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Air Force chief sees compliance as vital issue in arms talks

The thaw in arms-control talks between the United States and the Soviet Union gets a qualified endorsement from the nation's top Air Force officer. The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Larry D. Welch, says the Soviet offer to sign a separate agreement to eliminate medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe is ``a very positive step forward. The Soviets have removed one of the major obstacles'' to an agreement.

From the US viewpoint, that obstacle was the Soviets' insistence that the three sets of talks - covering strategic nuclear weapons, intermediate-range weapons, and space-based weapons - be linked. This in effect tied the prospects of an arms treaty to progress on the one issue over which the two sides were digging in their heels the most firmly, President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as the ``star wars'' program.

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``If the proposal that is on the table at Geneva is in fact in consonance with what we've heard about - and, by the way, that's not always the case - then ... it looks like a major concession by the Soviets,'' General Welch says. As of press time Thursday, the Soviets had not presented a draft treaty covering medium-range nuclear weapons, although on Monday they formally presented Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's call to eliminate the weapons from Europe within five years. The US delegation presented to the Soviets a 40-page draft treaty on Wednesday.

Verification and the question of short-range nuclear weapons remain ``the two most difficult problems to be solved,'' Welch told a group of Monitor reporters and editors during an interview here.

``There's no way, by national technical means, to adequately verify'' an arms pact covering mobile missiles, such as the Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing 2, he says. The phrase ``national technical means'' refers to the satellites and electronic listening posts that are used to check on compliance with strategic-arms treaties. ``The only means that any of us can imagine that would really provide the degree of confidence you need will require a considerably different approach than we have taken in the past. It will require some highly intrusive verification methods that neither we nor the Soviets have agreed to in the past.''

He says that those might include sending people or sensors to check that missiles were being destroyed.

The Soviets are said to have accepted, in principle, the notion of on-site inspection to verify compliance with a treaty on intermediate-range weapons. They are also said to be willing to include treaty language covering short-range weapons. The key, US negotiators say, will be to see what kind of specifics can be distilled from those general statements.

Says Welch, ``The agreement has to be that ... the missiles are in fact destroyed and that there is reliable verification that they've been destroyed ... and that they are not replaced.''

With the activity in Geneva sparking hopes that agreements can be reached on strategic weapons as well, Welch notes that greater attention is likely to be paid to air defense against bombers and cruise missiles. Once the threat from ICBMs starts to shrink, ``then bombers and cruise missiles would become more important in the equation,'' he says. ``I predict that there would be an increased emphasis on defense against bombers and bomber weapons.''