The Clinton administration is studying the possibility of seeking an agreement with Russia on the outlines of a treaty requiring new cuts in strategic nuclear arms, going well beyond the roughly 50 percent reduction in such weapons set as a 10-year goal by U.S. and Russian leaders in 1993, according to senior U.S. officials.
The newfound U.S. interest in such cuts is exemplified by a secret Defense Department study that is now examining the military consequences of ordering as many as 1,000 to 1,500 additional nuclear warheads to be scrapped on both sides. That could leave residual forces of as few as 2,000 weapons, or roughly the level of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal in 1956.
The Pentagon's study represents its first detailed examination since 1994 of the merits of seeking new constraints on weapons that defined the status of the two nations during the Cold War but are now seen by many current and former military officials as having greatly diminished importance.
Proposing new cuts also is seen by some U.S. officials as a way to persuade Russian legislators to ratify the so-called START II treaty, which calls for the 50 percent reduction. Moscow has been balking at the accord on grounds that it will cost too much to implement and -- in a provision that seemed less absurd in 1993 than it does today -- will impel the Russian government to build additional strategic weapons to maintain rough parity with the United States at the ceiling the treaty sets.
The Defense Department study is being conducted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by civilian experts at the Pentagon as a part of a broader review of military strategy and budgets. It is expected to be finished before a scheduled March summit meeting here between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the officials said.
Yeltsin has already said he supports setting a lower ceiling for U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arms than the one set by START II, and some U.S. officials are pressing for Clinton to reach a tentative accord on the framework of a new treaty during the summit. Details of the accord then could be negotiated once the Russian parliament ratifies START II, according to this proposal.
Former senator William S. Cohen (R-Maine), who was unanimously approved by the Senate yesterday as secretary of defense, told the Senate Armed Services Committee several hours before the vote that "developing with Russia a statement of principles [on a new nuclear treaty] . . . is one measure under consideration" within the administration. But Cohen added that Clinton has not yet approved going ahead with the idea.
The Pentagon's deliberations are described by some officials as highly significant in political terms. Clinton historically has been reluctant to overrule the military on such sensitive issues, and U.S.-Russian discussions on nuclear arms cuts essentially ended in 1994 when Defense Department officials decided that no more reductions were warranted at that time.
Several officials said the Pentagon's new review of U.S. nuclear force levels grew out of a request by then-Secretary of Defense William J. Perry to Gen. John Shalikashvili, the Joint Chiefs chairman, shortly after Perry returned from what aides described as a disappointing trip to Moscow in October.
Perry had sought in Moscow to convince Russian legislators that they should move toward ratification of the START II treaty, which was signed in January 1993 by Yeltsin and President George Bush. Congress approved the accord in January 1996, but Yeltsin has not put his political weight behind it, and the Russian parliament so far has refused to schedule a vote on it.
After hearing a host of complaints about the accord from Russian lawmakers and senior Yeltsin aides, Perry became highly pessimistic about its ratification prospects and convinced that Washington should take new action to shore it up, including an accelerated review of seeking much lower nuclear arms levels, several officials said. One reason for his interest was that if START II is not ratified, the Pentagon will be forced to spend an estimated $5 billion over the next seven years on nuclear weapons that otherwise would be eliminated.
Among the Russian complaints was the fact that in order to maintain rough nuclear parity with the United States at or near the ceiling of 3,500 deployed warheads, Moscow would have to spend billions to deploy more than 500 new intercontinental ballistic missiles -- of a type known as the SS-27 -- to replace some of the older missiles that START II orders eliminated.
Noting this factor and other problems, Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov minced no words during Perry's visit when was asked whether he supported the accord. "I favor the next treaty, the START III treaty that would continue the reduction of nuclear weapons," he said.
By interagency agreement, Perry was then authorized to tell Russian officials and lawmakers only that the Clinton administration is convinced that the nuclear arsenals remaining after implementation of the START II accord are "more than needed to destroy any plausible target set" and "more than enough for deterrence." He promised that once START II is ratified by the Russian legislature, Washington would negotiate a new treaty calling for additional reductions, but did not specify a ceiling that Washington would support or any other provisions.
The formulation Perry used has since been criticized by other officials at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the State Department and the National Security Council staff as too mild to overcome Moscow's reservations about START II. A number of lawmakers, independent experts and former military officials also have expressed this view, including Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the second ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
"This is an urgent matter" for the forthcoming summit, Lugar said in an interview. "We have to keep saying in a concerted way that we are interested in moving downward in numbers." Another supporter of the idea is retired Gen. Edward Rowny, a longtime arms control skeptic who now says that with "the Cold War being over" the United States needs fewer warheads than the START II accord allows.
Retired Air Force Gen. Lee Butler, a former head of the Strategic Air Command and director of the U.S. nuclear targeting plan, recently told the Stimson Center, a private arms control group, that Washington should have embraced a ceiling of 2,000 warheads in the early 1990s, and that it should undertake even larger reductions now. "If there's anything that I regret, any argument that I regret having lost before I retired, it was my effort to get that [2,000] number," he said.
On the other hand, retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Bush, expressed skepticism that the Russians "need to be bribed into signing START II. . . . It seems to me that we are frantic about it, and I don't know that we [need to be in] . . . that much hurry."
One administration official, who asked not to be named, similarly expressed some skepticism that reaching an agreement on the framework of START III will prompt the Russian parliament to approve START II while many officials in Moscow remain upset over another U.S.-Russian security matter: the move to expand NATO by including several former Russian allies in Eastern Europe.
"It's not clear to me that the Russians are begging for this [framework agreement]," instead of merely seeking to use START II ratification as a point of leverage in the debate over NATO, the official said. He added, however, that if Moscow promised that the treaty would indeed be ratified, without regard to NATO's expansion, "I'm sure you could get agreement within the administration" to accept a further one-third cut in residual U.S. nuclear forces, to a ceiling of roughly 2,000 warheads.
In deciding how such a deal might work, officials said, a major question is whether the ceiling in any new treaty should apply to stored nuclear warheads as well as those deployed on strategic weapons. Weapons that are stored were exempted from the START II limits, allowing both nations to retain "reserve stockpiles" of thousands of weapons not subject to any joint monitoring or limitation. But many U.S. officials want to include them in START III limits, and they are uncertain if Moscow will agree.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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