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Reagan, Nuclear Deployer, Turns Into Nuclear Defuser

May 22, 1988|Michael Krepon | Michael Krepon is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

WASHINGTON — Ronald Reagan is the most anti-communist and anti-nuclear President the country has ever had. The confusion wrought by this rare combination has been compounded by divisions among the President's advisers. As the Administration's push to ratify the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty demonstrates, the President's anti-nuclear instincts and his pragmatic advisers have triumphed. One legacy of this Administration is clear, regardless of what happens in strategic-arms reductions or the Strategic Defense Initiative at the Moscow summit: The utility of nuclear weapons has dropped considerably during the President's two terms in office.

No one would have predicted such a reality when Reagan was elected. His campaign dwelt on the need to reverse a "decade of neglect" in defense capabilities, including a "dangerously weakened" strategic nuclear deterrent. The prospects of a nuclear weapons buildup seemed likely when key jobs in the Pentagon, State Department and Arms Control Agency were given to strong proponents of nuclear strategies of deterrence.

What irony: Administration officials who were so bullish about nuclear options have left their successors a bearish market. The economic and political costs of deploying new weapon systems continue to rise. The INF Treaty removes important rationales for nuclear weapons, and longstanding trends promise to reduce other kinds of nuclear forces even if no new agreements follow the INF Treaty.

The devaluation of nuclear weapons has been by design and by accident. The President's dislike for them is reflected by his penchant for deep cuts and support for SDI, both of which decrease future nuclear options. Presidential advisers with quite different agendas unintentionally reinforced this result with outlandish statements about how the nation should strengthen nuclear deterrents.

Richard Burt, once the secretary of state's most important adviser, wrote about the need for "escalation agility" and the urgent improvement in "nuclear battle management" capabilities--and he was widely regarded as one of the Administration's most sensible strategic analysts. Pentagon officials led by Richard Perle made no secret of their dislike for previous strategic arms limitation agreements, which in their view constrained U.S. nuclear options far more than Soviet capabilities. After a concerted effort, they succeeded in obtaining presidential endorsement for ending U.S. compliance with SALT limits on offensive forces. But they also succeeded in generating a powerful political opposition.

The INF Treaty is the most obvious example of diminishing nuclear options. The elimination of intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear missiles will also make it far more difficult for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to accept new battlefield nuclear weapons. And the treaty accentuates long-term trends. At one time, the United States relied heavily on nuclear weapons to carry out other military objectives, including anti-submarine warfare, air defense and anti-ballistic-missile defense. Now these missions are likely to be carried out almost exclusively by conventional weapons. The U.S. inventory of tactical nuclear weapons has decreased by approximately 30% since the peak period of 1967.

To be sure, improvements in nuclear-weapons capabilities have taken place on Reagan's watch, especially in strategic nuclear forces. The President has been quite willing to purchase new weapons, despite his anti-nuclear stance. New B-1 bombers, MX missiles and cruise missiles have been deployed; the level of warheads deployed on these long-range forces has never been higher. But overall, the U.S. nuclear stockpile has decreased about 3% percent during the Reagan years. More important, little has been done to improve the infrastructure for building new warheads, a harbinger of further reductions in the years ahead.

If a START agreement is negotiated, deployed strategic nuclear forces will drop, but not by the advertised 50%. Even without START, U.S. missile-carrying submarines will continue to decline in number as more expensive, newer platforms replace older forces produced in larger quantities. Nor will the deployment of new B-1 and stealth bombers result in an expanded strategic bomber force, as older B-52s are retired from strategic service. And only 50 MX missile deployments have been authorized, as Administration plans for new land-based missiles are mired in controversy.

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