As the United States and Soviet Union grapple for a way to slow the arms race, Reagan administration officials acknowledged this week that one type of nuclear weapon is so out of control that effective limits appear impossible: sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM), commonly called Slickems.
Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said in an interview that SLCM's were excluded from President Reagan's arms-control proposal last month because neither Washington nor Moscow has devised "a sound way" to verify how many each side has and whether the missiles are nuclear-tipped. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) calls the weapons "the untouchable" of arms control, adding that a solution to curbing their proliferation "isn't there."
In flight after being fired from a ship or submarine, the Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile hugs the sea or land, similar to a drone jet. It can sink ships or attack land targets. The missile can carry either a conventional or nuclear warhead without any change in the weapon's external appearance.
Many arms-control specialists are distressed that the Reagan administration is making no attempt to negotiate limits on SLCMs. They warn that the superpowers will be less secure as the missiles proliferate and say they could be as destabilizing as multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which complicated arms control in the early 1970s when both sides were putting numerous nuclear warheads atop individual missiles. For example, Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr., president of the Arms Control Association, said the United States is more imperiled by SLCMs than is the Soviet Union because of the number of large American coastal cities within range of Soviet cruise missiles.
Eugene J. Carroll, a retired Navy rear admiral who serves as deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, said letting the Navy develop a nuclear SLCM with a range of more than 1,200 miles gives the United States unnecessarily redundant firepower against land targets which can already be destroyed by U.S. land-based and submarine-based missiles.
Low-flying SLCMs also threaten any antimissile defense, such as Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative program, which envisions a shield primarily against ballistic missiles raining down from space, added Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Reagan administration officials concede the point but say that stopping cruise missiles would be left to U.S. fighter planes and antiaircraft missiles.
The proliferation of SLCMs could require the spending of billions of dollars to bolster antiaircraft defenses, many experts believe. Such concerns, however, have generally been pushed aside as the superpowers concentrate on achieving reductions in the more-menacing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
When the superpower summit convenes in Geneva Nov. 19, the United States will have no proposal in its arms-control package concerning SLCMs, Adelman said. The Soviets, he added, have proposed banning all cruise missiles, both sea- and air-launched, with a range greater than 360 miles, an idea rejected by the administration as unverifiable and disadvantageous.
The arms control conundrum of verifying whether SLCMs are carrying nuclear warheads has led to proposals to allow each side to inspect the other's cruise missiles before they go to sea. However, Adelman said, "it would take just a cartridge" -- which could be provided by supply ships on the high seas -- to swap a conventional warhead for a nuclear one.
The Navy plans to buy 3,994 Tomahawk cruise missiles by 1994 for $14 billion from General Dynamics Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. The Tomahawk SLCMs have been installed on submarines and battleships, with ultimate plans to arm 106 submarines and 91 surface ships, including destroyers, with the missiles. Of that total, 758 would be nuclear-armed. The Soviets also have hundreds of SLCMs.
The issues of who started the cruise missile race and who is winning is hotly debated today. Public documents show that the Navy believed almost 30 years ago that it was ahead of the Soviets in this race. In 1956, the Navy had a cruise missile, Regulus I, deployed on two submarines and four cruisers and was working on an improved version, Regulus II, which was canceled in an economy move.
On Dec. 16, 1957, Rear Adm. John E. Clark, head of the Navy's guided missile division, had this exchange with Edwin L. Weisl, chief counsel of the Senate permanent investigating subcommittee and Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.), the committee chairman:
Weisl: Do you consider two submarines equipped with Regulus I sufficient?
Clark: I do for Regulus I, yes sir.
Johnson: What knowledge do we have as to the status of Soviet naval type missiles?
Clark: We have considerable knowledge.
Johnson: Are we ahead or behind them?
Clark: I think that generally we are ahead, Mr. Chairman