Hunting for hidden missiles. INF Treaty inspectors begin their `sanctioned snooping'

I lean over and look inside the large green canister. I see what seems to be the business end of a large rocket, and a label. It says ``Motor Assembly, Second Stage. Pershing 2. Government Property.'' I think: Why the part about government property? If ballistic missiles fall off a truck will nobody know who owns them? Will they be mistaken for enormous, nozzled, water heaters?

Col. Thomas Burns, Pershing 2 program manager, walks up and points to a hole in the rocket case. ``It's a dummy weapon,'' he says. ``We drilled into it to prove that to the Soviets.''

So this is what it's like to be an arms treaty inspector. I continue walking the perimeter of an Alabama yard gone dusty with heat, peering at canisters and rocket launchers and attempting to feel suspicious.

The first group of Soviet inspectors to make the unprecedented inspections of United States weapons factories, returned to Moscow yesterday, saying they were satifisfied with their weekend visits.

The 70 Soviet experts, who arrived Friday night at Travis Air Force Base in northern California, had gone in small groups to conduct ``baseline inspections'' of five missile sites in Arizona, Utah, California, and Colorado. US inspection teams were in the Soviet Union at the same time.

A team of Soviet specialists will soon be here at Redstone Arsenal doing the same thing. Under the terms of the new intermediate-range missile pact (INF), the USSR has the right to conduct a baseline inspection at Redstone and at 25 other sites in the US and western Europe after July 1.

When they inspect a base, they don't run around like tourists, snapping photos of everything they see. Per the INF treaty, only four areas of Redstone Arsenal - home of the Army's Missile Command - will be open for inspection. Things located here such as NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will be closed to the Soviets.

The inspectable parts of the base are those which have been used for work related to the Pershing 2, one of the missiles the INF pact proscribes.

Within those areas, the Soviets will be able to look into any nook or cranny big enough to contain a missile part. Depending on how curious they are, this could cause problems. North Alabama is full of creatures - such as cottonmouth snakes - whose presence the US escort team has no desire to verify.

``There's a swamp in one of the inspectable areas I dearly hope they don't want to go in,'' says Col. Nicholas Hurst, Missile Command deputy commander.

The superpowers have never before played host to such intrusive treaty verification visits. Past arms pact verification has relied mainly on spy satellites, or National Technical Means, in the Pentagon's quaint phrase. (As in, ``Did you see that fly ball? It went as high as a National Technical Means.'')

On-site inspection alone won't be foolproof. At Redstone, 18 warehouses that will be open to inspection stand right next to 18 identical ones that will be closed. Similar juxtapositions surely exist in the approximately 75 sites that the US will be able to visit in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

But US On-Site Inspection Agency (OSIA) officials say that visits plus other means will give adequate assurance of treaty compliance. They say both nations take their sanctioned snooping seriously.

``The most prudent thing is to go in with very little trust,'' says Brigadier General Roland Lajoie, OSIA director.

Now that the INF pact is in effect, the Soviets are to notify the US at least 16 hours before they arrive for each inspection. After they arrive at one of two designated entry points - San Francisco or Washington, DC - their US hosts have 9 hours to fly them where they want to go.

Gate 1 at Dulles Airport will be the Washington facility used to shuttle Soviets. At the far end of the terminal, it will afford them a brief glance of the gift shop's capitalist glories before they board a US Air Force jet for their destination.

Redstone Arsenal is likely to be one of their next visits. They will taxi to a stop at the base's airfield and immediately be transported to a room where they will be given a base overview for one hour. Then inspection begins.

The Soviets have a total of 24 hours (extendable to 32 by mutual agreement) to spend on-site. They can stop for food at the officers' club (no borscht - they have to eat what's on the menu) and can sleep at any time. Social events and trips to the PX are not planned. At all times, even when asleep, the Soviets will be under US escort.

```Guard' is a harsh word,'' says General Lajoie.

When being driven back and forth to inspectable areas, they will be taken down roads that afford them the least possible chance of glimpsing things they're not supposed to see. In practice this means vans will race back and forth on back roads as if slaloming toward their destinations, while main road traffic looks on, puzzled.

For the most part, the four inspectable sites at Redstone appear more likely to be involved with soybean storage than with nuclear weapons. They are comprised of storage yards, a repair and training facility, and an environmental lab where equipment is subjected to weather extremes.

Only a handful of treaty-limited items remain at Redstone, according to OSIA officials. The day's visit revealed perhaps half a dozen launchers, which vaguely resemble hook-and-ladder trucks painted green, some dummy rocket motors, and a handful of real live motor segments. There are no nuclear warheads on base.

The Soviets are allowed to take photographs of anything they think might be a treaty-limited item. At the end of their visit, both they and their US hosts are to write reports detailing what their teams found.

In an attempt to join the spirit of the moment, I did during my Redstone visit try something of a Pershing hunt, to see if any parts were spirited away. A suspicious pile of bagged material turned out to be carbon black, which I suppose will come out of that shirt eventually.

Escorts assured me that those forklifts were not transporters in disguise, and the officers' club restaurant seemed clean, though I was hustled out before dessert and thus am not really sure.

The folks at Redstone will have to get used to being scrutinized. After baseline visits are over, the Soviets will have the right to make spot challenge inspections at US facilities for the next 13 years.

Will the Soviets be able to scoop up any secrets on the side while here?

``We're professionals. We don't just allow things to be seen,'' sniffs Col. Hurst of the US Missile Command.

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