Events following each other in quick succession are making the prospects of a superpower arms pact appear bleak, at least for now. United States Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, meeting in Vienna last week, were unable to construct any sort of arms control framework from the debris of the Iceland mini-summit.
No further negotiations will occur for months. At the end of this week, the regular Geneva arms talks forum will be adjourned for the year.
Before then, if plans proceed, the US will have broken the arms limits of the frayed SALT 2 treaty.
``It'll happen presumably sometime toward the end of the year,'' Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger told a small group of reporters Thursday.
In fact, the violation is expected to occur early this week, according to published reports. The vehicle for the US breakout will be the 131st old B-52 bomber to be renovated into a carrier for nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. When this plane is deployed, the US will have surpassed the SALT 2 limit of 1,320 cruise-missile carrying bombers and launchers of multi-warhead ballistic missiles. This particular plane is being worked on at Kelly Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, according to an Air Force spokesman.
The plane has been rolled out from under cover and been test flown, which means the US is in technical violation of SALT, according to some interpretations. US officials claim, however, the limit won't be breached until the plane is delivered to its operational base.
As Reagan officials are quick to point out, SALT was never ratified by the Senate. If it had been, it would have expired by now. In any case, they say, the Soviet Union is blatantly violating the signed-and-ratified ABM Treaty.
Critics reply that the US has more to lose than gain by going past SALT limits. They note that the Soviets have for the most part been careful to stay within the weapons limits of SALT by scrapping old weapons when new ones are deployed - something that adds more to US security than the Soviet ABM violations subtract.
``Soviet treaty violations are not militarily significant,'' claims a congressional source who opposes the US surpassing of SALT limits.
The Soviet Union will soon have the opportunity to break out of SALT 2. Sometime next year, it is expected to begin deploying the new rail-mobile SS-24 ballistic missile, pushing past the sublimit of 820 on launchers of multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles.
When that happens, they could destroy old SS-11 silo-based missiles to stay within the pact. But if the US has surged past SALT limits, the USSR is likely to follow suit, say administration critics.
In 1987, a number of old Polaris missile-launching subs are scheduled for overhaul. Scrapping one, instead of refurbishing it, would send the US back below SALT numbers.
There was little surprise in Washington that the Shultz and Shevardnadze meeting produced no substantive agreement. US arms experts had hoped the foreign ministers could codify the progress made in Reykjavik and move forward.
But in recent weeks it has become less clear what that Iceland progress was, and indeed what President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discussed at all.
In the immediate wake of the mini-summit, attention focused on SDI as the main point of disagreement. Then came public Soviet insistence that President Reagan had agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons as an immediate goal. US officials replied that even if the President did leave that impression he was only speaking informally.
The real US negotiating goal, said officials, was elimination of nuclear ballistic missiles. At this point America's NATO allies began getting very nervous.
They have a love-hate relationship with the protection afforded by the US nuclear umbrella, and they decided that things had gone too far.
In recent days British and West German representatives have practically been going door-to-door in the Pentagon, saying the sudden elimination of ballistic missiles - let alone all nuclear weapons - would leave Europe less secure.
In short, with Shultz and Shevardnadze not getting anywhere, arms negotiations suddenly look like a mess.
``It's pretty black stuff going on right now,'' says James Rubin, research director of the Arms Control Association.
It will be January before the Geneva arms talks reconvene and negotiators can try to overcome the evident confusion on both sides.
US arms experts worry that the Soviets will use the time and impasse to launch yet another public relations offensive designed to woo the publics of western Europe toward their policies.