The National Journal

May 22, 1982

Experts Differ Sharply Over Reagan START Plan

By: Michael R. Gordon

President Reagan's proposal for strategic arms reductions has drawn sharply different reviews from strategic experts.

Some experts hold that Reagan's proposal is a good initial bargaining position and may contribute to strategic stability by emphasizing the need to reduce the number of "counter-force" weapons that could be used effectively in a first strike.

But others say that contrary to Administration rhetoric, Reagan's proposals would only make U.S. strategic weapons more vulnerable to a Soviet attack than they already are.

That's because under certain conditions, the ratio of Soviet warheads atop land-based intercontinental missiles to U.S. missiles in their silos would increase even as the over-all number of warheads and missiles decreased. If that criticism of the Reagan plan is valid, it could militate against U.S. deployment of the powerful MX missile, each of which is to be equipped with 10 warheads.

In his speech at Eureka College on May 9, Reagan proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union limit their strategic nuclear arsenals to 850 missiles each. A limit of 5,000 warheads would be established for each side, with no more than half of them on land-based missiles, which are more accurate than submarine-based missiles and hence more of a first-strike threat to strategic forces.

Reagan's plan does not specifically deal with bombers and strategic cruise missiles, where the United States holds the advantage. But Reagan has said that they can be the subject of negotiations. (See NJ, 5/15/82, p. 856.)

Two days after Reagan's Eureka speech, Reagan's START plan (for strategic arms reduction talks) was warmly greeted by a group of former officials who prepared a report on "U.S. Security and the Future of Arms Control" for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Walter B. Slocombe, deputy Defense undersecretary for policy planning in the Carter Administration, described Reagan's plan as "a serious proposal. If you think this is one-sided, wait till you see the Russian one," cautioned Slocombe.

William G. Hyland, former deputy assistant to the President for national security affairs, also praised the plan as "headed in the right direction" Hyland endorsed the Administration's argument that the United States needs to build up its strategic forces and develop counterforce weapons capable of threatening the Soviet strategic deterrent as a negotiating tool.

Jan Lodal, who as director of defense programs and analysis at the National Security Council was heavily involved in SALT II, said Reagan's plan was more negotiable than some plans debated within the Administration that would have sought limits on megatonnage or throw weight. "It's not a priori nuts," he said.

While praising the outlines of the Reagan plan, Lodal argued that the proposal should have dispensed with missiles altogether as a unit of "currency." He suggested that a successful comprehensive arms control agreement would "trade off" the U.S. advantage in bombers for the Soviet lead in intermediate-range missiles.

Other experts have also praised the Reagan plan for encouraging the Soviets to deploy a greater percentage of their deterrent at sea. Since submarines are hard to target and destroy, they argue, this would increase the survivability of the Soviet Union's strategic forces and lessen its incentive to launch a preemptive strike in a crisis. More than 70 per cent of the Soviet Union's strategic weapons are now deployed on land-based missiles.

Despite these favorable responses to the Reagan plan, some experts have complained that the proposal could actually add to the vulnerability of U.S. strategic forces and destabilize today's strategic balance. They include Defense Department officials who favored more sweeping arms reduction schemes than Reagan proposed and some persistent Pentagon critics, such as Herbert Scoville Jr., former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and president of the private Arms Control Association.

These critics note that the Soviets now have some 5,500 land-based missile warheads, while the United States has 1,052 land-based missiles. That's a ratio of better than 5-1.

Reagan's plan would cut the number of Soviet land-based warheads to 2,500. But the warhead limit would also restrict the number of missiles the United States could deploy and, therefore, the number of targets at which the Soviets would have to aim.

If the United States did not deploy the 10-warhead MX missile, Reagan's proposal would reduce the ratio of Soviet land-based warheads to U.S. missile silos to about 2.5-1.

Deploying 100 MX missiles and some three-warhead Minuteman III missiles, however, would probably require the United States to hold its land-based missile deployment to about 450 to stay within the START warhead limits and allow for maintaining some missiles on submarines. Such a deployment would essentially preserve the 5-1 ratio.

The deployment of 200 MX missiles would worsen the ratio considerably from the U.S. point of view by restricting U.S. land-based missile deployment to about 350. That would mean a ratio of 7-1.

In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Scoville argued that START could also undermine the U.S. sea-based deterrent. To stay under the START warhead limits, he said, the United States could have only 12 Trident submarines, of which at best 8 would be at sea at any one time. This, he said, would make the submarine leg of the deterrent considerably more vulnerable to Soviet anti-submarine warfare, "since we now always keep more than 20 at sea."

Responding to these criticisms, a member of the START delegation acknowledged in an interview that Reagan's proposals would not by themselves reduce the vulnerability of land-based missiles. But, he argued, U.S. systems would become more "survivable" with the development of a new basing mode for the MX.

Production of the D-5 missile for the Trident submarine, he said, would also reduce the importance of the vulnerability of U.S. land-based missiles because it may have an accuracy rivaling that of land-based missiles.

In making these points, the official ironically repeated some of the arguments used by Carter Administration officials to sell the SALT II treaty. The Carter officials acknowledged that the treaty would not eliminate the vulnerability of land-based missiles. But they argued that this vulnerability would be eliminated by the adoption of the treaty in conjunction with the deployment of the MX missile in a deceptive basing mode and the development and deployment of the D-5.

Copyright 1982 The National Journal, Inc.