AFTER A DELAY of almost two years, the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) began yesterday in Helsinki. The event was barely noticed in this country, and SALT possibly qualifies as the most neglected offspring of the Nixon Administration. The President has scarcely mentioned it in public, being more preoccupied with Vietnam and inflation. One could at least expect him to be concerned about the expense of an arms race. A momentous project like arms control requires vigorous leadership from Washington, which, except for John Mitchell, is a vacuum of such leader ship at the moment.
The government has wandered into the talks without a single specific disarmament proposal. Gerald Smith, the director of the U. S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and our chief negotiator at Helsianki, has only the authority to cast out "ideas." Based on the Soviet reaction to the American ideas. he will draft proposals sometime in January or February. But the Soviets, headed by Vladimar Semyonoy, a Deputy Foreign Minister, are cagier for some kind of symbolic agreement, the earlier the better.
Hopefully, the Russians will continue to prod the Americans. If they have bothered to mention the talks up till now, U. S. officials have emphasized the need to negotiate from a position of strength. To insure the U. S. a position of strength, the President has graciously appointed several representatives from the Pentagon to assist Mr. Smith in the disarmament effort.
INFACT, the word "disarmament" is misleading. As Mr. Nixon put it back in April: "The arms talks that at least preliminarily have been discussed do not involve limitation or reduction. They involve only freezing where we are" Secretary Rogers has added that the U. S. wishes to "curb" the arms race, not reduce armaments.
The talks will focus on "strategic weapons." which the Administration has so far refused to define. Presumably, they include the new weapons systems whose deployment threatens to overturn the once stable "balance of terror." The most prominent of these systems is the MIRV (Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicle). Fitted to the majority of existing Minuteman and Poseidon missiles, MIRV would give the U. S. capacity to launch some 8000 nuclear warheads instead of the present 1700. Without an increase in quantity, the same number of missiles could individually pack up to nine additional warheads aimed at different targets. Faced with this multiplication of U. S. strike capacity, the Soviets began work on the SS-9 missile-which, in turn, served as the justification for our ABM program.
The MIRV brings advantage only to the attacker. As a weapon of defense, it adds nothing to the complexity of the target system which the offender has to penetrate. If perfected by more testing, the MIRVs and the SS-9 could make an arms freeze technically impossible. Unlike ABMs, they are difficult to detect and restrict. The size and shape of MIRVed missiles would be indistinguishable from the size and shape of single warhead missiles.
The U. S. negotiating position on MIRVs has been at best unclear and at worst, treacherous. When Nixon took office, he refused to suspend MIRV testing (which began in secret under McNamara) or seek an immediate mutual moratorium with the Soviets. Coincidentally, the Administration stalled the opening of SALT until the Pentagon completed the flight tests of the Minuteman and Poseidon missiles equipped with the MIRV system. Technological requirements outweighed diplomatic priorities. By going too far with the development and testing of MIRVs, the President killed in advance hopes of a mutual MIRV moratorium at Helsinki.
At this point, then, a weapons "freeze" is unlikely. A freeze would guarantee U. S. superiority. The Soviets would probably turn down an agreement which gives the U. S. a first strike capacity and the right to deploy Poseidon and Minuteman III missiles, both MIRVed. A limitation on ABMs would be easier to agree on and easier to enforce than an agreement on MIRVs. The Nixon Administration has offered to give up the ABMs if the Russians stopped work on the SS-9. It has declined to say that it would do the same if the Russians gave up their ABMs. In fact, the Nixon Administration has decided to continue work on both the MIRV and ABM systems regardless of what the Russians say-to protect us, of course, from the Chinese.
ONE MAY regard SALT. then, as a frivolous diplomatic exercise, which neither the Pentagon nor the White House are taking seriously, Why, then go to the trouble of arranging SALT? First, no one is going to that much trouble, SALT hardly possesses the significance of a genuine summit meeting, and the negotiators are almost nonentities. More sinisterly, the failure of SALT-designed for failure from the start-would give the Administration more excuse to pressure Congress for increased military spending. This is not, one must hope, a conscious motive. The government may actually be working for some limit, formal or informal, to the increase of ABMs. The ABM system is threatening to become enormously expensive. Quite apart from the basic cost of the new weapons. The deterrence principle requires sufficient "ABM-indestructible" weapons to penetrate ABM defenses.
Finally, the nuclear giants are reacting to pressure from the non-nuclear nations to begin serious talks. If these nations are to ratify the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty now pending (a treaty sponsored jointly by the U. S. and USSR), they will demand from both countries concrete assurances against a spiraling arms race.
As for SALT, then, the initiative goes to the Soviets by default. Their own military and technocracy may restrain efforts at statesmanship, but these efforts must be forthcoming in order to moderate the nuclear competition.