Bush and Yeltsin Agree on Historic Nuclear-Arms Cut the Pact Restricts Multiple-Warhead Missiles, Long Seen as Destabilizing

By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1992 | Go to article overview

Bush and Yeltsin Agree on Historic Nuclear-Arms Cut the Pact Restricts Multiple-Warhead Missiles, Long Seen as Destabilizing


Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THIS week's big Bush-Yeltsin arms deal means that after decades of constructing elaborate plans and weapons for fighting nuclear war, Washington and Moscow are moving toward stripped-down, deterrence-only atomic arsenals.

It is a step toward reduced complexity that many United States military analysts - both in and outside the government - have been mulling over for years. Greatly reduced geopolitical tensions finally made it happen; now, by the turn of the century, superpower strategic nuclear stockpiles will be less than one-third their size of a only a few years ago.

"This will be seen as an enormous move forward," said President Bush at the Rose Garden ceremony announcing the agreement. "Who knows what lies out there ahead?"

Besides a numerical range limit of 3,000 to 3,500 warheads for each nation, the new pact's key feature is its restrictions on multiple-warhead missiles. Fast, accurate, dangerous, these weapons have long lain at the heart of nuclear-war fighting plans. They are both threatening and vulnerable, because they are high-priority targets.

In the end, the Russians accepted a US position eliminating all land-based, multi-warhead missiles. In return, they wangled both lower overall warhead limits than the US had proposed, and a greater reduction in the Pentagon's cherished submarine-carried, multi-warhead missile force - one-half, instead of the one-third the US had offered.

"We're talking about dramatic reductions," says Lee Feinstein, director of research at the private Arms Control Association.

For the first time, Mr. Feinstein says, the US appears to be moving in the direction of a "minimum deterrent." By this he means a nuclear force capable of riding out a first-strike attack and surviving with enough weapons to launch a retaliatory strike of its own against the fabric of the aggressor nation.

The current US and Russian nuclear forces are built around theories far more complicated than that. They're designed to be able to attack all the other nation's nuclear weapons and military command structure - in short, to fight a war, and win it if possible. This kind of planning necessitates many more nuclear weapons, and more accurate ones, than simple deterrence.

Military planners adopted the "counterforce" strategy at least in part because they were uneasy with the idea of pointing their weapons at the obvious targets: cities. But millions of civilians would perish in any kind of nuclear exchange, and "counterforce" thinking helped fuel the "we-have-to-match-the-other-guy" thinking that drove the arms race for so many years.

At a 1988 conference at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a group of nuclear scientists and planners concluded that the US and the then-Soviets would begin to travel down this road.

"Nuclear weapons strategy is likely to move toward a `deterrence-only' policy that will place less emphasis on counterforce targeting," concluded the conference's final report. …

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