HAGGLING over verification has been one of the toughest parts of past superpower arms treaty talks. That's why the Bush administration is proposing that the United States and Soviet Union start trial inspections of long-range missile facilities before any strategic arms reduction pact is signed, according to Defense Secretary Richard Cheney.
By getting an early start on the difficult problem of settling verification details, ``you might make negotiations simpler rather than more complex,'' Secretary Cheney said at a breakfast with reporters.
US officials are particularly interested in early inspections of the Soviet's SS-24 rail-mobile missile, first deployed in 1987. If the US could place inspection teams around the perimeter of SS-24 production facilities now, officials would have confidence in their count of how many such missiles existed by the time strategic arms talks (START) reach any conclusion. Senate ratification of a treaty would be easier, as Senate conservatives typically raise arms verification concerns, Mr. Cheney said.
But critics say this proposal could mean a substantial delay in strategic arms talks progress. They say the US doesn't need experiments in tough verification practices, because intrusive procedures such as on-site monitoring are now being conducted to enforce the already-signed intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty. The proposal ``raises serious questions as to whether the Bush administration is seriously interested in getting a START agreement,'' said Arms Control Association president Spurgeon Keeney.
One of the longstanding START problems is the question of what to do about mobile missiles such as the SS-24. The US has called for a flat ban on mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), saying that they are too hard to track. The Soviets want them to be permitted, but capped by a numerical limit.
Cheney said that he would ``recommend coming off the mobile ban'' if the Soviets agree to the pretreaty verification proposal, and if US congressmen step up and vote the funds for a US mobile missile.
The Bush administration has proposed taking 50 MX missiles and putting them on rails, and then following with production of the Midgetman single-warhead road-mobile ICBM. Cheney responded to criticism that the administration is not enthusiastic about Midgetman by saying that Pentagon plans now call for spending more than $1 billion on the weapon between now and its planned operational date of 1997.
Cheney indicated that he foresaw no quick movement on other outstanding START problems, such as whether or not it should be linked with limits on strategic defenses, or whether it would include easy-to-hide sea-launched cruise missiles. When asked whether the administration had settled its internal arguments about these issues, Cheney cheerily replied, ``Of course not,'' and said that he now felt it true that the toughest part of arms talks was settling positions within the US government, not negotiating with the Russians.
On other issues, Cheney said that a visit to the B-2 production plant in California had helped convince him that the new bomber ``is an extremely important capability for us to go ahead and procure,'' despite the fact that he has already ordered a one-year delay in the program because of technical and cost problems. The Pentagon chief said the total cost of the program would be $70 billion.
Cheney also denied published reports that the job of undersecretary of defense acquisition had been offered to 25 people, with no takers so far. Only two offers had actually been made, he said.
``Want a job?'' he asked a reporter who inquired about the situation.