WASHINGTON -- Rehearsals have started.
The Russians are coming, to inspect America's missiles and bombers and count the nuclear weapons they can carry. A lot of details must be arranged.
U.S. inspectors likewise will be spreading out in the Soviet Union, for an on-the-ground look at the Armageddon arsenal there. Presumably Moscow is planning similar hospitality.
The rush won't start until the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- signed by Presidents Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow July 31 -- is ratified, which it presumably will be. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers say hearings may begin late next month.
The United States can implement the treaty limits without much change in what it was already going to do. Limits on missiles, bombers and nuclear warheads do not force many cuts beyond those planned because of budget stringencies, the end of the Cold War and the anticipation of a treaty.
But the provisions for policing compliance call for the most comprehensive inspections ever seen in an arms control pact, top officers at the Pentagon say, with hearty approval.
People on the ground, as the independent Arms Control Association has put it, will buttress the longtime "technological vigilance" of satellites, spy planes, ships and electronic eavesdropping devices spread about the globe.
No time is being lost in getting ready. Soviet teams will be able -- as will Americans -- to visit missile and bomber bases, certain production facilities, weapons destruction areas and other places to check on treaty compliance and verify data exchanged by negotiators and periodically updated.
Mock inspections already have started at some military installations, officers say. The military hates surprises and glitches.
Everything is being arranged and tested -- from routes that inspectors' cars will take on far-flung and sprawling missile bases to how to shroud all the rest of a missile from view while letting a Soviet officer peer into the top to inspect the nuclear warhead part.
All sorts of little administrative details -- like helping visiting Soviets experience the delights of American supermarkets and department stores -- are being worked out.
The organization in charge of the inspection part of the treaty is the Defense Department's On-Site Inspection Agency (OSIA). It was set up to police compliance with the 1987 treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
That treaty was simple compared with the complicated formulas for limiting weapons and the verification provisions of the new START pact.
Under the direction of Maj. Gen. Robert W. Parker, a 49-year old officer with long strategic weapons experience in the Strategic Air Command and the Pentagon, the OSIA is expected perhaps to double its size as START comes into force. Today it has 480 inspectors, linguists, escort personnel and other staff from the Defense and State departments, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the FBI.
Hundreds more from the Air Force and Navy will be involved. Base commanders, subject to both routine arrivals and short-notice visits when something amiss is suspected, are being instructed on what they can and cannot show and will be forming their own teams.
The OSIA will have about 30 officers each stationed at two Soviet mobile missile assembly facilities, Votkinsk for the SS-25 missile and Pavlograd for the SS-24. A Soviet team will continuously monitor the Thiokol facility at Promontory, Utah, where the MX missile's first rocket stage is fabricated. The MX is not a mobile missile, but making it mobile would be allowed under the treaty.
A mobile missile (only the Soviets have them) and-or bomber "show" can be demanded seven times a year by either party. The vehicles would have to be displayed in the open at bases specified by the inspector.
Besides gearing up for inspections, each side must endow certain look-alike vehicles with distinguishing characteristics so that visitors can tell them apart.
For example, B-52 bombers that carry long-range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles must be distinguishable from other bombers. Air-launched cruise missiles that have conventional, non-nuclear warheads are not limited under the treaty and must be made distinguishable from the nuclear types and can be carried on any aircraft.
Under the treaty, the United States would be able to carry out, without much change, the restructuring of its strategic nuclear forces that the Pentagon has described to Congress.
The present force of land- and submarine-based missile launchers and heavy bombers totals, for example, 2,246 vehicles, according to the U.S. Arms Control Agency. Under START, it has to be down to 1,600 missiles and bombers within seven years of ratification, probably meaning 1999.