The United States and the Soviet Union announced yesterday they will resume nuclear strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) at the specialist level starting May 11 in Geneva.
The resumption does not signify a break-through at the critical political level of decision-making, informed sources said. Talks at the political level, however, will continue in Washington, pointing toward a Geneva meeting a few days later in May between Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III announced the May 11 meeting. The American delegation will be headed by Paul C. Warnke, chief U.S. SALT negotiator and director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. This will be the Carter administration's first participation in the SALT experts' talks in Geneva.
Tass, the Soviet news agency, made a similar announcement, also noting that in addition to resumption of discussions at the specialist level, the two sides also are continuing SALT talks "on other levels."
In the Kremlin last month, the United States and the Soviet Union rejected each other's proposals for breaking the SALT deadlock. Vance and Warnke have since been meeting in Washington with veteran Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin, in search of a path through that stalemate. Warnke told a Senate subcommittee last week, "It is my impression that we will find a negotiating framework."
That political search will go on while the specialists confer on the technicalities of a new accord. A 1972 temporary U.S.-Soviet limitation on intercontinental nuclear weapons expires Oct. 3.
Spokesman Carter said yesterday "the important thing" about the talks "is that the process of discussion and of negotiation is going forward."
There was a Vance-Dobrynin meeting on Monday for about 30 minutes, Carter said, but he did not say it was on SALT. Other sources indicated that the Monday meeting, unattended by Warnke, was on other U.S.-Soviet matters apart from arms control.
Subjects listed by Carter for the next Geneva technical negotiations did not include the central topics on which Moscow and Washington are most divided. At the top of this unresolved list are American long-range cruise missiles, the pilotless planes that the Soviet Union wants to restrict, and Soviet bombers known as Backfire, which the United States wants to restrict.
In Moscow last month the United States unsuccessfully proposed, as one alternative, putting both those disputes aside and confirming the limits on strategic weapons set by former President Ford and Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev at Vladivostok in 1974. The U.S. preference, however, was for leapfrogging the SALT negotiations by making "drastic cuts" in the missile and bomber levels projected in 1974. The Soviet Union balked at both plans.
When the Geneva technical talks resume May 11, the subjects that American and Soviet specialists officially will be discussing according to spokesman Carter, are:
Verifyint weapons with multiple, independently targetable warheads, known as MIRVs; overcoming deliberate concealment of weapons from satellite or aircraft reconnaissance; furnishing a data base (the Soviet Union never has supplied an inventory of its own strategic weapons), and guarding against transfers to other countries of sophisticated weapons technology.
The hope on the U.S. side is that bringing the two SALT delegations together in Geneva will reinforce attempts at a political compromise, and give the Carter administration's newcomers bargaining experience. Warnke is expected to attend the subsequent Vance-Gromyko meetings, just after Vance concludes a round of meetings in Europe, ending May 15.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Whip Alan Cranston (Calif.) independently outlined yesterday a SALT compromise, which he said has been discussed with some Russians and some Americans, whom he declined to identify.
Cranston said he was "not floating anything for the Carter administration."
The Cranston proposal reflect concern that the administration may find itself immobilized between the so-called hawks and the doves - in and out of Congress - who now support it, and therefore politically unable to strike a compromise with the Russians.
Cranston put forth what he called a "Vladivostok-plus" formula," which would "add a little bit but not a lot of what was negotiated at Vladivostok." Under that 1974 formula, each side would be limited to 2,400 intercontinental missiles and bombers, of which 1,320 could have multiple warheads.