WASHINGTON — U.S. forces operating strategic bombers and some ballistic missiles were ordered Saturday to "stand down" in the first moves to implement President Bush's dramatic nuclear-arms-reduction package.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, acting on the President's orders, directed the crews of 280 U.S. strategic bombers and 450 Minuteman II missiles to relax the hair-trigger alerts they have maintained for more than 30 years.
Speaking to reporters a day after Bush unveiled a package of unilateral nuclear-arms initiatives, Cheney challenged the Soviet leadership "to match their words with their deeds" and to respond with concessions of their own.
"This morning, I have signed the executive order taking our strategic bomber force and our Minuteman II missile force off alert status, thereby implementing the first part of the President's decision," Cheney said at a Pentagon briefing Saturday morning. "It is, in my opinion, the single biggest change in the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons since they were first integrated into our forces in 1954."
But Cheney warned that the relaxation of U.S. vigilance would not continue in the absence of similar moves by the Soviet Union, noting that many of Bush's initiatives can be reversed in 24 hours.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that of the 280 B-52 and B-1 long-range bombers in the U.S. Strategic Air Command fleet, 40 are on short-notice alert at any given time. And all of America's intercontinental ballistic missile silos are staffed 24 hours a day, ready for launch at a moment's notice. "They will all be off alert by the end of the day," Powell said.
Powell said the 40 aircraft are capable of carrying "several hundred" nuclear bombs and missiles, but he declined to be more specific, saying the exact number of weapons is classified.
"It is a historic turning point" in the U.S. global military posture, said Powell, appearing with Cheney at the Pentagon briefing. "If the Soviets respond fully and in kind, I think we'll go a very, very long way to allowing both nations to finally begin to step down the thermonuclear ladder after some 40 years."
In Moscow, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said Saturday that his reaction to the Bush initiative is "very positive." He called the proposals "serious steps forward toward the nuclear-free world." But he said Bush's plan is too complex to respond to immediately and in detail. He added that he and Bush have agreed to discuss the proposals at some time in the near future.
Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin called for parallel cuts on the Soviet side to match those announced by Bush.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the Administration was pleased by the Soviet reply. "The President believes this is a positive response, and we will continue to consult with the Soviets," he said.
In Paris, French officials Saturday proposed holding a summit on nuclear weaponry in the near future with the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain.
The Soviet nuclear arsenal today contains about 27,000 warheads, including 10,000 ground-launched, short-range weapons such as those the United States will eliminate. The stockpile also includes an estimated 7,000 nuclear bombs carried aboard aircraft.
Several thousand of the Soviet warheads are based in republics that have asserted independence from Moscow. They are considered a threat because they could fall into the wrong hands or be used in a civil conflict, officials said.
The changes announced Friday by Bush directly eliminate fewer than 3,000 U.S. nuclear weapons out of the total U.S. arsenal of about 22,000. And about two-thirds of those affected already had been declared obsolete and due for retirement.
Cheney said that the failed coup in the Soviet Union in August, and its aftermath, prompted the dramatic change in Administration thinking on arms control. Cheney acknowledged that he would not have advocated such steps as removing nuclear weapons from Navy surface ships or standing down the bomber fleet even as recently as two years ago.
Cheney said the Administration hopes to capitalize on the political turmoil and economic crisis in the Soviet Union to push Moscow toward drastic reductions in its nuclear stockpile.
"The leaders of the Soviet Union have expressed profound skepticism themselves about the massive strategic nuclear arsenal and the resources that they have continued to invest in maintaining that force," Cheney said. "Both Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin have talked about their desire to reduce the nuclear arsenal. We want to give them an opportunity to do this, to match their words with their deeds.
"These moves also challenge the Soviets to do what we're doing by following up with initiatives of their own," he added. He said military spending in the Soviet Union and its republics is "an expensive drag on the economy which they do not need and cannot afford."