President Reagan met for an hour yesterday at the White House with his top arms-control advisers but did not reach a decision on whether the United States will continue complying with limits of the unratified SALT II treaty, according to White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
Reagan is expected to decide in the next day or two and then send ambassadors Paul Nitze and Edward L. Rowny to consult allies on his proposed course before announcing it next week.
Reagan is searching for a way to respond to what he has called a pattern of Soviet violations of arms-control agreements.
In a letter before yesterday's meeting, Reagan was urged to stay within the SALT II strategic arms limits by Sam Nunn (Ga.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a respected congressional voice on defense matters.
Reagan surprised aides last June by ordering that missiles on an old Poseidon nuclear-powered submarine be dismantled in order to remain within the SALT II limits when a newer Trident nuclear submarine began sea trials.
Saying then that he was "going the extra mile" to encourage the Soviets to change their ways, Reagan said he would seek "proportionate responses" to Soviet treaty violations.
Next month, the United States will exceed a SALT II limit on multiwarhead missiles when a new Trident, the USS Nevada, is to begin a six-month sea trial. The Nevada's 24 missiles will be 22 above the limit. To stay within the treaty, Reagan must order dismantling of an equal number now deployed.
The Navy is prepared to take two older Poseidons out of service and dismantle their 32 missiles. Thereafter, one of the Poseidons is to be used as a training ship, while the other is refurbished and made available for special operations.
Some key Reagan advisers, including Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, Arms Control and Disarmament Director Kenneth L. Adelman and Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey, want to send a signal to the Soviets that the United States will not continue to tolerate violations.
One plan that they have suggested calls for delaying treaty adherence by temporarily putting the two submarines in dry dock to see if that encourages Soviet compliance, according to officials. If it does not, the two would be overhauled and returned to sea, missiles intact.
The Navy has not supported that proposal, which also has met opposition from Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Nitze. They want Reagan to adopt responses that do not breach SALT II.
The forthcoming decision may provide the last chance for anti-SALT officials to break the 1979 treaty that Reagan has called "fatally flawed." The next opportunity for a major breach would not come until September 1988 when another Trident is scheduled for sea trial.
In his letter to Reagan, Nunn noted that the most recent White House report on SALT II violations showed that the Soviets had moved toward compliance on several issues. Given such movement, Nunn said a U.S. move to break the limits would be unwise.
Nunn did, however, take issue with the Navy's plan to dismantle the submarine missiles. Instead, he said, the United States should dismantle 22 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), on grounds that they are vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. The 32 Poseidon missiles are invulnerable and represent 320 warheads, he said.
As a way to show dissatisfaction with alleged Soviet violations, Nunn suggested that Reagan support the Midgetman mobile ICBM to counter Moscow's SS25 missile.
To counter new Soviet radar in central Siberia that violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Nunn proposed funding penetration aids for current missiles that could help confuse the radars.
He also suggested putting additional warheads on missiles where permissible under the treaty.
When the Soviets violate SALT II by encoding missile-test data to hide new weapons' characteristics, Nunn proposed enhancing monitoring systems to obtain the data by other means. Nunn said Reagan should attempt "to preserve the core elements [of the treaty] where compliance is not in doubt."