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PERSPECTIVE ON DEFENSE : On Naval Weapons, the Soviets Have a Point : With both sides seeking deep cuts, we should put elimination of sea-launched cruise missiles high on the list.

May 20, 1990|JOHN M. LEE | Retired Vice Adm. John M. Lee served as assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the first strategic arms limitation talks

Amid predictable last-minute wrangling over the arms treaty that President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev hope to sign next month, the Soviets have renewed their demand to limit a breed of especially destabilizing naval weapons.

In this case, the Soviets are pushing for something that would help our security. Oddly, we are refusing to talk about it. The United States should concede the point and agree to binding limits on nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles, or SLCMs.

SLCMs fly low, cool and quiet, making them hard to detect. They are meant to be accurate to within 50 feet. Fired from ships close in, they would reach land targets on short notice. They are thus able to penetrate and strike reliably.

They are also destabilizing, nearly impossible to verify in peacetime--and useless. Destabilizing, because they threaten a first strike from us and so risk a preemptive strike from the other side. Hard to verify, because virtually identical non-nuclear missiles could be distinguished from them only by highly intrusive and unreliable means. Useless, because they merely add to an already excessive number of nuclear weapons at a time when United States and the Soviet Union alike seek deep cuts in strategic arsenals.

America plans to deploy 758 nuclear SLCMs on 200 vessels. These are nulear war-fighting weapons at a time when it is absurd to contemplate fighting a nuclear war. The Navy claims that SLCMs protect our ships by increasing the number that the Soviets must target in a crisis. In reality, they simply make more ships into platforms for global menace and thus increase the danger of atomic war started by subordinates, or by mistake.

The only substantial argument for SLCMs is that we are technically ahead in developing and deploying them. But the Soviets will catch up in due course, as they have with other weapons.

Our goal should be to eliminate nuclear SLCMs altogether. Failing that, we should at least negotiate the minimum possible number and get them off surface ships where, unlike in submarines, they would act as magnets for a preemptive or counter attack.

We should take heed of Ambassador Paul Nitze, the architect of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces, and Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both have said in recent months that they consider a verifiable ban on tactical nuclear warheads at sea to be important enough for the United States to abandon the Navy's policy of never identifying its nuclear-armed vessels--and even to let Soviet inspectors aboard our most advanced submarines.

Nitze relates that he arrived at that position after learning that Pentagon war games show our otherwise superior Navy almost never wins once a conventional battle escalates to nuclear weapons. Naval officers know this, and they don't want to spend their careers as pawns in a game of deterrence.

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