Yogi Berra's phrase "deja vu all over again" best describes the current controversy surrounding START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. Critics of the emerging agreement are distorting its provisions to argue that it resembles the ill-fated SALT II accord, the flawed and unratified strategic arms treaty negotiated by the Carter administration in the 1970s.
But times change, and so do arms control agreements. Unlike SALT II, the United States, with START, has not had to settle for second best in arms control. In fact, a brief review of the new treaty demonstrates that we have achieved all of our priority objectives in the talks.
The result is an agreement that will promote stability, predictability and transparency in the superpower nuclear relationship:
Stabilizing reductions: START will be the first strategic accord to actually reduce both sides' nuclear arsenals, resulting in at least a 30 percent overall cut in ballistic missiles, heavy bombers and deployed nuclear warheads.
Critics have been quick to point out that this is less than the 50 percent reductions promised when the talks got underway in the early 1980s. But this ignores the fact that Moscow, under the new treaty, will cut back by one-half those categories of nuclear capability of most concern to the United States -- numbers of large SS-18 "heavy" missiles, overall numbers of warheads on ballistic missiles and, perhaps most important, ballistic missile throw-weight, a measure of Soviet capability to deliver nuclear payloads against U.S. targets.
These far-reaching limits, taken together with less stringent counting rules for bomber armaments, will have the effect of creating powerful incentives for the Soviet Union to place less reliance on destabilizing land-based missiles in favor of greater numbers of more secure bombers and sea-based missiles. This has long been a goal of U.S. arms control policy, and its attainment is a significant achievement.
Cruise missiles: Another achievement is the accord's treatment of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, which until recently were two of the most vexing issues in the talks. The United States not only has an important edge in these small, high-tech weapons, but because they are relatively slow-flying, they do not threaten strategic stability by posing a first-strike threat.
START thus imposes flexible limits on cruise missile deployment. The air-launched systems are "discounted" in the accord, meaning that while the United States is permitted to deploy up to 20 cruise missiles per bomber, a planeload will count only as 10 against the 6,000 ceiling on overall numbers of nuclear warheads.
Sea-launched cruise missiles, or SLCMs, meanwhile, are not even limited in the treaty. In a separate political statement, the United States is prepared to state that its number of nuclear SLCMs will not exceed 880 -- a ceiling with more than enough room to accommodate the Navy's existing deployment plans.
Moreover, the treaty permits the United States to develop and deploy long-range, conventionally armed cruise missiles, in both air- and sea-launched versions, without counting them as nuclear systems.
Verification: START represents a virtual revolution in guaranteeing treaty compliance. The two sides are now putting the final touches on a comprehensive program of on-site inspections, data exchanges and cooperative measures to enhance verification.
The treaty's unprecedented package of inspections includes "suspect site" short-notice inspections, continuous monitoring of mobile missile production facilities, inspections to verify warhead numbers on ballistic missiles and a ban on encoding missile telemetry information.
Not surprisingly, START's critics have tended to gloss over these features of the accord in favor of focusing on the sexy subject of Soviet SS-18s and the possible threat they pose to the U.S. land-based missiles. Here, the allegation by Paul Nitze, Richard Perle and others is that the Bush administration, by permitting Moscow to engage in a limited modernization of the SS-18, has engaged in a negotiating "sellout."
This is a curious charge, to say the least. First, no system in START is as tightly constrained as the SS-18. In addition to agreeing to cut its force in half -- from 308 to 154 -- Moscow has also agreed not to deploy a mobile version of the SS-18 nor to replace it with a new type of heavy missile. Second, Moscow's ability to upgrade its SS-18 force by deploying a new version of the missile, the Mod 5, will not compensate for a 50 percent cut: even with modernization, Moscow's force of heavies will be less threatening after START than before it.
Finally, to the extent that U.S. land-based missiles face a first-strike threat, it should be noted that nothing in START prevents the United States from responding to the first-strike threat by deploying mobile, land-based missiles. Strangely, while Perle says he is concerned about the SS-18 threat, he has come out against Bush administration plans for railroad mobility for the MX missile and against its proposal for the road-mobile Midgetman missile as well.
Implicit in much of the criticism directed against START is the view that nuclear arms control is somehow a favor to the Soviets. In the past, this was based on the not incorrect belief that Moscow -- with superior conventional forces and a stronger geographical position in Europe -- had more to gain than Washington in seeking nuclear limitations. But with Soviet conventional power declining and with Moscow in strategic retreat in Europe, the time has come to scrap the conventional wisdom about strategic arms control
Indeed, feeling exposed in Europe and facing an increasingly severe economic crunch at home, Moscow could come to view nuclear weapons as the most effective way of projecting Soviet power in the 1990s. Heading off such an outcome could be START's most important contribution in the decade ahead.
The writer heads the American delegation negotiating a START agreement.