WASHINGTON — TODAY in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna an army of diplomats begin a new session in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) talks, one of the most complicated arms negotiations of the post-World War II era. The talks, aimed at reducing the large European militaries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, have made significant progress this year because of steps by President Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The current session may be time for the professional negotiators to sit down and fill in the blanks of political leaders' proposals.
``This fall the job is to work through a lot of the details that have been put on the table,'' says Stanley Sloan, a Congressional Research Service arms analyst.
A general framework for reductions is already in place. Under a CFE pact, both sides would reduce heavy and potentially offensive pieces of military equipment such as tanks to levels slightly below that of current NATO stocks.
Exact numbers for all weapons categories have yet to be agreed to. And obstacles to a CFE treaty remain. ``Probably the toughest ones are aircraft and stored equipment,'' says Jay Kosminsky, a Heritage Foundation defense analyst.
Aircraft. NATO, pushed by President Bush, made a significant concession earlier this year by agreeing to include aircraft in the CFE talks. But the Western allies and the Warsaw Pact have yet to agree on exactly what kinds of aircraft should be limited.
The Warsaw Pact wants to curb planes that attack ground targets, while excluding interceptors used for air-to-air combat. Moscow defines most NATO aircraft as ``strike,'' while excluding roughly 9,000 Pact planes as ``interceptors.''
NATO wants to limit combat aircraft generally, saying that it's not fair for the Warsaw Pact to exclude so many of its own planes. NATO also maintains that most ``interceptors'' can be configured for ground attack anyway.
Stored equipment. The United States keeps large amounts of military equipment in storage in West Germany and other European locations. In time of crisis, NATO could thus be quickly reinforced by just flying in US troops.
NATO proposals in the CFE talks are designed to allow the US to keep its European weapons storage, and to encourage the Warsaw Pact to warehouse large amounts of its own equipment. But the Soviets do not have quantities of mothballed weapons in Europe, and their CFE proposals contain ``stationing limits'' and ``zone limits'' that would greatly restrict US storage.
Today marks the opening of the third CFE session since the talks began in March. A closing date has not yet been set, but the session will probably last six to eight weeks, says a US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency official.
The complexity of the talks can be seen in the fact that there are more than 100 NATO negotiators in Vienna to help work on CFE. The US delegation alone varies from 12 to 20, not to mention all the translators, secretaries, and communications specialists needed to support a mammoth multilateral negotiation. (As of this writing, Ambassador Stephen Ledogar was still US chief US representative to the talks. It has been widely reported in recent weeks that Mr. Ledogar will be replaced by Washington lawyer James Woolsey Jr.)
NATO's internal protocol is also complex. NATO chairmanship of CFE working groups rotates among nations by alphabetical order - in French. For purposes of the rotation, United States is 'Etats Unis, for instance.
Keeping NATO in line may be a tall order. The proposed aircraft limits are one point of dissension: Britain and France were not happy about aircraft being included in the talks at all.
``We could wind up having a much tougher set of negotiations with our allies than with the Warsaw Pact,'' says the Heritage Foundation's Mr. Kosminsky.