The latest Soviet arms offer makes an important concession in counting offensive nuclear weapons, but it calls for a significantly smaller cut in the weapons than the 50% the Kremlin previously had proposed, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Details remained sparse, but it was learned that the Soviets dropped their demand that Europe- and sea-based bombers of the United States be counted as strategic weapons--an expected concession, but important if negotiations are to progress.
They also changed their earlier proposal to permit at least 10% more warheads--and more of the gigantic SS-18-type missiles that only the Soviets possess--than previously allowed.
"It's an important offer," one U.S. official acknowledged, "but you've got to see the whole package before getting too excited. There are some plums but, overall, it's something we can't swallow."
The Soviets made the new offer at the Geneva arms talks Wednesday, two weeks after President Reagan decided that the second strategic arms limitation agreement no longer would restrain U.S. weapons deployment.
Nevertheless, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after a highly partisan and contentious daylong debate Thursday, voted 29 to 11 for a non-binding resolution calling on Reagan to continue to adhere to the 1979 SALT treaty, which never has been ratified by the U.S. Senate. Four Republicans voted for the measure, despite Administration opposition.
At the White House on Thursday, presidential spokesman Larry Speakes was besieged by questions generated by Reagan's uncertain and often contradictory answers on his SALT II position at Wednesday night's press conference. He issued a formal clarification declaring that arms treaty "no longer exists" in the Administration's eyes.
Although Speakes left the door open to the future dismantling of submarines to stay within technical compliance of the pact, he said that those actions will not be taken to satisfy the conditions set by the 1979 treaty.
"If we take future actions in the area of arms control, it would be for reasons other than the SALT agreement," he said. The statement appeared to overrule Reagan's repeated insistence during the press conference that he has several months left before deciding whether to abandon the treaty.
Conversion of B-52
"The facts are the decision has been made," Speakes said, stating that the treaty will be violated when the 131st B-52 bomber is converted later this year to carry cruise missiles.
By contrast, the President, when asked Wednesday night why he had made the controversial decision months before the B-52 would be ready, replied: "Didn't make it now." And he appeared to moderate the Administration's stance, reminding reporters four times during the half-hour session that he had several months remaining before the actual moment of decision.
"The President sounded like a dove last night," said a White House official, a development that he predicted would "drive the Russians crazy" as they try to assess the Administration's position on arms control.
The latest offer by the Soviets, taken as another sign that they will not allow the President's announcement on the arms pact to derail their efforts at the negotiations, is the latest in a series of proposals by the Kremlin after the Geneva summit in November between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. At that meeting, the two men pledged to accelerate the arms talks, accepting "the principle of 50% reductions in the nuclear arms of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., appropriately applied."
The "appropriately applied" phrase indicated that the two sides were far apart on the size and composition of opposing arsenals to be cut in half. In particular, both sides agreed to count all intercontinental bombers and ballistic missiles, land- and sea-based, but Moscow also wanted to include U.S. "forward-based systems"--medium-ranged missiles and bombers in Europe, as well as fighter-bombers on all U.S. aircraft carriers in the world.
In previous strategic arms talks, the Soviets had insisted on counting about 1,300 of these "forward-based systems" but backed off that demand and are not making it in this proposal. As a result, the U.S. long-range weapon total of about 2,000 presumably will be the basis for reductions, compared with a 2,500 total for the Soviet Union.
In recent months, the Soviets also proposed reducing the total number of warheads carried by the bombers and missiles--long-range and medium-range--by 50%, to 6,000. The new offer, however, would permit a warhead total described as "significantly greater" and "more than 10% greater" than the 6,000 figure.
It could not be learned whether this is a natural statistical result of reducing the total number of weapons to be affected by percentage cuts or whether it involves some other provisions of the proposal.
The Soviets "are still aggregating weapons in a way we can't accept," one official said. The two countries "have yet to come up with a mutually agreeable definition of what constitutes a strategic weapon."
Gorbachev's wide-ranging offer of Jan. 15 also proposed a 50% cut in the 308 Soviet SS-18 ICBMs, in the U.S. view. Each of these missiles carries 10 warheads but could carry 20 or 30 warheads. Their potential for being upgraded secretly in preparation for a surprise attack has made the SS-18 a missile of primary concern to Washington, so the cut envisaged in the Jan. 15 offer was particularly welcome.
"The 50% cut in SS-18s will not happen," however, under the new proposal, the official said.
During the arms control debate in the House, Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), author of the resolution on the arms treaty, predicted that it would be adopted next week by the full House. He also said that the Democrats had tried without success to draft a compromise resolution that would have won broader bipartisan support.
"It's too bad that certain members think that party loyalty dictates that they must defend whatever idiocy the Administration comes up with," Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) said.
The mood was so bitter that Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) stormed out of the room after a minor disagreement with Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), and Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) threatened to "personally come out and clear the audience" for "snickering" at the President's policy.
Members of both parties clearly were confused by the President's position on SALT II. Although two middle-level Administration officials testified before the committee that Reagan has not yet decided whether to violate the treaty limits on warheads later this year, their statements seemed to contradict reports of Speakes' announcement at the White House.
"I think the President is confused about what the President's position is," Solarz said. "I think the country is confused about what the President's position is."
Most Republicans characterized the resolution as an election-year ploy by the Democrats that fails to recognize the seriousness of Soviet violations of the SALT II pact.
"I contend that if it weren't election time, this matter wouldn't be before us," said Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.), ranking Republican member of the committee.