WASHINGTON — President Reagan has ordered key U.S. agencies, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to study the consequences of eliminating all nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in 10 years, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The Administration has been backing away from a proposal to eliminate the missiles, which Reagan made more than a month ago to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at the Iceland summit, after intense criticism by U.S. allies, Congress and arms control experts. All of these critics objected to the proposal on its merits. They also criticized Reagan for introducing it without first asking the Joint Chiefs and appropriate government agencies to examine the idea.
The new studies, ordered by National Security Decision Directive 250, are expected to be completed in early December and will determine whether the United States continues to keep that proposal formally on the negotiating table in Geneva, modifies it or supersedes it with another offer that would ignore and thereby kill it.
Days May Be Numbered
The Administration on Thursday sent the clearest signal so far that the offer's days may be numbered.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that the proposal is still on the table at Geneva. "However, our priority is focused on the nearer term, on the things that can be incorporated (in a new treaty) in five years," he added, emphasizing a less radical proposal to cut all strategic weapons, including bombers and missiles, by 50% over five years.
And other U.S. officials said that the United States intends to carefully review and reassess U.S. and Soviet positions at the Geneva arms talks, keeping an obvious eye on possible modifications.
The new studies of a world without nuclear ballistic missiles, which the President asked from the CIA and the State Department, as well as from the Joint Chiefs, may not be completed before U.S. and Soviet negotiators meet in Geneva in special session Dec. 2 to 5, the officials said.
But the work will be finished well before an expected meeting of U.S. and Soviet arms experts in Moscow in early January and before formal Geneva negotiations resume in mid-January.
The Administration has found itself in an embarrassing position because of the final hours at Reykjavik. Reagan and Gorbachev had agreed to reduce all strategic weapons--missiles and bombers--by 50% over five years. Then, in turning to the next five-year period, Reagan:
--Proposed--in writing, according to U.S. officials--that both sides reduce their ballistic missiles to zero, thus eliminating all of these weapons over the course of 10 years.
--Endorsed--orally, and almost in passing, the officials said--a Gorbachev counterproposal to eliminate all strategic weapons, meaning bombers as well as missiles, in the second five-year period. If this plan were implemented, all of the superpowers' long-range nuclear weapons would be eliminated over 10 years.
But critics, alarmed by Reagan's original proposal, immediately pointed out that a world without ballistic missiles, as offered by Reagan, would mean increased vulnerability of the United States and its allies to Soviet bombers and cruise missiles, since the United States does not have an operational anti-missile defense, as does the Soviet Union.
In addition, negotiations by the superpowers toward a world without ballistic missiles would bring enormous political pressure on Britain, France and China to destroy their missiles. France and China probably would refuse to do so.
In Britain, the Reagan offer has caused difficulty for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by making more respectable the opposition Labor Party's promise to unilaterally scrap Britain's nuclear deterrent if it wins next year's elections.
Similarly, Gorbachev's offer of a world without any strategic nuclear weapons would mean continuing Soviet superiority in the conventionally armed forces (such as manpower, tanks, etc.) that would remain. This would be particularly critical for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose members depend on U.S. nuclear power to deter an invasion by the large Soviet conventional forces.
Administration officials privately have admitted that Reagan agreed to the more sweeping Gorbachev proposal but argued that such an endorsement in a confusing conversation has no standing. Officials have pointed out parallels in other U.S.-Soviet summits in which late-night remarks and statements, when not put in writing or signed, cannot be considered binding.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former senior State Department official who took notes at a 1972 meeting between former President Richard M. Nixon and the late Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev, has recalled that the two leaders became extremely confused during a three-hour attempt to resolve a technical issue--on what changes of dimensions and other characteristics would be permitted on a missile that was "modified" versus a "new" one.
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