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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Reverse Arms Race




Seven years ago, U.S. President George Bush announced what many experts consider the single most profound reduction of nuclear weapons in arms control history and one that some believe has yet to earn him the credit he deserves.


With the Soviet Union collapsing, President Mikhail Gorbachev struggling to hold on to power and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty bogged down in the Soviet parliament, Bush ordered elimination of thousands of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, deactivation of 450 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and a halt to Pentagon development of new missile systems. On Sept. 27, 1991, Bush made his move without prior notification to Congress and with only a late request to Gorbachev to match it. In Cold War vernacular, he undertook unilateral arms reductions.


Comparable arms reduction pledges from Gorbachev followed nine days later, in what some described as an "arms race in reverse" that unquestionably reduced the potential for accidental nuclear confrontation and helped Gorbachev withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from parts of the crumbling Soviet Union. His action also laid the groundwork for the next arms treaty, START II.


The situation today cries out for a Bush-like action. Russia is in turmoil. Boris Yeltsin's hold on the government is unsteady. Moscow's control over what remains of the country's nuclear weapons and stockpile of fissionable material has to be bolstered by, ironically, the United States, but its overall security remains questionable.


While START I is in force, START II is stalled in the State Duma even as the Russian strategic air and naval forces scrounge for funds to maintain their land-based silo and mobile ICBMs and their strategic nuclear submarines.


At a time when President Bill Clinton's administration is trying to convince the Indian and Pakistani governments f as well as other countries f that they should not build nuclear weapons, the United States maintains thousands of warheads and strategic delivery systems, many of which remain at a 15-minute-or-less alert with almost no targets for them to aim at.


Like Bush, Clinton as commander-in-chief could order deactivation of the 50 MX ICBMs now on alert, each with 10 warheads; begin retiring half the 18 Trident ballistic missile submarines that each have 28 sea-launched ICBMs; and open the safety switches of the 500 Minuteman III missiles, with three warheads each, so that they would be temporarily immobilized. It would be a stunning move that would greatly strengthen our arguments against nuclear proliferation and encourage the signing of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty by nuclear nations, such as India and Pakistan, which last month expressed receptiveness toward the pact.


What's to stop Clinton from doing what Bush did? Political realists would argue the obvious: That with impeachment hanging in the air, the president was taking a dramatic step to divert attention. But Clinton's opponents and many in the media will say that about everything the president does, whether it's air strikes in Kosovo, a new step toward Middle East peace, or taking a long-planned overseas trip.


Then there are Republicans who not only dislike Clinton but also oppose taking any further arms control steps with the Russians until they ratify START II. They have pushed Congress to put language in the past few Pentagon authorization bills, and the fiscal 1999 measure, that would prohibit the spending of any funds to dismantle U.S. strategic weapons under the treaty until the Duma acts on it.


There is support for unilateral action. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, just back from a nongovernmental conference on disarmament in Russia with that country's nuclear scientists, backed such a reduction of strategic arms. McNamara said the Russians have turned to a first-use of nuclear weapons strategy because their armed forces have collapsed and they fear a U.S. first strike. "They would respond," he said of the Russians, "because they know nuclear weapons are not the answer to their problems."


McNamara said that he and others could put together a package that would be acceptable to the Pentagon and to Congress and which would elicit a favorable response from the Russians.


Today, because of financial troubles, Russia cannot sustain the 9,000 warheads on its strategic silo-based and mobile ICBMs, nor the 2,000 more in missiles on submarines. General Vladimir Yakovlev, chief of the Russian strategic rocket forces, said recently that 62 percent of Russia's ICBMs are beyond guaranteed service life, while Brookings Institution arms control specialist Bruce Blair estimates that usable Russian nuclear warheads could drop below 1,000 in less than 10 years.


Congress has recognized Russia's severe nuclear weapons problems. In the new Pentagon authorization bill, the legislators have provided funds to help the Russians dismantle their missiles and bombers as contemplated by the treaty, but not ours.


Bush's action came from a position of strength. It grew out of his determination to do something bold as a follow-up to the victory in Desert Storm and to keep his momentum heading into the 1992 presidential election.


In language that Clinton could employ, Bush announced the reductions by declaring that "If we and the Soviet leaders take the right steps f some on our own, some together f we can dramatically shrink the arsenal of the world's nuclear weapons. ? America must lead again, as it always has.''


Senior Clinton national security and foreign policy officials are looking for initiatives that could bring the president to center stage here and abroad on substantive issues. It could be a fitting challenge to Clinton's persuasive powers, first within his administration and then with Congress.


A major, unilateral reduction of warheads by the world's strongest nuclear power, while a big gamble for the president, would set an example worldwide.


Walter Pincus is a reporter on The Washington Post's national staff.