Washington is still in the process of clarifying the latest Soviet arms proposal in Geneva -- but it is not hiding its disappointment. As United States negotiator Max M. Kampelman prepared to meet with the National Security Council yesterday, American officials said they intended to look carefully at the Soviet proposal. But privately they are indicating that the offer is one-sided and simplistic.
``The Soviets are at least talking about deep reductions [in offensive weapons] and that's a positive aspect,'' says an administration official involved in the arms control process. ``But it's a simplified PR approach to things. They have so complicated things that if they wanted to design something to prevent progress at the November summit meeting, they're doing it.''
Independent arms control experts view the sounds coming out of the administration as part of the public posturing leading up to a summit meeting. The Soviets have put down a maximum position, they argue, and there is enough in the proposal to suggest that an agreement is possible -- if the two sides have the will to achieve it.
Reagan administration officials make these points:
Moscow has proposed a 50 percent cut in offensive nuclear weapons on both sides. But it lumps into the US total the Pershing IIs, cruise missiles, and other intermediate-range weapons based in Europe capable of hitting the Soviet Union while excluding from its total the Soviet SS-20s aimed at Europe.
The Soviet proposal also groups warheads together with air-launched cruise missiles, bombs, and short-range air missiles, making for a US total of 12,000 nuclear ``charges.'' The Soviets propose a reduction of 50 percent by both sides, to 6,000. But by US count, the Soviets have 10,000 such weapons and would be making only a 40 percent cut to achieve the 6,000 figure.
No more than 60 percent of the remaining charges could be in any one category of weapons -- land-based, sea-based, or air-based. This means the Soviets would have to reduce the warheads on their land-based missiles, to 3,600. The US at present has only 2,100 land-based warheads and would have to make cuts to achieve the overall reduction to 6,000. Nor is anything said about cutting the huge SS-18s, which most concern the US.
A ban is proposed on new types of strategic systems. This presumably means the US would have to stop work on the MX, the Midgetman, and the submarine-based Trident D-5 while Moscow goes ahead with the SS-24 and SS-25.
The Soviet proposal is tied to a ban on research on ``space-strike systems,'' including the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This seems a retreat from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's statement to Time magazine editors that a distinction would be made between laboratory research and field tests of space weapons.
``We have a confusing picture at this point,'' says an administration official. ``They're playing to the simplistic view that things are being cut by 50 percent.''
Some arms control experts suggest that the Soviets are keeping their tabled position behind their public posture deliberately in order to get a reaction from President Reagan. ``It seems to me they're trying to force him to signal that he'll make a compromise in principle and give new instructions to his negotiators after the summit,'' says John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution.
Dr. Steinbruner terms the proposal a ``partial'' one, in which the Soviets have withheld critical elements. Ultimately, he says, they will have to address the problem of their heavy land-based missiles. Other specialists believe the Soviet offer contains the basic elements of an agreement and is negotiable, provided the President is willing to give up testing -- but not research -- on SDI.
``There's a lot of huffing and puffing now and that's understandable since the Soviets have landed a maximalist proposal which they know they have to back off of,'' says Mark Garrison, director of Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development.
``But I see the outlines of a deal if we and the Soviets have the political will and the good sense to make it happen.''