The Reagan administration's reluctance to move ahead expeditiously on strategic arms negotiations is worrisome -- and puzzling. Eugene Rostow, nominated to head up the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency suggests that formal talks with the Russians may not resume until March 1982. That is a long nine months. As a concerned Senator Charles Percy notes, that hardly squares with President Reagan's campaign pledge to scrap the unratified SALT II treaty and start new negotiations "immediately." How can the delay be justified?
We are puzzled by it because it seems to fly in the face of the administration's overriding economic objectives. Mr. Reagan seeks to breathe new life into the economy and achieve a balanced budget by 1984. Yet more and more doubts are raised that this can be accomplished along with a simultaneous sharp rise in military spending. The administration contends that the nation can bear a $1.3 trillion defense budget over five years without fueling inflation. It points, for instance, to the fact that there currently is considerable slack the economy.
But Wall Street is not alone in reflecting skepticism about Mr. Reagan's economic assumptions. Many analysts see strains developing if defense spending is not brought under control. The Morgan Guaranty Survey, for instance, observes that the economy could be running closer to capacity in 1982 and 1983 when the impact of defense spending begins to be felt. It warns that the industrial base which now sustains defense production is much smaller than it once was and that therefrom bottlenecks could develop in the key defense industries, pushing up costs and prices. The aeroscope and shipbuilding industries, for instance, already have a shortage of skilled engineers and technicians which is expected to intensify wage pressures as the defense industry gears up for more production.
Is the administration studying its defense plans with the same vigor and attention to detail it has brought to its economic program? Or will it find down the road, as have past administrations, that its projected costs for military items turn out to be underestimated and that even that $1.3 trillion figure needs to be revised upward? Given the fact that defense spending is so intertwined with budget stability, the administration ought to be tackling this side of economic reform with greater focus and more intensive planning than yet seems evident.
Since such a long lead time is needed in the procurement of weapons, it is difficult under the best of circumstances to calculate ultimate costs. It is even more difficult when there is no certainty in the strategic arms competition. At the moment both superpowers have tacitly agreed to abide by the terms of the SALT I agreement and the unapproved SALT II pact. But a nine-month delay in returning to the negotiating table risks inviting Soviet impatience, a conscious or unintended violation of these treaties by either side, and a revving up of the nuclear arms race -- with harmful consequences for the administration's domestic revitalization program.
There are many other reasons, of course, why new SALT talks should not be long postponed. Mr. Reagan is incurring not only Leonid Breshnev's displeasure but the unhappiness of the European allies. The talks on theater nuclear weapons, which are scheduled to begin this fall, are directly linked to SALT. The West European have agreed to accept American nuclear missiles on their soil to counter the Soviet missile buildup only on condition that the US and the USSR reach an agreement on strategic weapons. Without SALT, it is doubtful the administration's plans for a strengthening of theater forces can go forward.
There is also the paramount problem of reining in the arms race before technology overtakes the prerequisite for any agreement: namely, verification. Defense analysts already warn that weapons now in the pipeline -- ground- and air-launched cruise missiles, the Stealth bomber, and others -- will not be monitorable because they are outrunning Soviet surveillance capabilities. When neither side has confidence it can monitor the adversary's nuclear arsenal -- the USSR will also be spurred to develop weapons which the US similarly may not be able to detect -- it will become difficult if not impossible to agree on a limitation or reduction of arms.
President Reagan should set Mr. Rostow to work on nuclear arms negotiation with the same urgency of purpose he gave to Mr. Stockman on the economy. March is too late a target.