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START: many nights at the round table

By Elizabeth PondStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 1982


The United States hopes to push Soviet nuclear missiles out to sea and thus enhance stability (and America's considerable superiority in submarines).

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The Soviet Union hopes to forestall a further surge of American technology.

And each side hopes to convince the Western antinuclear movements that it is the sole purveyor of peace in the superpower world.

These are some of the strategic aims of the US and Soviet negotiators as they sit down to Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) that opened here in plenary session June 30.

The real seriousness with which the two sides are negotiating cannot be judged until they have fully laid out their initial positions and revealed their flexibility or rigidity. This won't happen for at least half a year.

For now, however, the moderates on both sides are in charge.

On the American side this is measured by the State Department victory over Defense Department hard-liners a cliffhanging 11/2 days before President Reagan's May 9 Eureka College speech setting forth the American arms control position.

Thus, in the in-house Reagan administration settlement reached May 7, the Defense Department failed to win not only its proposed warhead figure but also its insistence on using nuclear weapons' ''throw weight'' - in which the Soviets hold a better than 2-to-1 lead in megatonnage - as a main ''unit of account'' in defining the START goal of Soviet-American equality.

The goal of equal throw weight was relegated to a ''second stage'' - and the relation of that stage to the first one that is now being negotiated was left ambiguous.

The first stage of the United States proposal therefore utilizes as units of account missiles (as in previous strategic arms agreements) and warheads (a new unit).

On the Soviet side, moderation is measured by the abandonment of the Kremlin's earlier refusal to negotiate with the US at all until Washington ratifies the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) signed by presidents Carter and Brezhnev in 1979.

Soviet moderation is also signaled in Moscow's merely criticizing the new Reagan proposal for radical missile and warhead reductions - and not rejecting the offer outright. The Kremlin did angrily reject the first surprise US proposal for deep cuts made by President Carter in 1977. Various Soviet diplomats have suggested to Western contacts that in retrospect the Russians think they made a mistake then.

The Reagan proposal currently being proposed would not immediately equalize the 9,480 American and 8,040 Soviet nuclear warheads, since it leaves aside those nuclear weapons carried on heavy bombers. What the US proposal seeks to do instead is to reduce by a third each side's 7,500 warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Within the overall ballistic missile ceilings of 850 and ballistic missile warhead ceilings of 5,000, it further seeks especially sharp reductions in the single most accurate and lethal (but at the same time most vulnerable) weapons, the land-based ICBMs. This category would be limited to no more than half of the total permitted warheads, or 2,500.