`Minor' Issues Delay US-Soviet Arms Pact Verification Details Slow Nine-Year-Old START Talks

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THE Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is a grand nuclear bargain that the United States and the Soviet Union have been struggling to complete for almost a decade.

Negotiators have long agreed upon the number of warheads to be cut under START, plus sublimits on various kinds of long-range nuclear delivery vehicles. Other major outstanding issues were settled over a year ago.

But progress on START stalled in recent months as the superpowers squabbled over another pact that would make large reductions in conventional arms in Europe. With those differences ironed out, officials from both nations now are making a push to overcome the final, arcane START obstacles.

"The draft START treaty is about the size of a good 19th-century novel. But it took Dostoyevsky only 2-1/2 years to write `The Brothers Karamazov,' while it's taken START nine years to get this far," says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.

Secretary of State James Baker III offered some undisclosed "new ideas" for START to Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh on Friday in Geneva. Soviet officials said the ideas would receive a prompt reply, but Mr. Baker indicated considerable work remains before the treaty can be wrapped up.

The new US moves were "evidence of a commitment by President Bush to work hard" to finish START, said Baker.

In focusing on curbing long-range, strategic nuclear arms the START talks have attempted to control the most threatening weapons the US and the USSR have in their military arsenals. While the SALT treaties negotiated in the 1970s simply channeled and controlled strategic nuclear growth, START calls for actual arsenal reduction, making it the first true long-range arms cut treaty of the nuclear age.

Under START provisions already agreed to, each side would be limited to 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads. Taking technical treaty warhead-counting rules into account, this number represents about a one-third reduction from current stockpiles.

Central sublimits include a ceiling of 1,600 on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, such as bombers and missiles. Only 4,900 warheads could be mounted on ballistic missiles, and the Soviets would have to cut by half their number of heavy SS-18 missiles, the weapon that most concerns the Pentagon.

Treaty verification would involve 12 kinds of on-site inspection, among them short-notice visits to declared strategic weapon sites, visits to suspect sites, inspections of deployed missiles to check the number of warheads they carry, and continuous monitoring of mobile missile production facilities. …