Naval Arms Control: An Idea Whose Time Must Never Come


On the face of it, negotiated limitations on the freedom of movement, flexibility of operations or size of naval forces are incompatible with the interests of a nation like the United States with global interests and an acute dependence upon maritime power to protect them. By contrast, a continental power like the Soviet Union — one far less dependent upon sea lines of communication (SLOCs) for its security and whose principal military challenge is the interruption of the West’s use of such SLOCs in time of conflict — has every interest in achieving naval arms control agreements.

Not surprisingly, Moscow has sought for years to pressure the United States government into negotiating accords that would, to various degrees, limit the number, type, range, quality or operating areas of naval forces. "Sanctuaries" for ballistic missile submarines, keep-out zones, limits on sea-launched cruise missiles and bans on various types of tactical nuclear weapons have been hardy perennials of Soviet diplomacy.

Recognizing that such constraints are utterly incompatible with American interests, successive U.S. administrations have firmly resisted this Soviet sirens’ call. In recent months, however, the Kremlin has found the Bush Administration extremely pliable on a variety of arms control issues — especially where the Kremlin has made acceptance of its positions a prerequisite for progress.

For example, in the face of Soviet demands, Secretary of State James Baker last September abandoned the Reagan position that the START treaty should ban mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, even though the effect of doing so will be enormously to complicate the verifiability of that agreement. Similarly, the United States has in recent months dropped its opposition to Moscow’s call for short-range nuclear forces talks, agreed to include aircraft limitations in the conventional arms negotiations and abandoned its insistence that a chemical weapons ban be verifiable. In each case, the desire to meet Soviet demands, accommodate Gorbachev’s needs and/or reach agreement before he is swept from power appear to have been determinative considerations.

The Latest Soviet Gambit

On 8 May, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, formerly the Soviet Union’s top military officer and now a senior advisor to Gorbachev, appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee to publicize Moscow’s latest pronunciamentos about naval arms control. According to the Washington Post, Akhromeyev told the Committee that:


    …U.S.-Soviet negotiations to reduce strategic nuclear weapons and conventional forces in Europe will come to a standstill unless the Bush Administration agrees to discuss limitations on tactical nuclear weapons at sea and reduction of naval forces by both superpower navies.

He added that U.S. willingness to begin such talks "is today one of the decisive preconditions for the improvement of relations between our countries…." Such Soviet assertiveness is doubtless inspired by its recent past negotiating successes; more worrisome still, it may reflect some signal from the Bush Administration that it is prepared to give ground to the Soviets on this arms control front, too.

The Dangerous, Asymmetrical Effects of Naval Arms Control

The Kremlin appreciates that naval arms control will impose a variety of asymmetrical constraints upon the American fleet — the most visible instrument of the United States’ worldwide power and the guarantor of U.S. commitments to far-flung allies. These include the following:

Impact on American Presence, Military Options

Typically, as tensions have mounted in one area of the world or another — notably in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Far East, the United States has responded by increasing its naval presence in the region. In this manner, carrier battle groups, battleships and other naval and Marine assets have rapidly demonstrated a tangible American interest in the outcome of any incipient conflict — frequently serving thereby to deter the initiation or to influence the course of actual hostilities. Such forces tend also to increase enormously the range of military options available to policymakers in Washington.

Consequently, negotiated limits that would cap or otherwise constrain Washington’s ability, for example, to insert naval units into the Mediterranean at will would directly and adversely affect vital U.S. flexibility and power projection capabilities. Inevitably, the equities of allied nations in the area would be adversely affected over time.

New Stresses in Alliance Relations

Not surprisingly, recognition of this reality would likely produce new and divisive strains between the United States and those allies who rely upon American naval power (especially to ensure the safe arrival of U.S. reinforcements and to safeguard their out-of-area interests, e.g., NATO members and Japan in the Persian Gulf).

Just how great would be the adverse impact of such a development on intra-alliance relations is difficult to calculate with confidence at this point due to a number of imponderables. Would, for example, the damage be limited to a heightened sense of abandonment by the United States on the part of key allies, leaving in its wake concerns about a strategic power vacuum and the need to accommodate the Soviet Union or other threats? Or would it serve to encourage unfriendly states actually to pursue aggressive designs against regional adversaries allied with the United States — in the expectation that an American response would be greatly circumscribed by Washington’s treaty commitments?

Complicating Overseas Base Negotiations

At the very least, a naval arms control accord can be expected to exacerbate further already difficult bilateral negotiations with nations hosting facilities vital to U.S. operations in areas littoral to the Soviet Union (e.g., Greece and the Philippines). Such an agreement would likely provide Moscow with significant new standing as an interested party in such negotiations and leverage in discouraging their completion on terms favorable to the United States.

Adverse Budget Impact

A U.S.-Soviet naval arms pact will also intensify pressure on the Navy’s budget for developing, building and maintaining adequate military capabilities. Even in the absence of such an agreement, Pentagon analysts and congressional committees are drawing up plans for reducing significantly the size of the American fleet. According to press reports, these include reductions to fewer than 500 ships and perhaps nine or ten aircraft carriers.

If, by way of example, the numbers of American ships permitted in the North Sea, North Atlantic, and Mediterranean were to be constrained by a new agreement, influential voices in the Bush Administration’s Office of Management and Budget, on Capitol Hill and in the press inevitably will aver that still further cuts are in order. The net effect will be greatly to worsen existing, serious shortcomings in the Navy’s ability to meet U.S. commitments.

