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Soviets Warn U.S. Against SALT Change : Reagan Likely to Keep Options Open on Pact Compliance

Times Staff Writer

A Soviet expert on the United States warned Sunday that the Kremlin would have a “very negative response” if the United States decides to step away from the provisions of the 1979 treaty limiting the superpowers’ long-range nuclear weapons.

Georgy A. Arbatov, a member of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee, said that U.S.-Soviet relations are “at one of the lowest points in many years.”

Interviewed in Moscow on the CBS-TV program “Face the Nation,” Arbatov said that any U.S. withdrawal from provisions of the SALT II treaty “will be another step which erodes mutual trust, which erodes even the expectation that your government will become serious on arms control.”

Reagan to Inform Congress

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President Reagan is expected by Administration officials to tell Congress today that the United States will stay generally within the confines of the unratified treaty while moving ahead with development of the “Midgetman” missile, a single-warhead intercontinental weapon whose deployment could eventually violate the agreement.

Under this course, the Navy would remove the nuclear missiles from a Poseidon submarine and place the ship in drydock--but not dismantle it, as required by the treaty--when a new Trident missile-carrying submarine goes to sea later this year.

Reagan’s decision, said by an official to have been made over the weekend at Camp David, Md., and the issue of U.S. compliance with the second, never-ratified strategic arms limitation treaty have recently become central elements in the deteriorating state of U.S.-Soviet relations. They could have an impact on whether progress is made at the arms control talks being held in Geneva.

Significant Time Ahead

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At the same time, in the view of an Administration official, the next six to eight months could prove to be a significant period for the future of U.S. compliance with the SALT II agreement.

“If we make some real progress in arms control talks, the pressure will be on to dismantle the sub. If the Soviets continue to play fast and loose, or stonewall in Geneva, there is the likelihood the date (for destroying the boat) will pass without the submarine being torched,” said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name.

Arbatov was asked how the Soviet government would respond. He replied:

“I think that you can expect that it would be a very negative response. We consider this to be a manifestation of a conscious decision of the United States to erode . . . the regime which was constructed by this arms control agreement.”

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The option said to be favored by Reagan is a middle course between Secretary of State George P. Shultz’s recommendation that the United States adhere to the treaty while beefing up its spending for such weapons as the MX missile, and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger’s proposal to abandon the unratified treaty--which the Administration believes the Soviets have already violated--and move ahead with new weapons deployments.

“Given the attitude of the allies and in the Congress, and the prevailing attitude in the State Department and the National Security Council, you could pretty well be sure it’s going to be some sort of middle ground, and less than repudiation” of the treaty, said a senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition he not be identified by name.

“I expect it will make neither of the secretaries happy,” said another Administration official.

The National Security Council’s chief, Robert C. McFarlane, put forward the option said to have been accepted by Reagan, after it was advanced by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, officials said.

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Among its terms, the SALT II agreement limits each of the superpowers to 1,200 launchers for multiple-warhead missiles--a level the United States would pass in late summer or early autumn when the Alaska, the newest Trident submarine, begins sea trials.

Dismantling Required

To remain strictly within the confines of the treaty, the United States would be required to dismantle an older, Poseidon submarine or a number of Minuteman 3 missiles. However, the United States would have six months to destroy the submarine, if it is kept in port and its missiles have been removed, after the new Trident goes to sea.

The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to the arms treaty in 1979. The Senate has not approved it, but both nations have said they will abide by its limits so long as the other does so.

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According to the Center for Defense Information, an independent research organization led by former senior military officers who are often critical of current Pentagon policies, a decision to ignore the treaty’s limits could end up costing the United States its advantage in strategic weapons and give the Soviets a 4,000-weapon lead by 1990 in an unconstrained arms buildup.

Within the government, Shultz’s recommendation was seen as unrealistic, in view of the difficulty the Administration has faced in winning approval for any increases in next year’s Pentagon budget.

On the other hand, Weinberger was seen as having lost ground in his effort to push Reagan into taking a tougher stance toward the Soviet Union.

The defense secretary’s position was eroded to some extent when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their chairman, Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., declined to express an opinion on any of the options presented to Reagan.

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The senior military leaders viewed Reagan’s choice as a political decision and offered the President “their judgment on what the (military) effect would be, and also the potential growth of the forces on both sides,” as a result of each of the options he faced, the Pentagon official said Sunday.

However, had they backed Weinberger’s proposal to ignore the treaty’s limits, the defense secretary’s argument may have had a greater impact, one official said.


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