WASHINGTON -- In a largely symbolic move that could reduce the dangers of accidental launchings, the Pentagon has drafted a plan to aim the United States' nuclear missiles at desolate spots in the open seas and is talking with Russian generals about how to put a mutual pledge to "detarget" into effect.
During the Cold War, the pressing question for the targeting experts at the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., was how many nuclear warheads to aim at Russia's missile silos and military bases.
But for months now, these officials toiling in underground command centers have been working on another top-secret task: figuring out how to aim the hundreds of missiles in America's nuclear arsenal away from Russia.
"If somehow a missile is launched accidentally, the idea is that it would come down in the Arctic or North Atlantic, and our main worry would be maybe hitting a bunch of whales," said one American general involved in the planning.
Planners have identified about two dozen target sites in all the world's oceans.
Administration officials said the measure would not be easily verifiable or policed by inspections and could be reversed in minutes in case of a crisis, but would be an important gesture nonetheless.
"We're trying to build the same kind of trust that we have with other countries," said one senior military officer involved in the planning. "We don't worry about where French or British nuclear missiles are pointed. We're thinking of doing this so we aren't having to sit there on a hair trigger with the Russians."
The extent of the American military's work on changing the targets has been kept under wraps in the hope that President Clinton can announce it with great fanfare at the January summit conference in Moscow or at a later diplomatic meeting.
The idea of re-aiming the superpowers' arsenals was put forward by the Russian president, Boris N. Yeltsin, who surprised the Bush administration and much of the Russian military by proclaiming in January 1992 that Russian long-range missiles would no longer be aimed at American cities.
While the Bush administration politely welcomed the sentiment, Mr. Yeltsin's statement was not taken at face value by experts in Moscow and Washington. Aleksei Arbatov, a Russian arms-control specialist, said Russia's long-range missiles were never aimed specifically at American cities, but rather at American missiles, military installations and industrial complexes.
Despite Mr. Yeltin's pledge, Russia's Strategic Rocket Force has not changed its targeting practices, Mr. Arbatov said. But the idea of changing targets had some appeal for the Strategic Command, which controls the U.S. long-range nuclear arsenal, and it began to explore the concept in the summer of 1992.
The Strategic Command is headed by Gen. Lee Butler, a four-star officer who formerly served as a top aide to Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
General Butler assigned much of the planning to Maj. Gen. Robert E. Linhard, who serves as the command's director of plans and policy and was a key staff officer on arms control issues for the National Security Council in the Reagan administration.
"We see ourselves with the military challenge of handling the disengagement period after a fairly long struggle between two well-armed superpowers," General Linhard said last spring.
The Strategic Command went through a brainstorming exercise, drafting three dozen options, some of which were modest, like ways to ease uncertainties about how each nation conducts nuclear drills.
Others, like removing nuclear warheads from most missiles and storing them, went beyond steps that most generals and policy-makers are prepared to take now.
Clinton administration officials say they are willing to carry out the plan only on certain conditions.
First, the Russians must also agree to re-aim their missiles and provide an explanation of how this would be done.
Second, the change in targets must be part of a broader set of measures to reduce nuclear tensions. This reflects the recognition that the proposal is largely symbolic.
The goal is to aim missiles away from not only Russia, but the rest of the former Soviet Union and, eventually, other countries as well, officials said.