ON Sept. 7, negotiations for reducing Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) will reconvene in Vienna in an atmosphere of unprecedented hope for an agreement. These talks stand in stark contrast to the previous conventional-arms negotiations, the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR), which dragged on for 15 years of fruitless dialogue.
The main impetus behind the high hopes lies mainly with the new Soviet attitude. Moscow's dogged recalcitrance of MBFR appears to have been replaced by a new openness and proposals that are close to long-standing NATO positions demanding large and asymmetrical force reductions.
Mikhail Gorbachev's latest plan calls for the elimination of some 40,000 Soviet tanks, 50,000 armored personnel carriers, and 45,000 artillery pieces to levels equal with those of NATO.
Given the long legacy of deep mistrust, however, the most crucial element in reaching an accord will rest not with the numbers, but rather with verification.
The problems presented by the sheer numbers and wide variety of weapons will pose unprecedented challenges in formulating an effective verification regime. Yet such a package is essential to insure that a new arms balance will be stable. To be of any lasting significance, a conventional-arms agreement cannot merely reduce the troops and weapons in Europe. It also has to ease security fears on both sides and lead to further reductions. A treaty must provide confidence that the possibility of large-scale offensive action, particularly a surprise offensive - which has long been NATO's greatest fear - is remote and easily detectable.
Specifically, a verification regime should provide a comprehensive plan for monitoring both weapons levels and troop strengths, making maximum use of the wide variety of verification resources available. Such a plan would include three types of measures.
National technical means: Satellites are able to identify fixed installations and equipment. The latest generation of optical satellites can identify objects as small as license plates, and the newly launched military version of the space telescope adds to this capability.
In addition, new radar-imaging satellites (the first of which was reportedly launched in December) specifically designed to detect armored concentrations in Central and Eastern Europe now provide an all-weather surveillance capability.
By combining the various types of satellite-imaging systems (optical, infrared, radar-imaging, and electronic), NATO can get a good picture of force movements and concentrations. Satellites are also very useful for verifying weapons destruction. Yet satellites alone cannot provide the necessary coverage needed for adequate verification.
Ground and air verification measures: Essential here are detailed and periodic exchanges of data on arms levels and locations. This would make on-site inspections more effective, since data could be confirmed and suspect sites investigated, effectively maximizing a potentially limited number of inspections.
Storage sites, with tamperproof electronic seals marking all weapons, also boost confidence by ensuring that potential offensive-weapons systems are not deployed in threatening, offensive positions. Permanent monitoring posts at important choke points can prevent or at least provide warning of troop and weapon concentrations forbidden by a treaty.
Finally, a limited form of aerial surveillance (like Dwight Eisenhower's ``open skies'' idea in 1955) would give NATO more complete coverage of the large Atlantic-to-Urals region covered by the talks. Moreover, both aerial reconnaissance and satellites can provide indications of potential violations that could be investigated further through short-notice, on-site inspections.
Production monitoring: The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has demonstrated that a production ban on such missiles can be effectively monitored. The precedent of semipermanent on-site teams checking factory production can be extended to the large assembly factories producing tanks and aircraft.
Production levels would be tracked through a combination of satellite surveillance, data exchanges, and on-site inspections to make sure they are consistent with treaty limits and stated deployment data.
Combined with weapons destruction or conversion, a fairly accurate picture can emerge of weapons levels. Thus each side would have confidence that the other is not concentrating hidden weapons in sensitive areas.
The discussion of prospects for the CFE talks would be meaningless, however, were it not for the evidence of political will on both sides.
McGeorge Bundy said recently, ``Most important of all, the last years have brought a new recognition, on both sides, of the fundamental reality that ... the avoidance of war [is] between them [the superpowers] an absolutely primary common interest.''
One of the concrete expressions of this mutual recognition has been the initial progress made in conventional-arms talks.
While CFE negotiations will face problems inherent in the complexity of the talks, adequate verification is an attainable goal.
Far from being the immovable object to a conventional-arms control agreement, verification is rather the irresistible force providing the long-term stability necessary for a successful arms control treaty.