With the return of Congress last week came the resumption of debate on the proposed strategic arms limitation treaty - SALT II - plunging newspaper readers back into a confusing world of missile counts, warhead sizes, first-strike capabilities and counterforce weapons. In an effort to cut through this confusion, Outlook this week begins a series of articles assessing the fundamental issues that underlie the debate.

THE SALT II agreement may weather the current storm over Soviet troops in Cuba, but even if it is ratified, this will mark not the beginning of a process but the end of an experiment. The 100-page treaty, which reads like the prospectus for a bond issue, is neither disarmament nor arms control but an exercise in joint arms management. The treaty has secured the acquiescence of the military in both countries because it ratifies the huge weapons acquisition programs both are pushing.

The support of the hawks has been purchased by an "arms dividend," a commitment to increase military spending 5 percent a year above inflation. According to the Senate Budget Committee, the dividend alone will cost the taxpayer an extra $129 billion over five years, bringing the total military expenditures for that period to almost $1 trillion. The Soviets also welcome SALT as a ratification of their weapons program and will not hesitate to match or to try to surpass the new U.S. buildups. None of this will transgress anything in the 100 pages, but it will not, obviously, move the world to arms reduction nor reduce the mounting dangers of war by miscalculation.

The SALT debate has skewed the issues because it has focused on narrow alternatives and has failed to clarify the purposes of arms agreements or to raise the basic political and moral issues at stake. The political world is divided between those like the Committee on the Present Danger who believe that any agreement the Soviet Union would sign puts the United States in mortal danger and those who take the administration view that any agreement helps the political climate and promotes a "process."

In this debate, the reasons why the United States or the Soviet Union should want to limit the nuclear arms buildup have been lost. The argument has really been about which side struck the better deal. When the "arms dividend" is included, it is evident that SALT is something to stir the hearts of generals, defense contractors and senators from states brimming with military reservations and arms plants.

The treaty should be ratified, not because the world will be substantially safer with it but because it will be even more dangerous if negotiations on arms with the Soviet Union are broken off. But merely to continue the SALT "process" would be almost as hopeless a response to the mounting danger we face. That danger is increasing because both sides are emphasizing hair-trigger "counterforce" technology -- more accurate warheads, more "war-fighting options" -- and the pressure is mounting on both sides to develop strategies to insure that weapons, as they become more vulnerable, are not caught on the ground. Thus the incentive to produce more weapons and to program them for firing sooner rather than later is increasing in both military establishments. In a world of "first strike" technology and "launch on warning" strategies, the minutes available for making decisions about war and peace are dangerously compressed and the chances of fatal human error multiply.

Arms agreements are desperately needed to break this spiral. But the only agreements that will have that effect are simple agreements that would force the two sides to choose between continuing the arms race or stopping. The world cannot afford to wait another seven years of accelerated arms buildup to produce another intricate prospectus for managing the arms race. The next agreement must cut through the ambiguities of the arms race or it too will prove to be a stimulant rather than a brake.

To create a positive political climate for reversing the arms race, agreements should meet three criteria. First, they should demonstrably increase perceptions of security on both sides. Second, a stable new arms relationship should have clear economic payoffs for both sides. Third, the primary purpose of the agreement should be to remove ambiguities about intentions. The greatest perceived threats are not the weapons already built, although they are more than adequate to destroy both societies, but the weapons about to be built. New weapons systems convey threatening intentions. Ultimate intentions are always mysterious, but the question can be rendered irrelevant by an agreement which is sufficiently clear and comprehensive.

Within a controlled but continuing nuclear arms race there is always room for arguing that the agreement favors one side or the other. However, a freeze on all new weapons systems would make it clear that both sides indeed intend to stop the arms race. A mutually agreed upon moratorium on the procurement, testing and deployment of all bombers, missiles and warheads for three years is in the interests of both the United States and the Soviet Union.

A rough "balance" of nuclear forces now exists, which, according to the administration, still favors the United States. The next round of the arms race can only work to the economic and strategic disadvantage of this country and create new perils for the entire world. A more comprehensive agreement would have fewer exceptions and fewer technicalities. The simpler and more comprehensive, the fairer it is likely to appear to both sides. It would be simpler to understand and to verify. It would fulfill the primary purpose of arms agreements by removing ambiguities about intentions.

During the moratorium the two sides could negotiate deep cuts in strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems. It hardly makes sense to destroy old weapons systems while replacing them with more dangerous new systems.

Stopping the arms race would require significant internal changes in the national security establishments of both societies, including a serious program for conversion of military industry. Such changes represent the most reliable form of verification, for they require leaders in both countries to reverse major policies and to confront powerful domestic interests in order to commit the societies to arms reduction. Real internal changes in the direction of peace are far more reassuring than professions of peace or agreements like SALT II that are compatible with either an intention to move to arms limitation or to a new stage in the arms race.

Sen. Mark Hatfield has proposed a moratorium along these lines as an amendment to the SALT II treaty. The Soviet Union has made several proposals in the past few years for a ban on "all new weapons systems." The proposals have been general and have elicited no reaction from the United States. The standard view in Washington is that they are merely propaganda.

Yet the Soviets have never been put to the test. In the 35-year history of arms negotiations, U.S. analysts have consistently misinterpreted Soviet intentions and the cost has been enormous. The fictitious "bomber gap" and "missile gap" of the 1950s caused the U.S. taxpayer to spend billions for unnecessary weapons. The complacency of the 1960s, when U.S. military leaders assumed the Soviet Union was resigned to permanent inferiority, led to the present climate of alarm. It is time to stop guessing about Soviet intentions and put forward agreements which require them to choose between peace or further preparation for war.

The only road to national security is to reverse the arms race, but that cannot be done without first calling it to a halt. We have the technological capability to match any conceivable Soviet buildup. But we cannot continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the military without risking mortal danger to our economy, which is the foundation of our national strength. In a time of austerity, increasing the military budget while the domestic programs are being slashed raises the issue, not of guns versus butter, but of missiles versus the local police and firefighters.

The distortion of priorities has become so acute that as the administration counsels a 5 percent "real" increase in military spending each year, essential services in every major American city are being cut. To suggest that the threat of "Finlandization," to which the arms buildup is presumbably addressed, is a greater threat to the people of Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles or Detroit than the loss of social services, the breakdown of the education system, the rise in crime, the alarming increase in infant mortality, the impending municipal bankruptcies, or the continuing failure to invest adequately in alternative energy systems is to distort national security strategy and to misconstrue the meaning of "strength." The same is also true of the Soviet Union. For both of us, the return on investment in the military is declining. The heavy burden preempts not just scarce capital, but political energy and managerial skill needed to address the real threats facing both societies.