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Aging missiles: a useful sideshow to superpower arms talks. As the superpowers jockey for an arms deal, a key bone of contention is the presence of Pershing 1A missiles in West Germany. Disruptive though this tussle could be, it is a fight with benefits for the US, Soviets, and West Germans.

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The 72 aging Pershing 1A missiles may be only a sideshow when compared with the 1,700 modern medium-range nuclear missiles that would be destroyed under the superpower arms-control agreement that currently is shaping up. But they promise to be a particularly useful sideshow for Moscow, Washington, and - when viewed in hindsight - probably even for Bonn.

First the Soviets. They have run a forceful campaign against the 720-kilometer-range (450-mile) West German Pershing 1As. The Soviets call the Pershing 1As the major remaining barrier to an agreement on worldwide elimination of all superpower intermediate-range missiles (INF), with ranges between 500 km (310 miles) and 5,500 km (3,440 miles). Moscow says since the warheads are American, these weapons should be included in the superpower ban. The US rejects this, arguing that the missiles themselves belong to a third country for whom it cannot negotiate.

Various Soviet spokesmen, including Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, have stressed there will be no INF agreement without a resolution of the Pershing 1A issue. But the Soviets haven't totally ruled out what Westen diplomats believe is the most likely solution: letting the missiles expire of obsolescence by the early 1990s - within the same time frame in which an INF agreement would be implemented.

Until the scheduled September meetig between Mr. Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State George Shultz in Washington, the Pershing 1A issue is a useful brake for the Soviets on the otherwise far advanced INF negotiation. The brake comes at a point when Moscow would like to let the trategic arms control talks (which have been taking place in Geneva at the same time) catch up with the INF talks to press for an American decision on the Strategic Defense Initiative program and comprehensive arms control.

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