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U.S. Debates Reply to Soviet Arms Offers

July 19, 1986|ROBERT C. TOTH | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As Reagan Administration officials fiercely debate a response to the latest Soviet arms control proposals, the Soviet Union has told the White House that it wants progress particularly in two key areas--nuclear testing and intermediate-range nuclear missiles--at the next summit, U.S. officials said Friday.

Moscow has made concessions in both areas in recent months. Separately, it has proposed to reduce long-range offensive weapons in exchange for the United States postponing deployment of a space-based missile defense system--the Strategic Defense Initiative--for 15 to 20 years.

Some U.S. officials, including hard-liners, are optimistic that these offers will lead to new agreements at the U.S.-Soviet summit, which may take place here in November or December. Others, including arms control proponents, believe that the outcome will hinge on the coming White House response to the Soviet overtures.

That response, probably to be made in a letter from President Reagan to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, is now the subject of intense and bitter negotiation within the Administration, officials said. They hope Reagan can send his response within the next two weeks.

The State Department has proposed the most forthcoming U.S. response. It hopes that approach would not only lead to substantial bargaining when arms control talks resume in Geneva in September but also improve prospects for a summit meeting.

Pentagon Urges No Change

The Defense Department reportedly is urging no change in existing U.S. proposals. It argues that present offers are adequate and that Gorbachev, needing a successful summit and new arms agreements more than Reagan, eventually will accept U.S. terms.

Emerging between them is a so-called "stingy" option tailored to maintain the new momentum of the arms talks while making minimal concessions to Soviet positions. But some officials fear that if the U.S. counteroffer is too niggardly, Gorbachev will refuse to attend a summit this year, despite his promise last November to do so.

Gorbachev's letter to Reagan last month, which the President said contained "quite a packet" of proposals, called for work toward an interim agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces that could be signed at the summit.

U.S. officials long have viewed the issue of medium-range missiles, most of them in Europe, as more amenable to resolution than the other two arms control topics--long-range offensive weapons and anti-missile defenses--that are being negotiated at the same time in Geneva. There are fewer medium-range than long-range missiles and the Soviets have agreed not to link reductions of medium-range missiles to its effort to delay the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars" program.

Two major sticking points remain, however. For one, the Soviets have insisted that British and French missiles be frozen at present levels and that the United States refrain from helping those nations modernize their weapons, although Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, visiting London this week, appeared to ignore the condition on modernization.

'Proportionate ' Cuts

The second difficulty is that the Soviets want to restrict any agreement to Europe, while the United States wants "proportionate" reductions of intermediate-range Soviet weapons in Asia.

Some officials have interpreted Gorbachev's letter as a hint at Soviet willingness to compromise. Several aides said negotiators could quickly hammer out an interim agreement--perhaps a partial cut in Soviet missiles in Europe and Asia in exchange for a U.S. agreement to reduce its continuing deployment of missiles in Europe.

The two sides are much further apart on the issues of offensive and defensive arms and the Administration itself remains split on how to respond to the latest Soviet proposals. The core of the intramural dispute is whether, as the Soviets wish, to link reductions in offensive weapons to restraints on "Star Wars."

The Soviet proposal would permit only laboratory research for 15 to 20 years and would curtail some of that research by barring "mock-ups" and "bread board models," which contain all the elements of a device but not in a form that could be used as a weapon.

Pentagon officials have said that Moscow wants to hamstring research. And any ban on SDI development, testing and deployment, even for five years, would dry up funds for even SDI research, they insist.

Shorter Moratorium

The State Department, while opposed to a moratorium of 15 or 20 years on "Star Wars" deployment, is willing to consider a period of five or six years because the program is likely to remain in the research phase for that long anyway, according to some officials.

On long-range offensive weapons, the latest Soviet proposal calls for reducing each side's "delivery systems"--missiles and bombers--by about one-third.

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