WASHINGTON — The Soviet Union has made a new move in the bargaining over a strategic arms treaty by suggesting to senior American officials in Geneva a possible limit of 5,100 intercontinental ballistic nuclear warheads in each side's arsenal, U.S. officials say.
The Soviet suggestion was characterized Friday by a Reagan Administration official as "a step forward" in the negotiations but still not acceptable to the United States.
Only a Suggestion
Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, presented the suggestion as a possibility under consideration but not as a formal proposal in discussions last week with senior officials accompanying Secretary of State George P. Shultz, according to the sources.
Akhromeyev's willingness to discuss it, even on a conversational basis, was taken as a sign that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is ready to make a new Soviet move on the difficult nuclear "sub-limits" issue at next month's Washington summit with President Reagan.
A ballistic missile limit of 5,100 warheads would require the United States to eliminate about 35% of its existing 7,800 strategic ballistic missile warheads, of which about 2,200 are on land-based missiles and about 5,600 are on submarine-based missiles. The same limit would require the Soviet Union to eliminate about 40% of its estimated 8,400 strategic missile warheads, of which 6,400 are land-based and about 2,000 are submarine-based.
The crucial and unsolved question for the U.S. side is finding a way to limit sharply the number of Soviet land-based missiles, which have the greatest speed, range, explosive power and accuracy and thus are considered by the United States as the most destabilizing weapons. The United States is reluctant to accept sharp limits on submarine-launched warheads, which are more survivable and where it has an advantage.
The U.S. problem with the Soviet idea of a 5,100-warhead limit is that, as discussed by Akhromeyev, it would allow either side to structure its forces as it wished within that overall total. The United States has proposed a limit of 4,800 ballistic missile warheads on each side, but with the provision that no more than 3,300 of these could be land-based. This would require a cut of almost half in Soviet land-based missile forces but leave the United States free to maintain most of its submarine-based force.