LONDON — Senior U.S. senators touring Europe warned the Reagan Administration on Monday against moving too quickly into a strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union and urged instead that conventional arms be given priority.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) described the strategic arms reductions talks with the Soviet Union, now under way in Geneva, as "much more complex, difficult and dangerous" than those that led to last December's U.S.-Soviet accord to eliminate ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
Byrd said that a START agreement, as the objective of the Geneva talks is called, "is going to involve verification procedures that are big, big," compared to those for medium-range missiles.
"If I were to say anything, I'd say slow down," Byrd said. "There could be public concern if we see a pell-mell rush toward a START agreement. There could be the suspicion of political expediency."
Byrd's remarks, echoed by Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and John W. Warner (R-Va.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, came during a meeting with reporters in London.
Byrd is heading a five-member Senate delegation visiting several North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations to meet with their leaders and to test European opinion in the wake of the intermediate nuclear forces accord.
The senators' comments appeared to be aimed at tempering heightened expectations of a possible quick breakthrough on the strategic arms issues that arose in both the United States and Western Europe after the December agreement, which is now before the Senate for ratification.
The delegation, which also includes Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), met with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for an hour Monday. The group will meet with leaders in Bonn, Paris, Rome and Ankara, Turkey.
Boren and Nunn urged that conventional arms be elevated in priority, both within the Western Alliance and in negotiations with the Soviets.
Progress on the reduction of conventional arms in Europe has been painfully slow. Since the prospect of an INF agreement first surfaced, NATO policy-makers have generally considered deep cuts in strategic nuclear arms as the next logical step in the arms control process.
Boren, noting that the Soviet leadership had accepted the principle of asymmetrical reductions as part of the INF accord, urged immediate conventional arms talks to reduce the present imbalance of forces in Europe.
"Conventional arms ought to be on the front burner," he said. "We should tell the Soviets we're going to give them a chance to produce a conventional balance in Europe to ease the reliance of NATO on the early use of nuclear weapons."
NATO strategy has historically viewed the threat of nuclear retaliation as the deterrent that has kept numerically superior Soviet Bloc conventional forces in check.
In this context, Nunn called the strengthening of NATO's conventional weapons the top priority.
Suspicious of Strategy
Europeans tend to be suspicious of excessive reliance on conventional defenses. They fear that although such a strategy may reduce the danger of a nuclear exchange, it increases the possibility of armed conflict breaking out.
Nunn criticized Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci for remarks he made Sunday in Munich. Carlucci had warned of a possible U.S. troop withdrawal from Europe if West Germany acts to remove battlefield nuclear weapons from its soil.
NATO's remaining nuclear arsenal in Europe will be concentrated exclusively in West Germany once intermediate-range nuclear missiles are dismantled.
This prospect has unsettled West Germans and caused senior politicians there to challenge existing NATO policy to upgrade and modernize the remaining nuclear weapons, which are shorter-range. The issue has divided West Germany from its Alliance partners.
"I think we ought to consider German sensitivities," Nunn said. "We ought to consider modernization as an essential element, but I don't believe we ought to be appearing to threaten or to be demanding."
"The priority in NATO now should be to strengthen the conventional component," he said.