THE RISE of formal arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s as centerpieces of their strategic relationship produced sharp increases in the need to make sure that any agreements reached between them were being lived up to. This initially started off as a problem of verification to guard against cheating or sudden breakout from an agreement. By the late 1970s, however, verification took on domestic significance in the United States because of the need to convince Congress and the American public that the negotiated SALT II agreement really could be entered into without endangering U.S. security.

For the particular case of the unratified SALT II agreement, the arguments about its verifiability became murky, because the question is not strictly a technical one of counting missile launchers and warheads. Raw numbers are important not in themselves, but because of what they mean. By encrypting the radio signals of a missile test, the Soviets could reduce our ability to know the accuracy and reliability of their rockets, thereby increasing our uncertainty about the overall effectiveness of their arsenal. Furthermore, evidence across several American administrations suggests that the Soviets may not be only ones to doctor information concerning nuclear forces. Release of data and interpretations to suit whatever political fashion that happens to be in power have not been unknown in Washington.

Arms Control Verification is a work that gives the educated public insight into the arcane world of the technologies that underlie assessments of whether or not states are living up to the agreements they enter into. No unclassified work can answer this question definitively, but it can make the case for deciding whether or not an agreement is capable of being verified. The result of a conference of technologists meeting at MIT in 1984, the book is conveniently divided into three sections: the verification process, imaging technologies, and monitoring. There are many fine contributions across the diverse range of disciplines that go into this important subject.

William Colby, the former CIA director, gives a clear overview of the intelligence process as it applies to arms control verification. His major point: that the question is not whether an agreement is being violated, but whether "the Soviet Union could secretly violate an arms control agreement in any degree significant to our national security." David Hafemeister follows up on this with a sensitivity analysis of the breakout from an arms control agreement -- "that is, a sudden deployment of forbidden weapons intended to shift the strategic balance drastically." His operations research model illustrates how to understand the significance of violations that do occur. THE SECTION dealing with imaging technologies, that is, electronic and other emissions used to develop a picture of an object or area, is a useful technical reference work that will likely convince most people that advances in this field have been greater than generally believed. A chapter by Morley Blouke and James Janesick deals with recent advances in devices that tranform light into electric signals, something that makes possible direct observation of targets and reduces reaction time greatly. President Kennedy had to wait many hours for pictures of missiles in Cuba to be processed. Film from aircrafts had to be flown to base, developed, and rushed by courier to intelligence analysts. Technical advances are making it possible to reduce this time down to seconds or minutes without significant loss of quality. Satellites transmit pictures to earth ground stations where they reproduce the sensor image immediately, a capability that could be extremely important for political control of a crisis, or for warning of attack.

The late Herbert Scoville describes how agreements like SALT II are monitored for compliance. He concludes that today significant noncompliance can be detected, but points out that current and future weapons developments such as the cruise missile may not be susceptible of monitoring. Here is one of the new challanges to verification, one that will become much more important as the numbers of cruise missiles in the arsenal of each side increase to levels where they can threaten the opponent's forces. Without a mutual restraint on cruise missile testing and deployment, major gaps in verification may develop, gaps that could erode the prospect for any negotiated agreements.

The importance of noninterference in the verification and monitoring of arms agreements by antisatellite weapons is taken up by Richard Garwin. He proposes a treaty banning antisatellite weapons. These weapons have yet to be examined in functional terms, that is, using more than a damage exchange ratio of the number of each side's satellites that could be destroyed by the various killers each possesses. Garwin paints a picture in which the United States and the Soviets are continuously jockeying for an optimal position to launch a blinding strike on each other's satellites. Space mines and ultimatums are the tools of satellite warfare. One of the most frightening strategic possibilities arises when one or both sides is in the dark about what is being done to it, a situation that could arise from unconstrained development of these weapons. A negotiated agreement to avert this possibility, like a counterpart agreement against cruise missiles, would benefit verification, yet seems unlikely because of political obstacles.

Other chapters deal with monitoring of nuclear test bans and production of materials for nuclear bombs. The news here is that the technical ability to distinguish between a nuclear test and an earthquake appears to have gotten much better in recent years. VERALL this book is an important contribution to the understanding of arms control and national security because it throws light on obscure areas of technology. What does it all mean? At one level, the one the book focuses on, verification technology has improved considerably and this needs to be stated. However, there are other dimensions of the problem that were not the main purpose of this book. First, the advent of cruise missiles is part of a broader trend to develop weapons that are difficult to detect. The Stealth bomber and even quieter submarines all move in this direction with the effect that attacks may be difficult to detect until it is too late to do anything about them. Add the potential of antisatellite weapons based on electronic interference or other means, and it is not clear where the contest between evasion and verification comes out.

Finally, the technologies used for arms control verification also have utility for less benign purposes. Sensors that can detect atmospheric nuclear tests can also be used to retarget missiles in a nuclear war, to ensure that all important military targets are destroyed. Infrared technology can warn of missile launch, but it can also reveal information about which missile silos have been fired, allowing one side to launch without wasting missiles against empty holes. It would be naive to believe that the recent developments in sensor and information technology will have consequences only for making the world a more stable place. Their ultimate effect is as yet too early to determine. Paul Bracken, who teaches in the School of Organization and Management at Yale University, is the author of "The Command and Control of Nuclear Weapons."