Washington — NATO's intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) are weapons that were born to be expendable. United States allies in Europe agreed to host these missiles with the fervent hope that their act of will would impress the Soviets and lead to a treaty limiting INF numbers. Recent developments in the Geneva arms talks indicate this scenario may indeed come to pass.
``An agreement on INF is certainly not out of the question,'' notes Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force general who was President Ford's national-security adviser.
For months, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that INF was the most promising area of the current arms negotiations. News leaks over the weekend hinted that both US and Soviet negotiators have now made major concessions in this area, though large obstacles remain.
Published reports indicate that the US, for its part, will propose that each superpower cut its arsenal of medium-range missile warheads to 200. The Reagan administration had previously proposed either reducing the INF count to zero, or to numbers much higher than 200. The new position is more in line with what the Soviets have been calling for.
Meanwhile, Soviet negotiators reportedly will stop insisting that the nuclear weapons of Britain and France be included in any count of NATO intermediate forces. The Soviets have been making a similar claim for years in arms negotiations, conveniently dropping it when things really begin to get down to business.
To understand the significance of these developments, it is necessary to step back and look at how and why NATO's intermediate-range forces -- composed of 572 warheads on Pershing 2 and cruise missiles -- were deployed in the first place.
As with so many of the West's nuclear weapons, INF was a calculated response to a particular Soviet move. In the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union began replacing outmoded missiles with the new SS-20, a three-warhead weapon that is both mobile and far more accurate than its predecessors.
Western European leaders began to worry that the potency of the SS-20 was making less credible NATO's threat to respond with nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet invasion, and so they called for a US countermove.
This was fine with then-President Jimmy Carter. After much intra-alliance squabbling and wringing of hands, in 1979 NATO leaders agreed to the so-called ``two track'' decision: deployment of new Pershing 2 and cruise missiles on European soil, and a concerted effort to negotiate an arms agreement that would make those very weapons moot.
In the complicated theology of Western strategists, it was not fear of NATO's INF as a weapon per se that would drive the Soviets to an agreement.
Many experts say the Pershing 2s and cruise missiles are actually of only marginal military use. Both have less range and nuclear punch than the Soviet SS-20s. Neither are capable of threatening Soviet targets that aren't already held at risk by other weapons, such as nuclear-armed aircraft or long-range missiles in the US.
``In no case would they actually be good war-fighting instruments,'' says Jeffrey Record, a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.
Instead, the West banked on the Soviets being impressed by the NATO solidarity demonstrated by INF deployment. One of the Soviet's long-range foreign policy goals is to split Western Europe from the US with promises of a springtime of d'etente, notes Barry Blechman, president of Defense Forecasts Inc.
But in accepting Pershings and cruise missiles on their soil in the face of concerted domestic opposition, West Germany and other US allies were in effect telling the Soviets that they were not interested in such blandishments.
``INF was necessary as a political response,'' says Mr. Blechman, who was a foreign policy official in the Carter administration.
The Reagan administration's first arms proposal regarding INF was the so-called ``zero option'' -- ``we'll get rid of all of ours if you get rid of all of yours.'' This move went nowhere. In 1983, Moscow in essence walked out of the Geneva arms talks to protest NATO's INF deployment, which was then beginning.
After talks resumed, the US proposed that each side retain a relatively large number of INF warheads.
The Soviets made a counteroffer, and the two sides have been moving closer ever since, while apparently making little progress in other areas such as large strategic missiles.
A number of thorny problems remain. If the Soviets will indeed drop its demand on counting British and French nuclear forces, that would remove one.
Another is the Soviet force of SS-20s east of the Ural Mountains, aimed at Asia. The Soviets have resisted cuts in these forces, saying they have nothing to do with what goes on in Europe.
The US wants reductions, both because the mobile missiles could be hauled west in wartime and to reassure allies such as Japan.
The new US proposals reportedly make some concession on this point, by asking for a proportionately smaller reduction in Asian SS-20s.
The final large problem is verification of any INF agreement. The spy satellites used to verify strategic agreements may not be enough in this case, at least, not enough to satisfy the Reagan administration.
The US may demand some sort of on-site inspection, a technique the Soviets have traditionally resisted.
The just-concluded agreement on troop movement notification includes on-site inspection, however, and observers note the pact could set a precedent on this issue.