Progress toward a treaty that would limit intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) has snagged on Pentagon plans to reuse some of the weapons the pact would cover. The Soviet Union says the plans mean the United States does not really want arms control. US officials retort that the Soviet Union is blowing propaganda smoke.
If nothing else, the controversy over the proposal to turn Pershing 2 missiles into shorter-range Pershing 1Bs points out the complexity of reaching an arms agreement - and how vast numbers of nuclear warheads would remain in Europe even if an INF agreement is reached.
Experts divide European-based nuclear weapons into three basic types: intermediate (a range greater than 1,000 kilometers), short (a range from 500 km to 1,000 km) and shortest (range less than 500 km).
The ongoing INF negotiations focus on intermediate weapons, the relatively new US Pershing and cruise missiles and Soviet SS-20s. But the US is worried about short-range missiles, where Soviet forces vastly outnumber NATO's.
US negotiators have long said that any INF pact should include some sort of side restraint on these ``little brothers,'' perhaps a clause saying NATO has the right to match Soviet short-range deployment. The Soviet Union has made positive noises about this idea but never has said yes outright.
Earlier this month Army Gen. Maxwell Thurman, testifying before Congress, spelled out what the Pentagon wants to do. He proposed taking Pershing 2s rendered surplus by an INF agreement and downsizing them into the short-range category by lopping off their second stage.
Pentagon officials say they are serious about matching Soviet short-range forces, and that so-called Pershing 1Bs are the most cost-effective way of doing it.
``We've spent billions of dollars on [Pershings],'' says a senior Pentagon official. ``To cut them up and then turn around and ask for more billions for a short-range weapon, I don't think we would get it.''
Confronted with the details of the Pentagon's proposals, Soviet officials have turned frosty. In an interview published March 22, former chief arms negotiator Viktor Karpov said the possible Pershing 1B proved that the whole US INF position ``was a bluff right from the start,'' and that the US was backtracking out of the INF negotiations.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman retorted on March 23 that the Soviet charges were ``patently false,'' and that the Soviets have long known the US would propose something like converting the Pershing missiles.
Technically, the conversion would be easy. Pershings have been test-flown in the 1B configuration, according to the Pentagon.
But some US critics of administration arms policies claim the proposal could set a worrisome example. The Soviet intermediate-range SS-20 began life as the longer-range, strategic SS-16, points out Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association. Soviet arms planners could decide to reconvert SS-20s made excess by any INF pact to SS-16s by simply adding a stage.
``That would be a heck of an INF arms agreement - no reduction in warheads, just a shuffling of weapon ranges,'' Mr. Mendelsohn observes.
But thousands of nuclear warheads will remain in Europe, no matter what happens with the INF negotiations. Both sides have huge piles of so-called battlefield nukes - the shortest range category.