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NUCLEAR ARSENAL BECOMING REDUNDANT

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There are two debates echoing around Washington on the matter of defense spending and relations with the Soviets.

The more exciting one concerns the cuts in future defense budgets. The second is the old, grim, difficult and deeply boring question of SALT and START and MIRVs and heaven-knows-what-else that keeps the disarmament industry happy.Unfortunately, this being Washington, these two arguments are conducted on different pages of the newspaper and in different corners of the government - which is silly, because really they are the same thing. What we need to ask is what are the dangers to national security these days, and how should we face up to them?

That would be the sensible, intelligent, rational thing to do. In other words, something deeply alien to the Washington mentality. What we have instead is a bitter argument, in one corner, over whether one company builds one plane or another company builds another, while Congressman A and Congressman B squabble bitterly over whose ox gets gored (that's a favorite Washington metaphor). Meanwhile, in another corner, American and Soviet experts are arguing over how many bombs are allowed on each missile, and where to put them.

Now you see why the first argument is exciting while the second glazes the mind with a thick layer of impenetrable varnish. It really matters, to real live voters, whether Lockheed or Rockwell or McDonnell-Douglas survive the cut. That means whether Seattle or Los Angeles or St. Louis stay in the air business.

But really the two arguments ought to be heard together. Consider submarines. The Soviets propose that no missile on a submarine can carry more than one warhead. That's their answer to an American proposal banning land-based missiles with multiple warheads - things like the MX (which carries 10 warheads) or the Minuteman, which carries three. This is an important issue: the missiles with their multiple warheads, MIRVs, are the most dangerous weapons in existence.

But the United States has invested billions in submarines to carry MIRVed missiles, the latest being the Tridents. Even abruptly stopping building more would be a devastating blow to General Electric, which builds them in Connecticut. Scrapping the super-missiles would make the Trident submarines (and the previous models, the Poseidons) redundant, far too big for their mission.

So before we go any further, ought we not to consider what the nuclear deterrent is for, in these piping days of peace?

Same thing goes for Stealth bombers, "Star Wars," and all the trundling, clanking apparatus of the U.S. Army. Let's take it from the top. The United States, for more than 40 years now, has prepared for two sorts of war with the Soviets: a conventional war, like the last couple, with armies battling in Europe and navies hunting each other through the oceans; and Armageddon, with nuclear missiles lobbed over oceans and deserts towards Moscow and Washington.

Now the Soviets are pulling out of Eastern Europe, and dismantling their armies and equipment. If they now intend to give up East Germany, Poland and the rest, and it's quite clear that they are, it's a bit improbable to imagine that they have any hidden intention to come raging back to reoccupy them and then press on westward. In other words, World War III in Europe has been indefinitely postponed.

So we don't need all those super-sophisticated tanks, artillery, guns, helicopters, etc. And what about the nuclear weapons? The worst-case scenario, ending in nuclear holocaust, usually began with a war in Europe, or intolerable tension there. The West insisted on keeping nuclear weapons in reserve in case there was no other way of stopping Soviet armies rushing toward the Atlantic. But if there will be no war in Europe, what do we need the full panoply of nuclear weapons for?

The only rational answer is that some irreducible minimum is needed, just in case some future Soviet leader goes berserk, and a token deterrent against the loonies like Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The rest of the entire arsenal, submarines and MXs, are redundant.