Speaking to the nation on Nov. 22, President Reagan painted a frightening -- and misleading -- picture of overwhelming Soviet military might contrasted with a stagnant and aging American nuclear deterrent. After hearing the president, you have to wonder what has been holding the Soviets back. But, fortunately, the president was doing a commercial for basing the MX in Dense Pack and not describing reality.

Let's look at the facts rather than the caricature put forward by President Reagan. First and most important, his glossy televison graphics omitted the principal measure of destructive capability, nuclear warheads. It is warheads, not missiles, that explode and kill. Had he shown this comparison, the country would have seen that the United States and the Soviet Union each has roughly 7,500 missile warheads. When bombs and short-range missiles on strategic bombers are added, the United States has a substantial lead, some 9,500 to perhaps 8,000 for the Soviets.

It is true, as the president said, that the Soviets have more missiles. But, again, let's look at the facts. By the mid-1970s, the United States completed placing multiple, independently targetable warheads on its missile force. The Soviets are still doing that. The Soviets have indeed introduced new types of land-based missiles since the United States began fielding the Minuteman, but Minuteman III is still more accurate than Soviet missiles, and a new, more powerful warhead and advanced guidance system is being deployed on it. To think of the modernized Minuteman of the 1980s as equivalent to the 1960s vintage Minuteman I is absurd.

The situation with regard to missiles at sea is overwhelmingly favorable to the United States. The Soviets do have more sea-launched missiles, but only recently began introducing multiple warheads on them. Many of their sea-based missiles are short-range and aging; their submarines cannot compare with ours technologically or in capability. In our forces, all the old Polaris SLBMs have been replaced by longer-range Poseidons, and the Trident I is now entering the force, both in Poseidon submarines and in the brand new Trident boats. Carried on virtually invulnerable submarines, the U.S. SLBM force has over 5,000 warheads, while the Soviets have only about 1,500. Although the president did not say so, we are fortunate that U.S. defense planners had the foresight to put over 50 percent of the American deterrent at sea. By contrast, the Soviets, with better than 65 percent of their warheads on land-based missiles, will face a grave vulnerability of the bulk of their deterrent by the end of this decade when the super accurate Trident II is introduced.

Another comparison the president neglected to mention is the enormous bomber advantage possessed by the United States, both in numbers and capability. The United States has now begun deployment of air-launched cruise missiles on B52s, which will enable these planes to launch an attack hundreds of miles away from Soviet air defenses. The Soviets do not have a comparable capability. The United States plans to deploy more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles (and hundreds more on surface ships and submarines).

The president also made it appear that NATO is almost naked in the face of the Soviet SS20 intermediate-range missile. He ignored the hundreds of nuclear bombers the United States, Britain and France maintain in Western Europe and on aircraft carriers in adjacent waters. Nor did he allude to the fact that our British and French allies have about 180 sea- and land-based missiles aimed at the Soviet Union, or that they have ambitious modernization programs to upgrade these forces.

Finally, the president dredged up the old comparison of U.S. and Soviet defense spending, with the graphics showing the Soviets spending vastly more than we. The sad fact is that no one (outside the Kremlin) really knows how much the Soviets spend on their military. The United States estimates Soviet military spending by calculating how much it would cost us to buy and maintain equivalent forces. That means that every time the U.S. military gets a pay raise, estimates of Soviet defense spending go up. Every time there is a cost overrun on a big American defense program, Soviet weapons cost more.

By distorting reality to make a case of basing the MX in Dense Pack, the president is doing a serious disservice to the American public. He is making us appear weak when we are immensely strong. He is making the Soviets look superior, when in fact, there is overall nuclear balance. Concern for America's security did not begin with Ronald Reagan's election. Congress and every administration, Republican and Democratic, have worked hard to maintain adequate defenses -- and although one can quarrel about whether priorities between nuclear and conventional forces were right, I believe that in terms of quality and capability, U.S. forces are second to none. To imply otherwise is not the way for the president to make his argument for Dense Pack.

Perhaps the most objectionable aspect of the president's speech was his attempt to portray the MX Dense Pack decision as designed to advance the cause of arms control. His message to Congress was either support Dense Pack or undermine the hope for serious reductions. This is the old bargaining-chip theory all over again -- support something whether it makes sense or not just so we can trade it in arms control negotiations.

I don't buy it.

The way to halt the nuclear arms race is to freeze it immediately before there is another dramatic escalation. There is a nuclear balance now, and it is time to stop.