By Donella Meadows
–January 14, 1988–
In their debate in Hanover last week the Republican candidates raised a question that’s been bothering me for weeks. What will happen to the nuclear bombs that are to be removed from Europe under the INF treaty?
I’ve been going around asking ever since Reagan and Gorbachev signed the agreement, and I’ve been getting all sorts of answers. The weapons will be scrunched up and buried, some people said. They’ll be made into more bombs, said others. Lots of people told me they had been wondering themselves.
The Republican debate didn’t exactly clear up the question.
Pat Robertson led off by claiming that the treaty requires the elimination of MISSILES only. Then he read a quote in which George Bush said that we are going to eliminate 1600 Soviet WARHEADS for 400 of ours. He concluded, “When the Vice President of the United States doesn’t know the difference between a missile and a nuclear warhead, we are in some serious danger.”
Bush: “We are taking out 1600 to 400 of theirs.”
Robertson: “Of their what?”
Bush: “Well, of their, their vehicles that can blow people up, their bombs.”
Robertson: “No, not bombs, no bombs, that isn’t true.”
Bush: “Inside one casing you can have several vehicles, multiple reentry vehicles, that can blow people up.”
Robertson: “Not one warhead will be taken out and every one of those SS-20 warheads can be fitted onto SS-25 launchers.”
(Confusion. Bush and Robertson talk simultaneously about warheads, launchers, and blowing people up. John Chancellor, trying valiantly to bring the meeting to order, calls on Alexander Haig.)
Haig: “I think it’s important that we do know. There are no nuclear warheads eliminated in this agreement. Those warheads go back to national inventories. What we’re doing away with is the launchers. Now in the case of the Soviet Union those warheads are remarkably compatible with a far more dangerous and technically effective system, the SS-25, which can hit not only Western Europe as the SS-20s did, but the United States.”
The debate lurched off to other topics, and I still didn’t know what to believe. So I called the most reliable source of weapons data I know, the Center for Defense Information in Washington DC. Retired Rear Admirals Gene LaRocque and Eugene Carroll told me that Haig was correct as far as he went — but he only told half the story.
The INF agreement does call for destruction of missile launchers, not bombs. By the terms of the agreement the bombs can be refabricated and fitted onto other launchers. It is possible that the Soviet Union may mount them onto SS-25s.
What Haig didn’t say is that the United States can and will re-use its warheads too.
We will pull out about 300 ground-launched cruise missiles, but we are currently mounting 758 cruise missiles on 190 ships and submarines, about 20% of which will be stationed off Europe at any one time. We are installing from twelve to twenty cruise missiles on each of 194 B-52 bombers. The bombs we retire from Pershing missiles will probably be refabricated into new warheads for Trident II submarines or MX missiles.
The INF treaty will by no means leave Europe free from nuclear weapons. There remain 400 warheads on Poseidon submarines always available to NATO and at least 4000 U.S. nuclear warheads in Europe on artillery shells, short-range missiles, and fighter planes. That doesn’t count the British, French, and Soviet tactical nuclear forces.
The INF agreement, in short, will not reduce the risk or the potential devastation of a nuclear war in Europe or anywhere else. The stock of weapons is scheduled to go on growing. On the U.S. side the major effect of the recycling of INF weapons will be to put off for awhile the necessity of expanding the Savannah River plant where new weapons-grade nuclear materials are made.
Why, with all the hoopla of the summit, with all the print space and broadcast time devoted to this agreement, has the American public not understood the simple fact that both sides are planning to redeploy these weapons?
Because it is to the advantage of the weapons contractors, the Republican party, and the military hawks that we not understand, said the Admirals. Was there any point at all, then, to the INF treaty?
Yes, they said. The very existence of the treaty, especially its promotion by a conservative President, legitimates the process of arms control. The willingness of the Soviets to eliminate four times as many weapons as we do is indisputable proof of their seriousness. Their agreement to extremely rigorous verification procedures is even more significant; it paves the way for future agreements.
Above all, said Admiral LaRocque, the negotiations, the agreement, and even the hoopla have helped to break down the ignorance, fear, and distrust of each superpower toward the other. First the atmosphere, the relationship, the way we think about each other has to change. Then the weapons will change.
The INF agreement has not reduced the number or the danger of nuclear weapons. But it may be the beginning of the end of the war — the cold war — for whose sake those weapons exist.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988