Nuclear arms cut figures hazy

Some warheads Bush offers to remove were slated for retirement

November 14, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - While the nuclear arms cuts pledged by President Bush yesterday seem dramatic, many of the 4,000 or so strategic warheads Bush promised to remove over the next decade already had been earmarked for retirement.

And the president also made it clear that only "operationally deployed" missiles would be counted, meaning that those being serviced or repaired would be off the roster.

The remaining 1,700 to 2,200 strategic warheads would still be an effective deterrent, and missiles based on submarines would enable the United States to retaliate even if a first strike wiped out its land-based fleet, arms experts say.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, visiting the United States for talks with Bush, did not identify yesterday what cuts his country would make, saying only that it would respond "in kind."

In the months leading up to the summit, Russia had expressed hope that each side could reduce its arsenal to 1,000 to 1,500 strategic warheads.

"What they've done is establish a level of trust and partnership," said Peter Huessy, a defense consultant and former legislative aide who has been working on intercontinental ballistic missile issues for 20 years.

"The chances of the U.S. and Russia getting eyeball to eyeball over a crisis and thinking one or the other would successfully strike first and pre-emptively wipe out the other guy's ability to respond has become nearly impossible. ... To the extent that we have conflicts or problems between the countries, we won't move to a higher state of nuclear alert."

Arms control advocates, however, said the cuts won't make much difference and will do nothing to move the two countries away from the Cold War-era of suspicion and fear that has lingered in their military postures even as their diplomatic and economic relationship has drawn closer.

Bush won praise from this quarter when he called for the improved protection and accounting of nuclear materials and for measures to prevent illegal nuclear trafficking. But arms control advocates criticized his plan to count only those weapons that are "operationally deployed."

"If you take a submarine out and change the oil or do a maintenance overhaul, it's not counted," said Robert S. Norris, a senior research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is a step backward, to be honest."

In addition, arms control advocates said Bush has been silent about several thousand bombs and warheads in storage around the United States, which could be brought back into use - which fuels Russian suspicion.

"Rather than taking on the difficult task of really changing things, I'm afraid that President Bush has gone with the status quo and left the levels at approximately the levels that Clinton and [Boris N.] Yeltsin arrived at in 1997," Norris said.

Under the framework of the Start III agreement reached by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in 1997, each side would reduce the strategic warheads they deployed to between 2,000 and 2,500.

Reducing the U.S. arsenal by thousands of warheads would likely mean paring down each family of weapons to ensure that enough remain in enough places to allow the system to survive a first strike, arms experts say. The reductions, Huessy said, might proceed along the following lines:

Four of the 18 submarines in the current Trident II fleet were already slated for reductions and would be taken out of operation, leaving 14 boats and reducing the number of warheads on them from 3,168 to 1,344.

At any given time, two submarines would likely be under repair; four boats would be considered "combat ready," maintaining stations in the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

Fifty Peacekeeper missiles, already targeted for retirement, each with 10 warheads, would be eliminated. At 15 years old, they would be too costly to refurbish. Peacekeepers are also deemed destabilizing weapons because they can accommodate so many warheads.

The number of B-52 bombers, stationed at Air Force bases in Louisiana and North Dakota, might be reduced from 75 to 47, each with eight warheads.

Twenty-one B-2 bombers would each be equipped with eight warheads instead of the current 16.

Those fleets likely to remain unchanged are 500 Minuteman III missiles, each with up to three warheads, at bases in Minot, N.D.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Malmstrom, Mont.

Questions still remain about what the countries will do with the retired weapons, and whether those will be dismantled or stored for possible future deployment.

Current and past arms control treaties have specified how each type of weapon is to be taken apart and how long it is to be on display for inspection by verification teams. But Bush and Putin are not discussing a treaty, and it's unclear whether they will even produce a formal, signed agreement.

In the United States, weapons are typically dismantled at a plant near Amarillo, Texas, by a private contractor working for the Department of Energy.

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