Are Soviets retreating on INF?

Soviet ``shuffling'' has complicated negotiating a limit on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), a senior Reagan administration arms control official claims. The official says the latest shuffle of Soviet negotiators is an apparent retreat from a pledge to include shorter-range nuclear missiles in any INF agreement.

``They take two steps forward and three back,'' he says.

Interviewed on the condition that his name not be used, this official paints a relatively hard-line picture of Soviet behavior and prospects for arms control. But his remarks mirror the growing realization in Washington that an INF agreement is not just around the corner, despite the negotiating progress of recent weeks.

On Feb. 28, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced he would no longer insist that progress on INF be linked to talks on other arms issues such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), removing a major obstacle to an INF pact. In response, the United States has polished off a new INF proposal, the final portion of which was officially put on the table in Geneva last week.

Attention has focused on the US offer to limit INF warheads to 100. But as was the case with SALT 2 and other arms agreements, the proposed INF pact would actually place sublimits on a number of technological items in an effort to control nuclear weapons as a whole, the official says. Specifically, allowable numbers of medium-range launchers and missiles, as well as warheads, would be capped.

Because warheads could be hidden in almost any room the size of an efficiency apartment, verification provisions in the US INF proposal for the most part apply only to the easier-to-see missiles and launchers.

Verification is considered the major issue to be worked out before an agreement can be reached. The final part of the US offer, laid before the Soviets on March 12, was the verification provisions.

The key to verification, in the US view, is on-site inspection - the actual presence on Soviet soil of US officials, and vice versa. The official breaks this down into two categories of on-site inspection: ``perimeter-portal,'' and ``short-notice visit.''

Perimeter-portal inspection would apply to sites that are known to be INF production or storage areas. It would involve some sort of permanent foreign presence, whether human or mechanical is not clear, watching building exteriors and gates. In the US, INF production facilities are owned by private contractors, but this sort of outside verification would not require special legislation to make it legal, the official says.

``It would be part of the security arrangements which are part of doing business with the US government,'' he says.

The short-notice visit provision proposed by the US would enable either superpower to inspect practically any building, not just declared INF facilities, it suspected of INF-related activity. The official says the US government has been talking to contractors about this; he does not feel legislation is necessary to make this provision stick.

``After all, these visits would be escorted by US government personnel,'' he says, comparing them to reporters' tours of defense factories.

The short-notice visit provision has been criticized by some analysts as a license to spy. The Soviets, or the US for that matter, could say they were suspicious that a particular installation was building medium-range weapons even if they knew it was not, just so they could get inside and see what it did hold.

A sort of mutual deterrence will keep this from happening, says the official. If the Soviets started abusing the provision, the US could retaliate in a like manner, he says, and there are more sensitive military installations in the Soviet Union than in this country.

``I can't conceive of the Soviets' finding it in their interest to engage in that kind of tit for tat,'' he points out.

Underlying US verification proposals is the belief that Soviet intelligence-gathering capability is already great and information they might gather would be of only marginal use.

The widespread view among Washington analysts now is that an INF agreement will not be reached until fall, at the earliest. The changes in Soviet rhetoric that US officials interpret as a rollback in the Soviet Union's position on short-range missiles are but one indication of the negotiations' complications.

Completing an INF pact will be hard enough, and recent progress should not therefore be seen as the herald of similar movement on other arms issues such as strategic missiles and SDI, the official says.

The US wants limits on short-range missiles included in any medium-range treaty. Previous Soviet statements sounded as if they might accept this position; now Soviet negotiators appear to be insisting on a separate, follow-up, short-range pact.

The Soviet Union enjoys a lead in shorter-range nuclear systems. The particular treaty provision the US wants would allow the Pentagon to build up its short-range forces to parity. In congressional testimony last week, Army vice-chief of staff Maxwell Thurman said converting Pershing 2 missiles into shorter-range missiles by scrapping their second stage would be the Pentagon's preferred method for reaching equality.

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