WASHINGTON — THE Bush administration isn't trying to slow down superpower long-range nuclear weapons talks, insists a top US government arms control official. Instead, by proposing that the United States and the Soviet Union begin inspecting each other's ballistic missile arsenals before strategic arms reduction talks (START) produce a treaty, the White House is taking an ``insider's approach'' to arms control, says Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) director Ronald F. Lehman II.
An emphasis on verification reflects ``the real tasks you need to get done.'' Other differences, such as whether sea-launched cruise missiles would be limited by a START pact, are ``end-game issues'' by comparison, Mr. Lehman says.
Critics in the US have blasted the verification-first scheme as a clear delaying tactic. The Soviets themselves haven't been so harsh, says Lehman, because ``in Geneva and Moscow they understand if you don't get this done you don't get a treaty.''
Allowing reconnaissance plane flights across each other's territory would be a large help in the START verification task, Lehman says. President Bush's resurrection in May of the idea of open skies, which would allow such flights, thus deserves more attention than it has received, insists the ACDA chief.
Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Karpov indicated this week that inspecting first and signing a START pact later is acceptable - if cruise missiles and bombers are included in the trial runs.
The point of this counteroffer is that the USSR is trying hard to get the subject of sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) on the START table. The Soviets favor limits on these small weapons, while the US says they are easy to hide and thus their numbers can't be adequately checked.
ACDA director Lehman says that compared to big ICBMs, cruise missiles aren't that important a nuclear force. Many SLCMs have conventional warheads, and those with nuclear tips are scattered throughout the US Navy. Unlike ICBMs, SLCMS would be ``difficult to orchestrate'' in a conflict, Lehman says.
Superpower verification of SLCM limits would necessarily involve highly intrusive visits to each other's warships. (See story, Page 8.) That's the real point of the Soviet interest in the subject, claims Lehman. ``It's part of their effort to get a handle on our Navy,'' he says.
Lehman, himself a strategic arms negotiator under the Reagan administration, says that a START pact could conceivably be wrapped up by next year.
Of the other main area of arms control now under discussion, conventional weapons, Lehman says that ``we've made more progress in the last four months than in the previous 15 years.''
In an effort to further speed progress, NATO allies presented their official, detailed proposals for conventional cuts to the Warsaw Pact in Vienna on July 13, two months ahead of schedule. The conventional force negotiations are recessing for the summer, and by tabling their proposal early NATO gives the Soviets two months to draw up their response.