The cruise missile era came into its own yesterday with President Carter's announcement that he would rely on the venerable B-52 armed with nuclear-tipped drones rather than keep building $102 million B-1 bombers.

His decision, assuming Congress gives him the money to implement it, will have far-reaching consequences as political and military leaders around the world reassess their own arsenals.

The United States is clearly ahead of everybody in developing the modern cruise missile, which follows a contour map in its mechanical brain as it flies low over the earth to the target.

The Soviet Union, which Pentagon leaders estimate is 10 years behind in this modernized weapon, now must confront the likelihood of being targeted by hard-to-hit cruise missiles as early as 1978. Pentagon studies handed to Carter concluded that a dumb airplane armed with a smart missile would be able to get through any defenses the Soviets will be able to build through 1990.

Because the B-52 already has racks to carry the Air Force cruise missile now being tested, this will be the first combination deployed. But Carter said yesterday he will look beyond the B-52 - a fleet of planes whose average age is 28, or older than many of its pilots - to see if civilian transports like the Boeing 747 can be converted to cruise missile planes.

The Air Force is already working on cruise missiles more menacing than the ALCM - an acronym for air launched cruise missile. Instead of the subsonic ALCM, which flies at 300 to 500 miles an hour, the Air Force is developing a supersonic cruise missile that would give an enemy less warning of an attack.

The faster the cruise missile becomes, the more it will undercut the argument that the weapon provides so much warning time that the Soviets need not fear its being used for a surprise attack. The threat of cruise missiles advancing into supersonic, strategic weapons is why some arms control specialists would have preferred the B-1, even though it, too, was destined to carry cruise missiles in its bomb bay.

"From an arms control standpoint," Thomas A. Halsted, director of the Arms Control Association, said last night, "the B-1 was not especially troublesome though it was a tremendous waste of money." The cruise missile, he added, "could become a serious problem" for arms control if it advances beyond the limits outlined by Carter yesterday, such as winding up in Germany as a land-based weapon.

Carter said yesterday that "we have a fairly compatible position with the Soviets" on what the maximum range of the air launched cruise missile should be - enough distance "to be launched as a stand-off weapon without the carrying airplane having to encroached into the Soviet territory."

Although Carter did not specify yesterday what distance he had in mind, administration officials have offered to limit the range of air launched cruise missiles to 1,550 miles. Carter said yesterday that whether a B-52 armed with cruise missiles should be counted along with Minuteman 3 ICBMs and Poseidon submarines as a MIRV weapon "is still in dispute."

A MIRV (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle) weapon is one that can fire several H-bombs at once. The U.S.-Soviet arms agreement up for renewal limits each side to no more than 1,320 of these MIRV weapons.

Soviet leaders in the past have sought to put a short leash on all cruise missiles, suggesting a range of no more than 600 kilometers, or 373 miles. Carter emphatically rejected any such limit yesterday.

Besides the air launched cruise missiles Carter said he wanted to accelerate the Navy is working on a cruise missile called the Tomahawk that would be shot from ships or submarines. The Navy is most anxious to deploy an anti-ship Tomahawk.

Boeing is building the air launched cruise missile for the Air Force and General Dynamics is developing the Tomahawk for the Navy.

Carter's decision makes Boeing yesterday's big winner in the competition for arms sales, and Rockwell International, builder of the B-1, the big loser. General Dynamics is expected to benefit, too, from the push Carter gave the cruise missile yesterday.

Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), a close consultant of Carter's on arms control proposals who has Boeing in his home state, hailed Carter's decision yesterday.

Jackson said deploying missiles costing between $600,000 and $1 million each rather than building the B-1 bomber, which the Pentagon has said would cost $40 billion to build and operate over the plane's lifetime, was the best way to go for now. He added that the United States eventually would have to build a subsonic bomber to replace the Boeing B-52.

The Soviets will have to spend billions to defend against the cruise missile, defense officials said yesterday. Soviet military officials have said they are extremely fearful of American cruise missiles ending up in the hands of their old World War II enemy, Germany.

The cruise missile is relatively easy for other nations to copy, raising the prospect that the Soviet Union will have to worry eventually about cruise missiles being pointed at it from China and Turkey if the weapon is not brought under control.