WASHINGTON — The President's decision to abandon all controls on nuclear arms opens the floodgates for Soviet warheads and cripples our ability even to measure the increased nuclear threat. Ironically, it is squarely at odds with Ronald Reagan's own strategic objectives. Unless intended as a bargaining ploy--a possibility that may explain the more conciliatory tone of the President's Glassboro speech on Thursday--the decision is a sweeping one that cancels the limits of both the SALT II Treaty and the 1972 SALT I Agreement on offensive weapons. Subsequent statements of advisers who have long urged the President to take this action, like Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, make it clear that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is their next target.
Administration officials have sought to discount the prospect that this decision will create a major increase in the nuclear threat. But it is obvious that the decision flies in the face of the Administration's asserted goals of reducing offensive nuclear weapons and pursuing the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Administration has repeatedly stressed its desire for deep cuts in the most destabilizing of nuclear weapon systems--the land-based, multiple-warhead, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Even the highly optimistic goals of the Strategic Defense Initiative depend, for any chance of success, on major cuts in Soviet strategic warheads. The SDI officials have been candid in expressing doubt about dealing with the existing 10,000 Soviet ballistic missile warheads. Their plans have been predicated on a reduced Soviet force. The President's decision thus dooms his dream of a defense-oriented world. Both the realistic hope of offensive nuclear warhead reductions, and the more ephemeral possibility of this facilitating an effective defense are dashed by his decision.
One prospect for such increase is virtually immediate. The Soviet Union is up against the SALT limits in overall nuclear delivery vehicles and, more important, in the sub-ceilings on both multiple-warhead land-based missiles and heavy missiles. The Soviet Union has dismantled and destroyed over 1,200 missiles and launchers as newer strategic systems have been deployed. With the ceilings lifted, new SS-24 and SS-25 missiles can be deployed as additions, not replacements.
Our refusal of all restrictions on strategic defense, with strong indications that we will proceed even if this means repudiation of the ABM Treaty, provides a powerful incentive for the Soviets to increase offensive warheads. As Weinberger said in his pre-summit letter to the President last November, any likelihood of a Soviet territorial defense would require an increase in U.S. offensive forces and their ability to penetrate the Soviet defense. There is no reason to feel that the Soviet Union will be more indulgent about U.S. defensive measures.
The Soviets have the means for major increases in ICBM warheads. Under the SALT II Treaty, each massive SS-18 can have no more than 10 warheads--though each missile could readily accommodate at least twice that number.
Another source of more strategic warheads would be conversion of the Soviet intermediate-range SS-20 to the intercontinental-range SS-16. The SALT II Treaty bars production of the SS-16 or the third stage of that missile. Adding this third stage to the SS-20 would produce a mobile missile, with three warheads each, that could strike the United States as well as our NATO and Asian allies.
Apologists for the Administration argue that the Soviets already have all the warheads they need. Necessity, however, is rarely the driving force in strategic weapons decisions. My experience in dealing with Soviet officials tells me that they will respond aggressively to what they regard as an aggressive act. If we breach SALT limits, they will feel compelled to do so.
At Glassboro, Reagan seemed to imply that his anti-SALT decision had produced new and better Soviet proposals. What they have now tabled in Geneva, however, is the logical development of ideas dating back to the January speech by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In any case, the question is not whether the bargaining climate has been improved, but whether the Administration is ready to bargain.
If the decision stands, it will constitute a departure from the policy of the four preceding Presidents--two Democrats and two Republicans. As justification, Administration spokesmen contend that Soviet violations have vitiated the worth of existing agreements. But the controversies about violations do not relate to the core numerical limits of the SALT II Treaty and SALT I Agreement. The announced U.S. intention to go beyond the SALT ceiling of 1,320, when the 131st B-52 is equipped with cruise missiles, thus cannot be considered a proportionate response.