.

The second goal is to bring about a more stable strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union by negotiating further cuts in intercontinental missiles of the types most likely to be launched in a crisis. These are the big, land-based rockets with up to 10 warheads, alert for fast-firing from their underground silos -- some call it hair-trigger -- before they could be knocked out in an attack.

For all its turmoil and travail, the Soviet Union remains the only country that could destroy the United States. And the Bush administration is approaching the reduction of its strategic arsenal with great caution, much greater than many arms control and congressional authorities consider necessary.

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