WASHINGTON -- It was the United States, not the Soviet Union, that insisted that only medium-range missiles, not their warheads, be destroyed under a new treaty, administration officials said Monday.
Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci and Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to head off a complaint about the treaty as the Senate Armed Services Committee opened hearings on the accord.
The two top officials praised the treaty, but warned improvements are needed in NATO's conventional defenses, with or without a treaty.
They also said the pact does not bar the United States from modernizing battlefield-range nuclear weapons not covered under the treaty.
Crowe said the pact can be verified and cheating caught before it becomes militarily significant, and added:
'The (joint chiefs) have concluded that on balance this treaty is militarily sufficient and also adequately verifiable. In turn, they believe that this accord is in the best interests of the United States and its allies and strongly recommend its ratification by the U.S. Senate.'
And Carlucci, defense secretary for only a few months, said: 'The INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty does not exacerbate NATO's defense needs; it highlights the risks of neglecting them. NATO's most painful challenge will continue to be providing adequate resources for defense. And let us be clear on one point: The INF treaty will not save us money. With or without an INF treaty, we need to remedy NATO's long-standing conventional shortcomings. This means sufficient funds for defense.'
Crowe and Carlucci argued against linking treaty approval to upgraded NATO defenses or progress on any other defense issue. Carlucci said any concrete linkage would effectively kill the treaty.
The treaty calls for the destruction 2,619 deployed and reserve missiles and support equipment. In some cases, warhead casings would be destroyed but the basic warhead could be returned to national stockpiles. The missiles have ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. On-site inspections would be permitted for verification purposes.
Questioned by Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., about the warhead issue conservatives have sought to raise, Carlucci said Moscow suggested destroying the warheads but Washington resisted because verification would be difficult, and because of U.S. difficulties in producing weapons-grade nuclear materials.
'It was done at our behest,' he said, noting that warheads, timers and guidance parts can be retained. 'It's in our interest to be able to retain the physics package.'
Carlucci also insisted that the treaty's potentially controversial Article 14 does not preclude U.S. and NATO efforts to modernize nuclear weapons with ranges under 500 kilometers, or 300 miles.
He was sharply critical of a statement this month in West Germany by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that moderinization of the weapons would scuttle arms progress so far and cannot be permitted.
'There is nothing in the treaty to prevent the modernization of those systems of under 500 kilometers. They are not covered. This is a propaganda effort and it's directed at some of our allies ... that may be less than enthusiastic about the modernization program.'
This position 'certainly has been made clear' to the Soviets, said Carlucci.
The defense secretary said the United States would not discuss battlefield-range weapons until strategic nuclear missiles, chemical weapons and conventional imbalances have been addressed.
He and Crowe said the military advantage of the treaty comes from removing airfields, war materiel stockpiles and port facilities from the threat of short-notice nuclear attack.
Carlucci and Crowe were both asked if war in Europe were to start the next day, would they want the treaty, and Carlucci replied: 'Yes, we would want it. We gain militarily. ... This treaty is a net plus militarily for us.'
Crowe declared, 'The chiefs want it.'
In opening a series of 25 hearings on the treaty, Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., said his panel will look at where NATO stands in its security goals, what should be done in the future and how NATO can best meet the goals.