Following the successful INF negotiations, the United States and the Soviet Union have been actively discussing radical reductions to their nuclear arsenals. Yet serious obstacles stand in the way of an agreement on strategic nuclear weapons reductions.
As a precondition to deep cuts, the Soviets demand that the U.S. abandon its proposed "broad" reinterpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Such a reinterpretation would terminate the treaty within ten years. The Soviets propose a 15-year moratorium on strategic defence research outside the laboratory, and on the development and deployment of strategic defences. This would kill President Reagan's Star Wars project.
The Soviet Union has an opportunity to break the negotiations deadlock by adopting the "Sakharov" approach, partially delinking strategic reductions and Star Wars. Soviet scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov has suggested that the USSR could agree to strategic reductions without further ado about SDI. It need only announce at the outset that it would withdraw from the agreement if the U.S. proceeds too far with its work on a space-based ABM system. This announcement would increase political pressures in America to halt Star Wars and to proceed toward a deep reductions agreement. There are signs that the Soviets may be adopting this "Sakharov" strategy.
There is no magic, however, in the reductions proposed by either side at present. It is, in fact, possible to have fewer nuclear weapons, yet a more dangerous situation. Deep cuts might increase the proportion of an adversary's weapons that could be destroyed with a single warhead, thus creating incentive for a first strike. Any agreement should give priority to eliminating destabilizing nuclear weapons - those with short flight times, short detection times, and accurate multiple warheads.
Vulnerability to first strike will exist as long as modernized nuclear weapons are exempted from reductions - as the U.S. proposal would have it go. A study by the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security shows that both U.S. and Soviet reduction proposals could - with ongoing modernization -sharply increase the first strike capabilities of both superpowers, especially that of the United States. This is particularly so if the U.S. continues to resist incorporating a comprehensive test ban and flight test ban into a reductions agreement.
Simon Rosenbium is a researcher for Project Ploughshares.