So far so good on SALT II signals. It looks as if no time will be lost in returning to the arms control efforts pursued by three US presidents and supported by a large majority of the American people. The Russians say they are willing to listen to new ideas on SALT II. President-elect Reagan says he will give high priority to achieving a new and better treaty. And Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, after talks with Mr. Reagan, says the two share the same views on arms limitation talks.
That there should be more continuity than discontinuity in this crucial area is not surprising. The world has no place to go but try to tame the nuclear behemoth. Mr. Reagan, too, has come around to conveying a less truculent, if nonetheless tough, position on US strategic policy. Still another telling signal is the fact that Charles Percy, new ahead of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is in Moscow talking with the Russians -- a trip planned before the election but apparently proceeding after consultation with the Reagan Team. A moderate Republican, Senator Percy has long been a supporter of SALT.
If the atmospherics are improving, this does not mean we know much about the direction future arms talks will take. We do know what concerns critics of SALT II: the fact that the treaty does not deal with the Soviet Backfire bomber, for instance, or the fact that the Russians are permitted to have 308 heavy missiles while the US is allowed none. Further concessions are wanted of the Soviet Union, yet the critics do not indicate what they think the US should be willing to give up.
Some arms experts feel Moscow might accept a provision allowing the US to build heavy missiles. It knows that, inasmuch as America's whole nuclear strategy is based on accuracy rather than size of missiles, it is unlikely the US would go ahead with a heavy version. But exclusion of the Backfire from the treaty itself (it ism taken up in a side declaration) was a US concession in return for the Soviets agreeing not to consider "forward-based systems' (FBS) in Western Europe, which include US nuclear-armed planes.
The Russians are keen to bring FBS into diplomatic play. They pursued the matter again at the recent talks in Geneva on starting negotiations on medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, including the USSR's SS-20 missiles targeted on Western Europe and the Pershing and cruise missiles which NATO intends deploying in order to counter them. What took place in Geneva is not publicly known. The issues are complex and sensitive. But it is clear thought will have to be given by the Reagan administration to the whole range of nuclear weapons affecting the East-West balance and what might be reasonably done to achieve an early agreement on SALT.
Thought will also have to be given to nuclear arms problems that have nothing to do with Soviet adventurism. It is shocking to read of the serious troubles the US Navy is having in building the Trident submarine. "The boat's a mess," a Pentagon official is quoted as saying, referring to thousands of poor welds, pipes and valves out of place, and other evidence of shoddy workmanship. Why is all this in the news now? Is there a military group that would like to see the Trident scrapped altogether in favor of a new generation of smaller subs? Such suspicions arise in the absence of hard facts.
But, whatever the truth, the failure of quality control over new defense equipment, the long delays in construction -- and the general industry, worker, and government apathy these simply -- are disgraceful. The "enemy," it seems, is as much within as without.