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Still needed: a strategic arms control proposal

By Alan NeidleAlan Neidle, a former official of the US Department of State and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, has participated in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. He is a member of the Committee for National Security, a public-interest organization concerned with defense policy. / June 22, 1983

President Reagan is being praised for ''flexibility'' in modifying US positions in the strategic arms talks with the Soviet Union. Many hope that the President's June 8 announcement significantly increases the prospects for a concrete arms control agreement with the Soviet Union.

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Unfortunately, the President's announcement appears to constitute mainly tinkering with some of the numbers in the existing American START proposals. There will not be a real prospect for agreement until the United States thinks through, and adopts, an integrated set of practical goals. The US needs a coherent policy which interrelates all key elements - feasible reductions, balanced restraints, workable verification, and a long-range negotiating framework.

''Flexibility,'' by itself, and tinkering with a few numerical limits, will not fill the bill. The value of flexibility obviously depends on the nature of the changes that have been made - and those that have not been made.

Reagan makes much of his decision to relax an American proposed limit for each side of 850 deployed ballistic missiles. This decision is supposed to reflect a shift in emphasis toward limiting warheads rather than missiles. This change is also designed to permit, in 10 or 20 years, a large number of the small American missile known as Midgetman.

However, the American START proposal contains many other numerical limits, some specifically on numbers of warheads, and there is no indication that they have been changed.

The US has proposed, for example, that each side limit the number of warheads on its land-based ballistic missiles to 2,500. The Soviet Union now has about 6, 000. It has therefore been asked to undertake a reduction of approximately 60 percent. The US, on the other hand, now possesses only 2,100 such warheads. Consequently, it could increase its arsenal of such warheads by about 20 percent. These figures, incidentally, pertain to the area of weaponry which the Reagan administration has declared to be most dangerous and destabilizing - at least when possessed by the Soviet Union - land-based, highly accurate, multiple-warhead missiles.

It takes little political savvy to see that a proposal such as this one is likely to be accepted by the Soviet Union, to use Khrushchev's famous phrase, ''when shrimps learn to whistle.''

Moreover, the President has not indicated any change in some other limits specifically pertaining to Soviet missiles. The US position also called for a reduction of over two-thirds in the number of SS-17s, 18s, and 19s - the largest and most modern Soviet missiles which together carry about three-quarters of the total Soviet land-based warheads. These proposals also are nonnegotiable.

Of course, all of these numbers could become the subject of further tinkering. But they were put forward in the first place as a reflection of an impossible objective - to bring about a revolutionary transformation in Soviet forces. Moscow was to be ''permitted'' to strengthen its submarine launched forces, at gigantic expense, while being required to carry out cuts of roughly two-thirds in its heavy land-based missiles.