Washington — Critics of President Reagan's nuclear weapons policies claim that recent administration moves represent a step backwards for arms control. They say the United States and the Soviet Union may indeed be nearing an accord on limiting intermediate-range nuclear missiles, but that this is a secondary issue. On the more important question of strategic long-distance weapons, progress seems farther away then ever, these critics claim.
``We are in a downward spiral of decontrol of nuclear weapons,'' says Gerard Smith, chief of the US SALT I negotiating team.
Mr. Smith, at a press conference called by the Arms Control Association, said that in particular President Reagan's Monday speech at the UN contained fresh insults for the 1972 ABM Treaty, which limits construction of defenses against ballistic missiles.
In the speech Mr. Reagan said he was prepared to sign a new agreement that would limit ballistic defense work to research and development for the next five years. After 1991, if either superpower decided to deploy such defenses, it would be obliged to offer a plan for sharing its benefits with the other side. If sharing-the-wealth details could not be ironed out in two years, unilateral deployment would be legal, under the President's plan.
``Apparently President Reagan is proposing a substitute ABM Treaty,'' says Smith. ``Or are we going to have two at the same time? He used deliberately ambiguous language.''
When the administration first made strategic defenses a priority in 1983, Reagan was quoted as saying that he would share the fruits of the Stategic Defense Initiative's technology with the Soviets if it came down to deployment, and depicted a world in which both superpowers depended on defensive, instead of offensive, arms. By now using the more vague word ``benefits'' when discussing sharing, and by saying that defenses could be erected unilaterally, Reagan is making clear the US would forge ahead in this area over Soviet opposition, says Smith.
In his UN speech, Reagan made only passing reference to the issue of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), a virtual omission that critics at the Arms Control Association meeting took as a sign that negotiations on the subject may be getting serious.
``INF is the one area where significant progress might be made at a summit,'' says Spurgeon Keeny, Arms Control Association president.
Unlike the heavyweight area of strategic systems, INF is an area where the problem issues are more political than military, say the President's critics. In other words, Soviet SS-20s and US Pershing 2s do not play a crucial role in either side's contingency plans for actually fighting a war. Instead, both sides feel these missiles are necessary for acquiring political leverage over the other, and, in the case of the US, for demonstrating they will stand by NATO allies with nuclear arms.
Thus, reaching an INF agreement will depend on striking a deal in which both sides in essence feel they haven't lost face, and that keeps US allies happy.
ACA deputy director Jack Mendelsohn sees two key issues that must be resolved if an INF pact is to be signed. The first is the number of Soviet SS-20s allowed in Asia. The US would like to pare this number down, for the sake of Japan if nothing else, but the Soviets want enough of a residual force to intimidate China. The second important hurdle is verification of any pact. This could become a sticking point for relative hardliners within the Reagan administration.
But Mendelsohn notes that NATO seems able to issue relatively exact numbers on the SS-20s the Soviets now have -- meaning they might well be able to verify INF treaty levels.
A subsidiary issue that could complicate INF talks is the growth in Soviet stockpiles of shorter-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, such as the SS-21 and SS-22.
``The West Germans consider these missiles of particular significance,'' says John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. ``We will have political difficulties with them if we don't resolve it.''
The current pattern of superpower diplomacy is very confusing, notes Mr. Steinbruner. With the fate of the ABM Treaty in question and the advent of SDI, the superpowers face a fork in the road regarding their nuclear forces.
Both sides have strong incentives for restraint on offensive arms, says Steinbruner. The Soviets want the pace of technical change to slow down, as they lag behind the West in modernization. The US needs curbs to protect vulnerable space assests, both today's command and control satellites and any space defenses that might be deployed.
``If progress on minor things like INF is used to divert attention from these main issues, that would be ominous,'' says Steinbruner.