The Defense Department's chief arms control official said yesterday that in his "personal view," the United States should break out of the SALT II agreement rather than retire nuclear forces to conform to its limits.
Richard N. Perle, the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the SALT II strategic arms limitation agreement, which was signed by the United States and Soviet Union but not ratified by the Senate, should not be observed beyond its expiration date of Dec. 31, 1985.
Although President Reagan will make the decision on whether to continue to observe the missile and bomber limits in SALT II, Perle's testimony represented the furthest any administration official has gone in such a public forum toward renouncing the agreement signed by President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1979. In another public statement last week, Perle had said it was "a peculiarity of Americans" that, to demonstrate good faith, "we should abide by a treaty that the Soviets are violating." Perle has been the most influential Pentagon official on arms control issues since the early days of the Reagan administration.
Reagan campaigned against the SALT II treaty in 1980, calling it "fatally flawed." But after taking office in 1981, he announced that his administration would continue to respect the limits it set on superpower arsenals as long as the Soviet Union did the same. The Soviets publicly said they would do so.
To stay within the treaty's limits, Reagan would have to retire a Poseidon submarine, which carries 16 missiles capable of carrying up to 14 nuclear warheads each, when the new Trident missile submarine Alaska goes to sea in late September. The Trident carries 24 multiple warhead missiles.
Besides the impetus provided by the new Trident, the administration is being driven to make a decision on future adherence to SALT II by a congressional requirement to file a report in June on the consequences of continuing to observe the limits. The treaty limits both superpowers to 1,200 multiple warhead missiles, of which no more than 820 can be land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Administration officials and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are writing position papers on whether sticking with SALT II would increase or decrease the security of the United States. Perle, long an opponent of SALT II, got out in front yesterday with his own case against the agreement.
If the limits remain in effect after 1985, Perle said, the United States -- because of the new weapons it has coming into service -- would have to retire a "significantly larger number" of nuclear missiles than the Soviets over the next two r three years.
He added that "I don't expect" Soviet forces to grow any faster without SALT II than with SALT II "as the Soviets interpret the treaty." For the United States to continue to comply with SALT II after 1985, Perle said, "would have the profound liability of essentially resolving our compliance concerns without the Soviets taking corrective action." Perle was referring to charges repeatedly made by the Reagan administration that the Soviets have violated provisions of SALT II and other earlier arms agreements.
The net effect, Perle said, would the setting of a "double standard" for complying with "a treaty that the administration and this committee" have concluded "is not in the national security interest of the United States. So it seems to me on both military and political grounds it's very difficult for me to justify continuing these limits beyond the date on which they were to expire" when SALT II was signed.
"If the Senate is to conserve its constitutional authority to ratify treaties," Perle continued, "then it would be unwise to permit the de facto construction of treaties in the absence of ratification. Let me hasten to say that this is a personal view."
None of the senators present at yesterday's committee hearing, chaired by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), leaped to the defense of SALT II, although Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) had a sharp exchange with Perle.
"I'm amazed you're still part of this administration," Kennedy told Perle. "I'm just surprised you continue to put up with it. When are we going to get some kind of policy from this administration on these matters? Your testimony about Soviet violations is very eloquent but very repetitive."
"Frankly," Perle told Kennedy, "it's not clear to me how, after having voted to freeze the defense budget, one then can turn around and accuse the administration of fecklessness in responding to violations when the most obvious way to respond is by the deployment of our own forces."
"Do I understand, then, that your general response, then, is that we're going to deal with all these violations by an additional percentage of income for defense?" Kennedy asked.
"Maybe you have some terrific idea you've not shared with us," Perle replied after saying the violations have been taken up extensively with the Soviets. "I'd love to hear it."