Arms controllers hope they will be able to complete a strategic arms reduction treaty (START) in the two months remaining to the Reagan team after the presidential vote, interviews with negotiators, Pentagon officials, and congressional and party sources indicate. Michael Dukakis, who has clinched the Democratic nomination, has already been sounded out on the possibility of his joining President Reagan in bipartisan sponsorship of a treaty that Mr. Reagan would sign before leaving office, according to a highly placed United States official. Massachusetts Governor Dukakis has indicated he ``might not be totally averse'' to it, this official says.
When asked whether Reagan would be willing to bring a Democratic successor into the arms control process, the official replied, ``I can't imagine that an actual president would not consult a president-elect.''
The scenario flies in the face of conventional wisdom here. It is all but universally assumed by non-participant observers and even lower-level negotiators here that the remaining months of the Reagan administration are too short to complete a treaty. Thus, the job will have to be left to the next president.
Ironically, the general cynicism about the possibility of concluding a START treaty this year is ensuring an absence of hard press scrutiny of the idea. This, in turn, makes it easier for arms controllers to go about their formidable task of forming a bureaucratic consensus in Washington on the evolving American arms control position. Sometimes ``overfocusing'' on issues is ``counterproductive,'' one negotiator noted dryly. It can ``burn people out'' or stimulate ``strong resistance,'' he said. The current recess in the START negotiations in Geneva is useful, he added, in allowing a quiet time to complete the huge amount of staff work that now needs to be done for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on START.
This knocking together of bureaucratic heads in Washington will involve, among other tough jobs, prodding the individual military services to cut some pet procurement programs to adjust to a post-START world.
High-level negotiators have both pessimistic and optimistic reasons for bucking the conventional wisdom and continuing to aim for a START treaty in this administration.
Pessimistic reasons include concern that the rare present conjunction of US and Soviet interests in putting their nuclear rivalry on a more stable basis might not outlast a year's rethinking by a new president - or potential domestic trouble for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, which might make it harder for the Soviet leader to move in foreign policy.
Optimistic reasons include the assessment that the superpowers are by now remarkably close on the main issues in START.
On the substantive rapprochement, negotiators acknowledgethat the issues of sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), space defense, mobile missiles, verification details, and air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) counting rules are unresolved. They see the progress at the Moscow summit on mobile missiles and ALCMs, however, as putting an eventual understanding on these issues within reach.
On the most critical element in verification, on-site inspection of ``suspect sites'' where illicit mobile missiles might be hidden, negotiators say that while the Soviets have agreed to the principle, they have not yet signed on to the all-important details.
That leaves space defense, SLCMs, and, on the US side, the prickly sorting out of what America's post-START strategic arsenal would look like. The last is no precondition for a START signature, the sources specify, but the service infighting is already well under way, and complicates formulation of the US negotiating position.
On space defense, or ``star wars,'' sources are currently playing down the differences between Washington and Moscow. ``I don't see the main problem being in the space defense area,'' one negotiator stated. The Soviets want ``a fig leaf'' on the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, commented another negotiator.
The issue is unresolved. There is a widespread feeling, however, that the Soviets are much less upset about the SDI program than they used to be, now that the US Congress has made it clear it will not fund experiments that violate the traditional, restrictive interpretation of the 1972 Soviet-American Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
Despite this political reality, Reagan does not want, however, to forfeit formally the option of testing exotic technologies in space under a ``broad'' interpretation of the ABM Treaty. Nor does Mr. Gorbachev want to endorse SDI formally in any way. The compromise that arms controllers are now exploring, therefore, involves a ``confidence building'' plan of mutual monitoring of each other's tests in space defense. In this probe the US has already presented a basic ``verifiability package,'' according to a negotiator. The Soviets have responded with a ``slight variation, which we have accepted.''
At this point, sources regard SLCMs as the knottiest negotiating problem. Here Moscow is still demanding that nuclear (as distinct from conventional) SLCMs be limited. So far, however, it has come up with no reliable way to verify compliance. Washington, while it is willing to discuss a limit on nuclear SLCMs outside the START ceilings, is unwilling to inhibit its ambitious plans for conventional SLCMs by any conclusive verification aboard ships.
As an interim solution, the US is ready to consider a non-binding declaration that each side would not exceed certain ceilings on nuclear SLCMs for a finite period of time, without prejudice to future deployments. It is not clear whether this would satisfy the Soviet Union, however.
Even though the sorting out of America's post-START strategic-force posture is not a precondition for START agreement, the internecine fighting for a shrinking defense budget has already started in the Pentagon. The service that is perhaps most disturbed by the prospect is said by some (but not all) sources to be the Navy.
One Navy officer suggested that his service's recalcitrance might have less to do with stonewalling on the treaty itself than with maximizing the Navy's post-START claims on the money trough.
Surprisingly, the Navy's main worries, according to some sources, are not at all the issues that have entered the popular debate: the ratio of Soviet warheads to American ``aim-points'' and the potential vulnerability of the small number of residual US submarines. Instead, the main concern is said to be the fear that the Navy's premier aircraft carriers would have funds diverted away from them to a new strategic submarine program.
The issue of the ratio of warheads to aim-points is complicated, but basically everyone agrees that the fewer Soviet warheads there are covering each US ``hard target,'' the better. ``Hard target'' refers primarily to hardened fixed (as distinct from mobile) land-based missiles.
The question of the ratio also arises with submarines, since in the '90s the US will have only 20 or 22 strategic missile submarines, each of them itself a very tempting target with as many as 640 warheads.