WITH THE GENEVA arms talks about to resume, it's time to make some arms control predictions for the coming year.
Forget the wailing of anti-nuclear groups and handwringing from the Committee on the Present Danger, the superpower arms race already has slowed down and in the coming months will drop almost to a walk. That's thanks in good part to financial pressures that already have forced both the United States and the Soviet Union to cut spending for new, expensive strategic arms.
On the other hand, don't expect 1986 to bring any major new U.S- Soviet arms control agreements. That's because President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev want to continue to look tough to their own Washington or Moscow constituents, and because such agreements are increasingly difficult to write. As for another comprehensive, SALT-type treaty, it may have gone the way of the hula hoop.
Though the Geneva talks will generate headlines, budgetary restraints, domestic politics and international public relations will have more influence on superpower nuclear forces than arms control.
The truth that neither leader will admit is that after 40 years of investing billions in the nuclear arms race, the weapons have lost their military and political value in the battle of the superpowers. With 25,000 warheads on each side, there is no way either could use even one missile to his military advantage. And with no dramatic new breakthroughs in offensive nuclear weapons technology on the horizon that could give one side an exploitable, useful advantage over the other, their political or "nuclear blackmail" value has vanished.
At their November summit meeting, both leaders said they wanted to cut nuclear forces by 50 percent. While Geneva arms negotiators will have a hard time turning that into an agreement, weapons builders will have an even harder time inside the White House and the Kremlin selling costly new programs.
Propaganda blasts will continue in Washington and Moscow about the other side's programs, but underneath the noise it will be hard to find experts in either capital who get truly excited about another 1,000 or 2,000 warheads for the Soviet strategic rocket forces or the U.S. ground tests of lasers hitting immobile missiles, public relations targets for the president's strategic defense initiative (SDI), the so-called "Star Wars" research program.
The futility of the arms race should make coming to some Geneva agreement easy. But years of taking public positions for these negotiations have created myths that will be difficult for both sides to overcome, a task made more difficult because of the platoons of bureaucrats in both capitals who have specialized in the details of arms control.
They and their agents in Geneva must hammer out the actual language of any agreement. The guaranteed delaying device will be establishing the means for verification. Reagan Pentagon officials, who have made Soviet violations a household word, will now demand a foolproof compliance system, a task that is probably impossible.
When Reagan and Gorbachev meet for their second summit, probably late this summer, they won't be signing a broad new Geneva agreement on reducing strategic nuclear weapons or limiting space and defense systems. However, a freeze of European-based, U.S. Pershing IIs and ground-launched cruise missiles along with all Soviet SS20 intermediate-range missiles is a distinct, second summit possibility.
The Geneva talks will remain important because they focus public attention on arms control issues. The opening of each round requires both leaders to issue negotiating instructions clarifying their goals. Geneva also sets a deadline for the bureaucrats to come up with new ideas and creates a world stage for televison and print coverage of arms control issues.
Expectations of progress will be created within the two nations and throughout the world. Two already- planned summits guarantee the superpower competition will move toward a verbal peace race with the leaders debating who is more devoted to arms reductions.
The rhetoric has already begun to change.
Moscow's chief public criticism these days is directed at SDI. Reagan's blurry "dream" to make nuclear weapons obsolete by some defensive shield will not survive his administration. Congress has consistently cut SDI funding requests and at best it could not result in any weapons for at least 15 to 20 years.
Kremlin spokesmen, who just a few years ago were railing against impending war because of new U.S. weapons that could trigger a nuclear exchange, now must content themselves with calls for a peaceful future in space.
This is hardly a rallying cry to get people into the streets in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of protesters who were on the march just a few years ago against the NATO program in Europe that now sees 108 U.S. Pershing II nuclear missiles operational in West Germany, just 12 minutes from Soviet territory.
The Reagan anti-Soviet rhetoric has similarly softened.
These days, the Reagan administration's most boisterous complaints are directed against Soviet violations of past arms agreements, the worst of which is said to be a large radar designed to give Moscow protection against a U.S. missile attack. These reports make the public question the Soviets as trusted treaty partners, but hardly create the war- scare support needed to pay for building new, nuclear weapons.
As the substance of the U.S.- Soviet public arms debate calms down, their respective arms building programs also take on less threatening qualities.
Take the Reagan situation first. By the mid-1980s, presidential talk of the "window of vulnerability" -- an important rationale for the Reagan arms buildup -- has all but vanished. What is more interesting, Reagan's strategic arms buildup has actually resulted in a sharp reduction in Jimmy Carter's MX missile program.
The Soviet weapons-building program, though still described as threatening by Pentagon analysts, doesn't add to the already existing Soviet threat. For one thing, the newest Soviet land-based, ICBMs are mobile rather than silo-based missiles. In the past, U.S. experts have argued that mobile missiles would be less threatening because they are less accurate -- and designed to survive a first strike rather than launch one.
Washington and Moscow will continue taking old missiles out of service as new ones are deployed, paying particular attention to remaining within the numerical limits of the SALT I and SALT II agreements. The reason: The cost of maintaining the older weapons is greater than their military usefulness.
The best clue to Soviet intentions will be seen in how they handle replacement of their biggest and most threatening ICBM, the SS18. This liquid-fueled monster carries 10 warheads but is capable of carrying twice as many.
In early February, Reagan will submit his 1987 defense budget to Congress. He'll be hit the same weekend with the first effects of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law. In late February, the Soviets' 27th Communist Party Congress will approve a five-year defense program.
Those economic documents will set the terms for future U.S. and Soviet strategic forces and be the limiting factor on space weapons, far earlier than any complex language from Geneva.