When US-Soviet strategic nuclear arms talks (START) resume today in Geneva, there will be a brand-new chief negotiator sitting on the American side of the table. But the papers in front of him may not contain much in the way of brand-new US negotiating positions. In recent weeks President Bush and the National Security Council have considered a number of ideas aimed at narrowing remaining START differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. None of the ideas has been adopted, and it thus appears the Bush negotiating team will begin where the Reagan team left off.
There was a flurry of high-level White House meetings on the subject late last week. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney postponed a trip to overseas US military bases so he could take part. Despite this action, Cheney spokesman Pete Williams said his impression ``was that the United States currently does not contemplate softening its position'' on START questions.
That may not be surprising given that chief negotiator Richard Burt will have all of four days on the job under his belt when the Geneva talks resume. Senate confirmation of Mr. Burt's nomination had been held up by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who charged that Burt was ``something of a swinger'' who had demonstrated a lack of proper concern about security.
A State Department inspector-general report on Burt satisfied most senators. But it took a personal request from Secretary of State James Baker III to get Burt's nomination to the Senate floor last week, where it was approved 89 to 10.
The superpowers have already settled on general START guidelines. Among other things, they have agreed to a proposed limit of 6,000 nuclear warheads per nation, roughly a 50 percent cut from existing levels. These warheads could be mounted on a limit of 1,600 delivery vehicles, defined as submarine- and silo-based ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. Both sides also say they want verification procedures similar to those now in force for the INF Treaty, involving on-site inspections and some continuous monitoring of missile-building facilities. US officials said Saturday they will ask the Soviets to agree to test verification plans for some weapons as a means of speeding up agreement on a treaty.
But difficult issues remain to be settled. Among the thorniest is what to do about mobile land-based ICBMs - a question that was much debated in Washington last week.
Until now the US position has been that mobile missiles should be prohibited, as numerical limits on such weapons would be too hard to verify. The Soviets want to permit them, but limit each nation to 800 mobile missile launchers.
US officials are now considering whether to call for something less than a flat ban on mobile nuclear missiles. One proposal would allow single-warhead mobile missiles, but ban multiwarhead models.
The Soviet Union began fielding a single-warhead road-mobile missile, the SS-25, in 1985. The 10-warhead SS-24 rail-mobile missile was deployed beginning in 1987, according to the Pentagon.
The US has yet to build a mobile nuclear missile. The Bush administration has proposed first taking the 50 10-warhead MX missiles now based in Wyoming silos and mounting them on rolling stock, and then fielding a force of single-warhead Midgetman missiles on road transporters. But a significant number of congressmen think the US can afford only one type of new mobile missile.
A number of Washington strategic experts predict that the US will eventually have to step back from its current no-mobile-missiles-at-all position. ``The Soviets have invested heavily in mobiles, and we're about to,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.
Both Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke out last week in favor of allowing single-warhead mobile missiles, while banning multiwarhead ones.
Another hurdle remaining on the road to a strategic weapons agreement is the question of antiballistic missile defenses.
Talks on space missile defense will begin in Geneva at the same time as START discussions. The Soviets hold that there can be no nuclear weapons pact without a some sort of limits on strategic defense; the US has long insisted that the two are separate issues and there should no constraints on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
The Joint Chiefs of Staff has reportedly proposed that the US stance on this issue should be softened, with the US not insisting it retain the right to deploy a strategic shield if it wanted to, and agreeing to limits on how realistic missile defense testing could be. Bush has not agreed to any change in the US position on defenses, however.
A third sticky problem is the issue of sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs).
The Soviets have proposed a ceiling of 400 nuclear and 600 nonnuclear SLCMs per nation, to be enforced by comprehensive monitoring of ports and warships. The US has opposed any SLCM limits, saying the numbers of these small, easily hidden missiles would be impossible to verify.
``All these 11th-hour issues - SLCMs, mobile missiles, SDI - are important not because they are deal-breakers but because they are deal-postponers,'' says Michael Mandelbaum, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Some experts say SLCM limits would in fact be verifiable with short-notice ship inspections and tamper-proof tags installed at the factory. Others, such as Mr. Mandelbaum himself, say they think the US would have to accept less than 100 percent certainty if it agreed to a SLCM ceiling.