NOW THAT NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT is becoming plausible, military analysts are saying we can't afford it.

Influential strategists like Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, are breathing a sigh of relief that proposals put forward at the Iceland summit were not acted upon. Specifically, he feels that elimination of strategic ballistic missiles over a 10-year period would have been costly and unwise.Our West German and British NATO allies tend to agree. They see the loss of nuclear cover as potentially threatening, especially if no accompanying agreements are reached on the levels of chemical and conventional arms. The trouble is money. Nuclear arms are relatively cheap solutions to the problems of global security. The alternative would be massive increases in levels of conventional forces to counter the numerical superiority of Soviet troops and tanks in Europe and Asia.

Missiles are high-tech. But conventional forces are even higher priced, Sen. Nunn and others argue. Until the West is ready to ante up, it has no business trading its security for a scrap of paper, the argument goes.

The debate over cost of conventional weapons is at least 40 years old. It goes back to the first and last use of atomic weapons on civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then it was said that a protracted campaign to conquer the Japanese mainland would cost tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of American lives. President Truman bought the strategy of dropping the atom bomb as an economy measure. It would cost Japanese lives and save American lives, which is what the sad business of the war was all about.

A generation later, we are none the wiser. Certainly, the allies are correct in saying that an isolated settlement on nuclear arms will entail risks. For years, we have operated on the deterrent principle, allowing our conventional forces to decline to peacetime levels.

The problem for negotiators may be much more than simply finding a way to turn back the clock 40 years to defuse the nuclear threat. The problem is to find a solution to the age-old threat of war itself, and that is an impossible task.

The critics are right to say that nuclear arms control cannot be negotiated in a strategic vacuum. But they are wrong to delay progress in nuclear arms control with the argument that all issues related to conventional war must first be settled before disarmament can proceed. If we wait to find an answer to the problem of war, we will wait for arms control forever, and that we cannot afford.

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