MANCHESTER, MASS. — The Senate will begin ratification hearings this week on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in Washington last month by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. There is broad public support for the agreement and a general assumption that it faces little opposition in the Senate--which must approve by a two-thirds vote before it becomes law. A major reason for this support is the leading role assigned to on-site inspection of missile sites and production facilities to verify compliance by both sides. Indeed, to many Americans "verification" means "inspection." But the inspection angle is oversold, and could prove to be the treaty's major weakness.
Years of propaganda (a lot of it spread by Reagan) about the supposed unverifiability of past treaties, and the claim that the Soviets have violated many, persuaded much of the public that on-site inspection is essential to prevent cheating. Thus, for political reasons, on-site inspection had to be a mainstay of the INF Treaty if it was going to be seen as different and better than its predecessors.
The new treaty is laden with on-site inspection provisions. They allow for initial inspections of missile bases, "close-out" inspections to insure required dismantling of bases has taken place, "elimination inspections" to monitor destruction of missiles and their launchers, the permanent stationing of U.S. and Soviet teams at each other's production facilities and a quota of short-notice challenge inspections at former launching sites and other facilities by each side.
On the surface, these provisions look like a major step forward. But if the purpose of verification measures is to provide each side assurance that the other is abiding by the agreement, will inspections do that?
The challenge inspections are the main problem. The reasons for any challenges will be provided by "national technical means" of verification: reconnaissance satellites, electronic eavesdropping and other unilateral intelligence methods. If these "NTM" raise questions about Soviet compliance, the United States can demand an inspection. Will the Soviets then allow U.S. inspectors in, as the treaty requires? If they do, and inspectors find nothing wrong, will Washington be reassured, or will they conclude that the Soviets have hidden the evidence? Ironically, we are likely to have the greatest confidence in inspections when we believe the Soviets are complying anyway. Thus whenever inspections are used, they may reduce, rather than increase, U.S. confidence in Soviet compliance.
The real deterrent to cheating will not be the inspections, but the lack of motivation to cheat in the first place. With the INF Treaty there is essentially none. The Reagan Administration gave the Soviets a tidy way to compensate for any loss of destructive capability a year ago, when it decided to ignore SALT II limits and, in effect, invited the Soviets to do the same. While that treaty was being observed, it set upper limits on the number of long-range missile launchers each side could possess. Without it, the Soviets can simply build more allowed long-range missiles to compensate for the loss of now-forbidden medium- and short-range missiles. The allowable SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missile, for example, can hit any target the now-banned SS-20 was aimed at. Why should the Soviets go to the trouble and expense of clandestinely building or squirreling away SS-20s when they can openly buy more SS-25s?
But even if Washington created that convenient loophole, why would the Soviets enter into the INF Treaty with the intention of cheating? Aside from the enormous expense of secretly carrying out forbidden activities and the political cost of being caught, the only conceivable purpose of cheating would be to gain some strategic advantage. This is hard to do when each side has more than 10,000 strategic nuclear weapons unaffected by the treaty.
As for alleged violations of past treaties, many charges made by the White House would be hard to prove because the Reagan Administration's former secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger, emasculated the Standing Consultative Commission, created specifically to examine any questions of compliance with the two SALT agreements. He ordered Gen. Richard H. Ellis, SCC commissioner, to use the forum only as a platform to level accusations at the Soviets, not to resolve uncertainties.