WASHINGTON — Although not yet ready to take a formal position, U.S. officials and analysts examining a new Soviet draft treaty for the elimination of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe say that they were pleasantly surprised by its general provisions for verifying that the missiles are indeed dismantled.
But they stress that many important questions of verification--seen as one of the most crucial obstacles to any agreement--remain unanswered.
"It is remarkable the extent to which the Soviets have adopted American concepts in their treaty language on verification" of any new treaty to guard against cheating, said a Pentagon official usually skeptical of Soviet moves.
"On the other hand," the official added, "the Soviet draft is not clear on many points. They ignore our proposal for on-site inspections of suspected (missile) facilities and for continuous monitoring of factories producing the missiles. So we'll have to wait for their details to see how close or far apart we really are."
The Soviets, responding to a U.S. draft treaty of about a month ago, presented their own draft at the Geneva arms control talks last week. They proposed eliminating all medium-range missiles from Europe. Each side could retain 100 warheads kept out of range of Europe--in the United States and in Soviet Asia.
American officials believe that the United States will give Moscow a counterproposal that all medium-range missiles be eliminated, not only in Europe but elsewhere in the world.
"That would put the onus back on the Soviets to say no," one official remarked. The Kremlin has appeared determined to retain some missiles in Asia, where they are targeted on China and Japan.
After obtaining a consensus among members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the Soviet draft, the United States hopes to present its official reply to Moscow in the middle of May, officials said.
Separately, the United States intends this week to introduce a draft treaty on long-range weapons calling for 50% reductions in intercontinental-range missiles and bombers of both sides, according to a senior U.S. official. The move is partly aimed at bringing public attention back to these biggest and most threatening superpower weapons.
The Greatest Obstacle
In the past, American negotiators at the talks have feared that verification of missile reductions and on-site inspection would provide the greatest obstacle to any accord between Moscow and Washington. The Soviet draft of the medium-range missile treaty addresses these points with encouraging scope, U.S. officials said, if not with the precision the United States believes is necessary.
Officials remain concerned that even if the Soviets accept all the detailed U.S. verification provisions, the Administration would be only moderately confident--50% to 60%--that the Soviets were not cheating on the treaty, according to Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
The Senate may balk at ratifying a treaty with such a high level of uncertainty, he admitted.
However, some uncertainty is inevitable because the United States does not know how many medium-range missiles, as distinct from missile launchers, the Soviets have produced over the years.
Soviet SS-20 launchers total 441, for example, but the Soviets have two or three of these longer-range missiles for each launcher, according to defense intelligence estimates. Each of these missiles, in turn, carries three nuclear warheads. Similarly, the Soviets could have up to 10 times more of their shorter-range, single-warhead SS-23 missiles than launchers. The launchers could be reloaded to fire more than one missile. CIA estimates dispute the size of the disparity but acknowledge that the Soviets could have many more missiles than launchers.
'Exchange of Data'
The Soviet draft, like the U.S. version, proposed that the verification process begin with an "exchange of data"--disclosure of how many missiles each side possesses and where they are based, stored, produced and maintained.
But even with rights to inspect these "disclosed" facilities, as well as to make short-notice inspections at suspected facilities, the United States cannot be more than moderately certain that the Soviets have declared the correct inventory, Adelman said.
"Our confidence level would be somewhat higher if the Soviets agree to eliminate all (intermediate-range) missiles," he said, "and if we get more and better monitoring systems (spy satellites, for example) in place. That's one of the reasons we will continue to press for zero."
Beyond verification issues, the chief obstacles that remain to a medium-range missile treaty involve:
--The Soviet proposal to eliminate from Europe not only longer-range missiles in this category (1,000 to 3,000 miles) but also shorter-range missiles (300 to 1,000 miles).