As a new presidential team prepares to take office, Reagan officials appear divided on whether to expect a long slowdown in arms control negotiations. President-elect George Bush has said it will not be possible to resume the strategic arms reductions talks (START) in Geneva by Feb. 15 as planned. His aides are also making clear that a period of comprehensive, careful review of START and other arms control issues will be required before the new President can move forward in this critical area of foreign policy.
``You have to get an administration position on where we want to go with our strategic programs,'' one US arms official says. ``It's difficult to negotiate when there's uncertainty about programs.''
But some high Reagan officials suggest that the delay necessitated by a change of administration need not spell a break in continuity.
``One should not assume that because the new administration has to take time to familiarize itself fully with the issues this is a slowdown,'' says a senior administration official involved in the arms negotiations. ``The Soviets understand this requirement, and I don't believe they look on it as a slowdown.''
While these officials recognize the early need for developing the kind of overall national security strategy that the Reagan administration has lacked, they believe several factors will operate on behalf of a reasonably expeditious return to the negotiating table:
George Bush, as vice-president, has been deeply involved in Cabinet- and presidential-level meetings on arms control. He has supported the basic START deal, that is, a cut of roughly 50 percent in strategic arsenals.
Incoming national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, though critical of the START formulas, is an outstanding expert on arms control, has followed the negotiations carefully, and is in a position to expedite the decisionmaking process.
There is likely to be more rapport among incoming Secretary of State James Baker III, General Scowcroft, and newly named Secretary of Defense John Tower, a former US negotiator in Geneva, than there was among the national security players on the Reagan team.
Ronald Reagan has already signed on to large portions of the proposed treaty.
``We and the Soviets operate on the assumption that whatever has been agreed upon is likely to survive review by the new administration,'' says the senior US arms official, ``while the remaining unresolved things will have to be resolved.''
Within the Reagan administration there is concern, however, that Bush's new national security team will take so long vetting the provisions of the START treaty already negotiated that considerable time will be lost.
It is recalled, for instance, that President Carter, after much agonizing, finally opted to build the MX missile and to put it in a mobile basing mode. But when the Reaganites came in, they were suspicious of anything decided by their Democratic predecessors and stopped the MX mobile-missile program.
Today, eight years later, the United States is planning to put 50 MX missiles in vulnerable fixed silos. Also, Congress and the administration are debating whether to produce a rail-garrisoned MX missile or the proposed mobile Midgetman missile favored by General Scowcroft.
In this connection, Scowcroft has voiced doubts about moving ahead with steep reductions in long-range nuclear weapons while the defense budget is being squeezed. The question he raises is whether the proposed strategic cuts will help the overall balance.
Some congressional deadlines may help drive the arms control process. Under the defense authorization act for fiscal 1989, for instance, a decision must be made on whether to proceed with the rail-garrisoned MX or go for the Midgetman missile. By March 15, the new President must report to Congress on the implications of a START treaty for the overall US force posture in the 1990s.
Large portions of the draft START treaty are already in place. But the remaining issues are proving difficult, especially verification.
With respect to mobile missiles, the sides have begun discussions on the size and location of deployment areas and limits on nondeployed missiles. ``We have made significant progress on verification - both we and the Soviets - even since Moscow,'' the senior official says.
Other issues appear more intractable. US officials say there has been no movement on the issue of submarine-launched cruise missiles, for instance. Also unresolved is the issue of how to count air-launched cruise missiles aboard bombers.
Another central factor in the START negotiations is the controversy over the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars'' program. This may pose less of a problem than it has under the Reagan administration, even though Bush strongly backed SDI during the campaign. Scowcroft is skeptical about the concept.
In a move widely noticed here, Paul Nitze, special arms adviser to Mr. Reagan, recently gave a speech at Harvard University supporting a strict, or traditional, interpretation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which bans testing and deployment of space-based weapons. Diplomatic observers view this as an early effort to persuade the new presidential team to reverse the Reagan administration's treaty reinterpretation.