Special mention in this connection should be made of the likelihood that the United States’ naval sealift capabilities will continue to decline. In the overall context of a shrinking U.S. fleet and bilateral undertakings concerning its operations, it seems utterly implausible to believe that the current, wholly inadequate levels of American maritime transport will be corrected — even though, in the aftermath of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) talks, a still greater premium is likely to be placed on the shipping needed to reinsert on the Continent large numbers of U.S. forces and vast quantities of materiel.

Undermining U.S. Qualitative Advantages

As adverse as the effect of bilateral naval arms control may be on the overall numbers and operational flexibility of the U.S. Navy, worse still could be such an agreement’s impact on the pursuit and exploitation of key technologies that contribute so critically to preserving the United States’ qualitative edge over the Soviet fleet. While such a result is an altogether too common product of U.S.-Soviet arms control efforts, in few areas is the effect likely to be more decisive.

Case in Point: SLCMs

An excellent example of this phenomenon may be found in the matter of limitations on sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs). These missiles — essentially pilotless aircraft capable of high accuracy delivery of nuclear or conventional ordinance over long distances from a variety of surface and subsurface naval platforms — represent a powerful force-multiplier for the U.S. Navy. In fact, SLCMs permit virtually every combatant ship in the inventory to enjoy a crucial capability which once resided exclusively in the relatively small number of aircraft carriers: the ability to defend itself and to project naval power over great ranges by holding at risk enemy shipping and targets ashore.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the imposition of constraints upon U.S. SLCMs has long been a high priority goal for the Soviet Union. For many years, the USSR demanded that strict numerical limits on the number of American sea-launched cruise missiles be included in the emerging Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

In February 1990, however, the Kremlin signalled a willingness to accept a less stringent arrangement (i.e., a separate, "politically binding" declaration concerning the numbers of SLCMs deployed by each side) in the START agreement with at least the expectation — if not an explicit bilateral understanding — that the issue would be addressed more satisfactorily in a so-called START II accord or in future negotiations on naval arms.

In the past few weeks, however, Moscow has evidently decided once again to insist upon more exacting constraints on both the number and quality (i.e., "future types") of sea-launched cruise missiles. Past practice suggests that this is merely part of Moscow’s "endgame" negotiating strategy, designed — under the pressure of artificial, summit-imposed deadlines — to leverage more satisfactory terms from the United States.

Whatever the explanation, the ultimate purpose is clear: The Kremlin intends, if not in the present negotiations then in some future ones, to prevent the United States from fully exploiting the technological promise of SLCMs for a variety of naval missions.

Misguided Sympathy For Moscow’s Ruse

Unfortunately, Soviet efforts to constrain U.S. naval capabilities, in general, and American SLCMs, in particular, play well in certain Western quarters. Some — like former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Crowe — find compelling the Soviet argument that no weapon system or area of military activity should be "sacrosanct" from arms control. Among these are a number of arms control enthusiasts who are, illogical as this might seem, determined to limit SLCMs precisely because the technology involved is so difficult to control.

In short, naval arms control is an excellent example of the degree to which weapons limitation or reduction agreements have become ends in themselves. Far from being judged by their utility as means to the ostensible goal of promoting U.S. security and reducing the threat posed to the Nation by the Soviet Union (or other adversaries), such accords have come to be justified largely on political or diplomatic grounds. This fact should come as no surprise. After all, how else could the negotiation of an agreement that would actually worsen the United States’ relative ability to contend with foreign threats be judged a net plus for this country?

Don’t Give Up the Ships

The escalating Soviet campaign for naval arms control is, in reality, simply an invitation to disaster for U.S. interests — and for those of allied nations whose security depends upon reliable American control of the sea lanes for peacetime communications and commerce and for resupply and reinforcement in time of war. It amply illustrates, moreover, the abiding willingness of the Soviet regime, even under the ostensibly benign leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, to enlist arms control and popular sentiment in ways calculated to erode the deterrent capabilities of the United States.

Consequently, the Center believes that the Bush Administration and Congress should continue to rebuff Soviet efforts to engage the United States in naval arms control negotiations. The threat that such negotiations are a precondition for other talks or decisive to the future course of U.S.-Soviet relations should be dismissed out of hand. This is no more plausible a position than the USSR’s contention that the deployment of INF missiles to Europe would precipitate Armageddon.

Similarly, with respect to Moscow’s efforts to encumber sea-launched cruise missiles in the START talks, under no circumstances should the United States go beyond its stated willingness simply to declare the number of SLCMs that are in the inventory. Agreed limits or other constraints on SLCMs — either as an integral part or outside of the START treaty — would be totally unacceptable.

Finally, the Center feels that Gorbachev’s naval arms control proposals also suggest one other key point for American policymakers: The United States permits its policies and energies to be diverted away from effecting the urgent, genuine, radical and lasting transformation of the Soviet Union at its peril. Bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements — especially those that are so transparently disadvantageous to the United States in their impacts — are exceedingly unlikely to contribute helpfully to such a transformation. They are, instead, most suited to fostering a climate in which that radical restructuring can be forestalled and a significant Soviet threat maintained, if not strengthened in relative terms.

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