A retired Army three-star general says the United States should move ahead with ratification of the stalled strategic arms control treaty with Moscow because the threat from the Soviets is not so much from nuclear missiles but from conventional battlefield forces.

Without a nuclear arms treaty, says George M. Seignious II, there will have to be an expensive buildup of American long-range strategic nuclear forces "and that will mean less attention and less resources to meet the Soviets where I think they pose the greatest and most immediate threat."

"Nuclear-tipped missiles sitting in silos in Montana are not the right weapon to stop Soviet tanks moving toward the Persian Gulf," the former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency said in a speech yesterday before the Rotary Club of Atlanta.

Seignious, now a member of the president's advisory committee on arms control and disarmament, said this need to focus on the Soviet conventional arms threat was "one reason why I am in favor of the SALT II treaty. It offers us a chance to put a lid on the nuclear arms race and concentrate on countering Soviet conventional forces."

Though SALT II has been stalled in Congress for months, primarily because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, most argument about whether it was in national security interests has focused on the nuclear balance between the two superpowers. Relatively little attention has been given to conventional forces which are more apt to be used.

In making a case for SALT as being in U.S. interest no matter how sour the political relations with Moscow, Seignious said that without the ceilings on nuclear weapons imposed by SALT, the Soviets could "double, triple and possibly even quadruple" the atomic warheads they could throw at the United States by the end of this decade. "These are cold, hard figures, not scare stories," he said.

"I find it a strange way to punish the Soviets for invading Afghanistan by allowing them to field an unlimited number of nuclear warheads against our nation," he added.

The retired general warned against endangering the public consensus toward strengthening defense that has formed since Afghanistan by "throwing money" indiscriminately at a U.S. arms buildup.

In a possible reference to Congress and the White House as well, Seignious said we need "sensible defense spending combined with every possible ounce of political imagination to control the threat these military measures are designed to confront."