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Destroy Warheads? This Is the START Of Something New

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 22, 1997; Page A01

If it becomes a treaty, the outline of a new strategic arms agreement announced yesterday by the United States and Russia would for the first time try to make nuclear cuts irreversible by guaranteeing that at least some of the old warheads are destroyed instead of stockpiled for possible future use.

The promise is given in a joint statement issued at the Helsinki summit between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin that commits the two nations to include provisions in a new treaty, to be called START III, that require "transparency" and warhead "destruction." This is the arms control argot for letting the other side watch while warheads are sent to the trash heap or otherwise rendered permanently unusable.

Despite glowing rhetoric from the two leaders in Finland, political rivals back home made clear that parts of the agreements would face domestic opposition.

In Russia, criticism from Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and other hard-liners underlined the risk that START III would never get off the ground, because negotiations on the pact are to begin only after ratification by the Russian parliament of an earlier nuclear arms reduction agreement, START II. Yeltsin pledged yesterday to press for such approval, but opposition to the treaty has been fueled in part by plans going f orward for NATO to expand into Eastern Europe.

In Washington, Republican conservatives immediately complained about another agreement reached yesterday defining battlefield missile defense systems permitted under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Many in the GOP favor accelerated development of such "theater" missile defenses and oppose restrictions on them.

The new plan for START III calls for steps to make permanent the limitations called for by two major nuclear arms reduction agreements negotiated earlier by the two countries: START I in 1991 and START II in 1993. At present, the treaties are slated to expire after 15 years.

In another novel development yesterday, the two sides agreed to consider applying the principle of "transparency" to the plutonium extracted from nuclear weapons, helping to ensure it cannot be used later to form the explosive guts of new weapons that could be manufactured if relations ever turned highly sour.

The aim of the new plan is to correct in the next arms control treaty what critics have called a major deficiency of the START I and START II accords, namely that neither accord actually required the destruction of any nuclear warheads.

Instead, partly because both nations were nervous about moving too rapidly to reduce their nuclear arsenals and partly because they were sensitive to the security implications of allowing intensive scrutiny of how they handled these weapons, the accords called only for destruction of the means to deliver some of the nuclear arms held by the two nations.

The earlier accords called, for example, for the wings of certain strategic bombers to be clipped off by an agreed date, for the filling up or withdrawal of tubes that hold some of the nuclear-tipped missiles that could be launched from submarines, and the blowing up of various land-based silos that could be used to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

With no language relating to the warheads themselves, the treaties effectively allowed each side to retain thousands of nuclear weapons that are currently in storage as a deliberate hedge against the advent of a new Cold War. Although each side claims to have dismantled thousands of warheads since the late-1980s, neither side is certain today of precisely how many such weapons remain because all of this work has occurred in secret, without any mutual inspections.

"This is really quite significant," Robert S. Norris, a nuclear weapons specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the plan to require "transparency" of warhead destruction and residual arsenals in START III. "If all of this is successful, it will prevent the retention of secret stockpiles which engender distrust."

A senior U.S. official who participated in the negotiations that led to yesterday's agreement explained that with arsenals of deployed weapons to be limited to 2,000 to 2,500 warheads in a new START III agreement -- instead of the 3,000 to 3,500 warheads allowed by START II -- both governments had recognized the increasing security risk posed by allowing unmonitored stockpiles of stored weapons.

An unstated U.S. concern behind yesterday's agreement is that old Russian warheads kept in storage after being taken off strategic missiles or bombers might eventually be subject to theft by terrorists or illicit sale to nations in the Middle East or elsewhere.

In a separate agreement related to nuclear arms yesterday, the two nations agreed on where to draw the line between a national missile defense system, which is restricted by the ABM treaty, and increasingly powerful "theater" systems for guarding against a shorter-range missile attack, which do not come under the treaty's purview.

The Clinton administration has tried for several years to negotiate with Moscow a clearer distinction between the two kinds of systems in order to avoid any perception that the ABM treaty was being violated. But congressional Republicans have disputed the need for a demarcation agreement, worrying that any deal would end up placing too many limits on development of either theater or strategic missile defenses.

The agreement announced yesterday outlined terms for a deal still to be finalized that would restrict the capabilities of theater defenses to a demarcation standard defined earlier in the Senate. That is, the Pentagon's fastest, longest-range theater systems would remain exempt from ABM treaty coverage as long as they were not tested against a missile with a range greater than 3,500 kilometers or a velocity greater than 5 kilometers/second.

But other terms went farther than some congressional experts had expected by including a provision "not to develop, test or deploy space-based TMD [theater missile defense] interceptors." The agreement also stipulated that both sides "will exchange detailed information annually" on their theater defense plans and programs.

Although administration officials said the agreement still would permit the United States to proceed with all six antimissile systems under development, GOP missile defense experts in Congress assailed it as an unwarranted and unacceptable set of constraints on possible new technological breakthroughs.

"The ABM treaty was not designed to impose limits on our theater missile defense systems, only on national defense systems," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a leading missile defense proponent. "Imposing limits on interceptor speeds, which the president continues to support, will inevitably result in the future dumbing down of theater missile defense systems, putting the lives of our soldiers overseas at greater risk."

Clinton made no mention yesterday of whether he intended to submit the missile defense agreement to the Senate for ratification. Whether he is required to do so has been another point of bitter dispute between congressional Republicans and the White House.

"The Congress has expressed itself repeatedly in both houses that we didn't want the president to engage in these agreements," said Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), the Appropriations Committee chairman. "He's kept these as secret as he possibly could. We knew they were negotiating them, but we had no idea they would sign off on agreements to virtually leave us defenseless against anyone who's not a party to them."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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