Experts Rethink Nuclear Arms Policy

Article excerpt

THROUGH air-raid drills, "Dr. Strangelove," the SALT talks, Tom Clancy thrillers, and myriad other manifestations, the nuclear arms race has been part of American life for over four decades. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arms race as we have known it is going to disappear.

No longer will the specter of Soviet weapons drive the US to pile up more and more long-range warheads of increasing sophistication. Security in today's new world will require a new sort of US atomic arsenal, say experts: one smaller and more flexible than the peculiar logic of nuclear deterrence called for in the past.

Debate over the details of this new arsenal has already begun in Washington. On Capitol Hill, in think tanks, and the halls of the Pentagon, the very tenets of nuclear theology are being reexamined.

"What's the relevance of deterrence theory today?" asked one US military theorist during a recent discussion of the nuclear issue. "What is it we're trying to deter?"

Of course, the size of the US nuclear stockpile was shrinking even before the final disintegration of the Soviet Union. The START long-range nuclear treaty wrapped up last year saw to that: its provisions call for a cut in the US strategic arsenal of about 25 percent, to around 9,000 actual weapons. Talks in new republics

US officials are concerned that the ex-Soviet republics with long-range weapons on their soil make good on assurances that they'll live up to their end of the START bargain. A State Department team is visiting the republics concerned - Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan - this week, for talks on START and general nuclear safety.

Pentagon officials also say that strategic cuts beyond START will be on the agenda. President Bush, for instance, has proposed eliminating multiple-warhead land-based missiles. "We've already started to discuss this with the republics," said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams last week.

The still-open question is how far these inevitable nuclear cuts will go. Bidding starts at around 5,000 warheads. For instance, an advisory panel of experts convened by the commander in chief of US strategic forces, Air Force Gen. Lee Butler, has drawn up a report recommending a 50 percent stockpile reduction (around 4,500 strategic warheads).

A National Academy of Sciences report released last fall called for a quick reduction to 3,000 or 4,000 warheads, aiming at an ultimate stockpile of around 1,000. Some experts would go farther. "I wouldn't see any problem in cutting our force level to a couple hundred weapons," says George Rathjens, a professor in the Defense and Arms Control Program at MIT. …