It would seem to be an inauspicious time for personnel shifts in the Reagan administration. The President has just over a year left in office. One arms control treaty with the Soviets is nearly completed. Another is in the talking stages. A superpower summit is scheduled for just a month from now.
Even so, Frank Carlucci, President Reagan's national security adviser, will be nominated secretary of defense, replacing the departing Caspar Weinberger.
Most Washington analysts are predicting a smooth transition for Mr. Carlucci, with minimal disruption for the department.
Moreover, some analysts predict that the prospects for arms control will be somewhat enhanced by the transition now under way in Washington.
The job change ``is going to mean a great deal'' for arms control prospects, says Dmitri Simes, a Soviet specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Carlucci, who previously held senior posts in the Pentagon and the State Department, is a veteran of Washington's bureaucratic battles. He has also impressed congressmen, since taking over as head of the National Security Council (NSC) staff nearly a year ago, with his knowledge of the political process, the necessity of compromise, and the wisdom of consultation with Congress.
One official, who is familiar with Carlucci's performance at the NSC, says, ``He's done quite a lot to rebuild'' the staff since the excesses and embarrassments of the Iran-contra affair. The official, who asked not to be named, said he was impressed with not only Carlucci's ability to get things done, but also his understanding of the importance of consultation.
Carlucci's style, says another observer, is ``cautious,'' although he does hold strong opinions.
A number of congressional leaders have predicted that Carlucci will have few problems being confirmed as secretary of defense and will quickly settle in to his new job. That could, according to one arms control specialist, create a new relationship among the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, and it could also affect administration willingness to enter into arms control treaties.
Carlucci has, according to a number of administration officials, demanded firm provisions for verification in the current treaty that is been negotiated with the Soviets eliminating certain classes of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF).
``He can talk tough when he needs to,'' says an administration official.
But he is not, by most accounts, nearly as intransigent on arms control agreements per se as the departing Caspar Weinberger.
Mr. Weinberger and Richard Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense, were considered the chief critics of arms control agreements during the first six years of the Reagan administration.
Carlucci also has a better relationship with Secretary of State George Shultz than did Weinberger, who was frequently at odds with Mr. Shultz on a wide variety of issues.
Carlucci has sparred with Shultz, and has overridden his advice on certain key arms control issues. But, according to one administration official, he has always left the impression that he is open to persuasion and his opinions are not cast in stone. Carlucci, for example, is - like Weinberger - an advocate of research into weapons systems that would defend against incoming nuclear missiles, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'').
But, says one arms control analyst, Carlucci's commitment is neither as passionate nor as unwavering as Weinberger. Carlucci would, according to this analyst, search for ways to preserve the essentials of SDI research, but might not be averse to making some concessions in order to gain a treaty limiting long-range nuclear missiles.
Mr. Simes, for example, says that Carlucci is not committed to a specific form of testing of SDI components.
Weinberger, on the other hand, favored test procedures that almost certainly would have forced the US to skirt the limits of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, if not breach it entirely.
``The chances for an [arms control] compromise involving SDI are going to increase dramatically'' under Carlucci, says Simes.