WASHINGTON -- President Bush ordered a dramatic reduction in U.S. nuclear forces last night, saying the collapse of communism called for a safer, more selective approach to U.S. defense strategy.
As a first move, he ordered the strategic bombers that have been on alert around the clock since the 1950s in case of nuclear attack to stand down and return their weapons to storage.
He also ordered nuclear weapons removed from most U.S. warships and said that all short-range nuclear warheads would be withdrawn from Europe and destroyed.
In a 25-minute Oval Office address, the president called on Soviet leaders to match those steps and join him in a new round of arms control negotiations aimed at the eventual elimination of land-based, multiple-warhead missiles, which he called
the most dangerous and destabilizing weapons on either side.
"If we and the Soviet leaders take the right steps -- some on our own, some on their own, some together -- we can dramatically shrink the arsenal of the world's nuclear weapons," Mr. Bush said. "Now is the time to seize this opportunity."
The president said that he had already discussed his proposals with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and that their initial reactions were "positive and hopeful."
Described as a "historic turning point" in defense tactics that were designed for global confrontation, the president's new strategy was prompted by the opportunities and dangers arising from the upheaval in the Soviet Union following the failed coup against Mr. Gorbachev in August.
The defeat of conservative forces in the democratic revolution that followed the coup attempt is expected to make bargaining with Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin easier, arms control experts said.
At the same time, however, experts warned that the continuing political turmoil in the Soviet republics added a new urgency to dismantling nuclear weapons that might fall into the wrong hands.
Mr. Bush's initiative comes at a time when the Soviets ar desperate for food aid to get them through the winter and long-term economic assistance.
It also works to shore up Mr. Gorbachev and other Soviet reformers by demonstrating the benefits of the partnership they have formed with the West.
"New leaders in the Kremlin and the republics are no questioning the need for their huge nuclear arsenal. The Soviet nuclear stockpile now seems less an instrument of national security and more of a burden," Mr. Bush said.
The president might also reap domestic political benefits from the weapons cutbacks, since he is facing increasing pressure from Congress to shrink the share of taxpayer dollars going to the Pentagon.
But he said there would be no immediate savings and appeale to Congress not to cut the defense budget being debated in a House-Senate conference committee.
"In the near term, some of these steps may even cost money," the president said.
Mr. Bush also continued to defend two of the most controversial proposals in that budget, the B-2 stealth bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as "star wars."
"The peace dividend I seek is not measured in dollars but in greater security," Mr. Bush said.
If the Soviet leadership meets his challenge on the weapons cutbacks, further cooperation is "inevitable," Mr. Bush said. If that does not happen, a "historic opportunity will be lost," he said.
Some of the unilateral steps Mr. Bush announced last night might even be reversed if the Soviets failed to reciprocate, a senior administration official said.
In some cases, Mr. Bush's proposal would simply accelerate weapons cuts already agreed to in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that he and Mr. Gorbachev signed in July, a few weeks before Soviet hard-liners tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the Soviet leader.
That agreement, which for the first time called for deep cuts in strategic nuclear arsenals, took nine years to negotiate and did not cover all forms of nuclear weapons.
But the new negotiations Mr. Bush called for would eliminate some of the nation's most lethal nuclear systems, including the 50 silo-based MX missiles, which have 10 nuclear warheads apiece, and the 500 Minuteman III missiles, which carry three warheads each.
The Soviets would be required to destroy counterpart missiles.
In a major policy shift, Mr. Bush also called for removal of all tactical nuclear weapons, including nuclear cruise missiles, from surface ships and attack submarines.
The United States has resisted most controls on sea-based nuclear arms except for informal limits on cruise missiles.
Not included in the sea-based cuts, however, are sea-launched ballistic missiles, which the administration considers to be among the least destabilizing weapons because they are mobile and therefore unlikely to attract a first strike.
Land-based naval aircraft would be stripped of all nuclear weapons, and the president urged the Soviets to take similar steps.
Mr. Bush also urged the Soviets to join in "immediate steps" to permit limited deployment of non-nuclear defenses against ballistic missiles, "whatever their source," an early opening to deployment of "star wars."
A senior administration official said the United States was not seeking to break the 1972 anti-ballistic missile accord, but at least one arms control expert said the treaty would have to be overhauled or broken if Mr. Bush's proposal was to be implemented.
Spurgeon Keeny, president of the Arms Control Association, said the Soviets might view Mr. Bush's "star wars" proposal as "an effort to gain fundamental military superiority."
Early congressional reaction to Mr. Bush's speech was generally favorable, although Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, faulted Mr. Bush for failing to suggest cuts in conventional forces that would save more money in the near future.
"The initiatives announced tonight serve a political purpose," Mr. Aspin said. "It was necessary to show to the American people that the administration recognized it was a different world, [but the proposals] leave the president's most prized weapons systems intact."
The Bush initiative resulted from a directive he gave Pentagon officials shortly after the Soviet coup and included several proposals that had been discussed informally for more than a year, a senior administrative official said.
But Mr. Bush's televised address was hastily arranged, and its timing surprised many people here.
Guests who were scheduled to arrive at the White House for a 7:45 p.m. movie were told yesterday that they would have to make it another time.
Charles Black, a Republican consultant with close ties to the White House, noted that the speech came on a "Friday night, when everybody's out at high school football games. You can tell the political guys weren't in the planning for that one."
The president's arms initiative
The United States will:
* Scrap all nuclear artillery and short-range ballistic missiles overseas.
* Remove all--and destroy many--tactical nuclear weapons, including nuclear cruise missiles, from surface ships and attack submarines.
* Take all U.S. long-range bombers off 24-hour alert and store their weapons. In return, the Soviets are asked to confine their mobile land-based missiles to their shelters.
* Take all land-based ballistic missiles slated for deactivation under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty off alert status immediately.
* Cancel deployment of 50 silo-based MX missiles on rail cars. Base the single-warhead Midgetman in silos.
* Cancel development of short-range missiles for basing in Europe.
* Seek talks with the Soviet Union to eliminate all land-based ballistic missiles with multiple warheads.