A recent article, "Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance," the work of four distinguished ex-officials, is unusual in several ways. Not the least is the fact that a committee has been capable of such a coherent and thought- provoking study of so complex a subject.

Despite its seeming complexity, a close reading reveals that the core issue is comparatively simple: is there any situation in which the security of the NATO alliance would benefit from the first use of nuclear weapons or the threat thereof? Under current alliance policy the answer would be "maybe". The authors of this article would say "never" and adopt a declaratory policy to that effect. I propose to examine the relative merits of these two positions, hereafter referred to as policies A and B.

In making a comparison, merit can best be measured by the degree of assurance each of the contending policies offers of convincing the Soviet leaders of the unprofitability of any form of military attack on NATO. Policy A has three means for accomplishing this, of which the first two are the defensive capability of alliance conventional forces and the availability of a large arsenal of theater nuclear weapons with ranges varying from those of ordinary artillery to over a thousand miles if the alliance gets the Pershing II missile as currently planned. The third means resides in the strategic arsenal of the United States, long regarded as a protective umbrella that allowed NATO the luxury of maintaining inferior conventional forces, but now often deemed less reliable since the Soviets have achieved approximate strategic parity with the United States.

Policy B would remove completely the protection afforded by nuclear weapons, both theater and strategic, except in response to a first use by the Soviets. Thus, the security of NATO would depend exclusively on its conventional forces since the Warsaw Pact forces, generally conceded to be actually or potentially superior, would have no reason to resort to nuclear weapons. In compensation, Policy B proposes a large increase in ready conventional forces to which the United States would be expected to contribute.

Which of these two policies is more likely to deter a Soviet attack? Before responding we should first estimate the gains that Moscow leaders might hope to derive from an attack and the adverse factors that might dim that hope. I would say that the hoped-for gains would include the dissolution of the military threat represented by NATO and the absorption of Western Europe into the Soviet political-economic system along with the scientific achievements, advanced technology and industrial skills of the conquered nations.

If these are the desired gains, what considerations might restrain the Soviets from resorting to military means to obtain them? In the first place, their leaders would surely hesitate from fear of such consequences as the losses likely to be inflicted on their invading forces, the unavoidable war damage to local industries and related economic assets and the ever-present possibility of escalation to strategic warfare with the United States. Beyond these, there are two quite different deterrent factors--the uncertain reaction of the satellites to a war with NATO and the existence of other, less dangerous ways whereby Moscow might gain its objectives in the West without a fight.

Now we should be ready to compare the deterrent possibilities of policies A and B. Both have defects. In the case of A, the deterrent asset represented by theater nuclear weapons is curtailed by the uncertainty of the users as to the reliability and effects of these untested weapons. Also, the timeliness of their availability is uncertain, given the complex procedures that NATO authorities must follow in authorizing their use. Finally, for a variety of reasons discussed below, the present NATO conventional forces have too many visible weaknesses to serve as an effective deterrent. Not a very high total score for policy A.

But Policy B is even less reassuring. Its deterrent value depends almost entirely on its ability to rectify the shortcomings of the current NATO forces and to do so fairly soon. Unfortunately, the nature and number of these shortcomings make timely rectification most difficult if not impossible.

The trouble dates back to 1966, when President De Gaulle withdrew France from military NATO and obliged the United States to roll up the long line of communications stretching from Bordeaux to the American sector in southern Germany. Since then, NATO has had no communications zone of adequate depth behind its combat troops, and the U.S. forces have had to depend on supply lines to northern ports such as Bremerhaven and Antwerp, running dangerously close to the probable battlefront. With the passage of time, the increase in Soviet air and naval strength has rendered vulnerable the principal NATO ports and airfields through which U.S. supplies and reinforcements must pass. In the aggregate, these adverse logistics factors justify a conviction, which I share, that a sustained conventional defense is not possible by the NATO forces currently available or likely to become so as the result of the buildup contemplated under policy B.

There is considerable question about the feasibility of such a buildup. For 30 years or more, American leaders, political and military, have vainly begged, cajoled and badgered their European colleagues into taking measures that policy B now assumes to be acceptable. Current political and economic conditions in NATO countries suggest no such response.

It is hardly news that I emerge from this comparison in favor of staying with the present policy of "maybe" rather than adopting one of "never." The preservation of uncertainty in the minds of hostile leaders is always an important advantage. With Policy A we can keep the Soviets in worried uncertainty about a number of things--our use of theater or strategic weapons, their effects if used, and the likelihood of escalation to strategic warfare. No such advantages accrue under Policy B which, by proclaiming "no first use" under any circumstances, removes these uncertainties and allows Soviet commanders to mass their forces for attack without fear of sudden obliteration.

There is one eventuality that might change my present view. If the NATO nations received this proposal of no first use with unexpected enthusiasm and displayed a genuine willingness to make the sacrifices implicit in the heavy cost of a large military buildup, such conduct would indicate a restored unity of purpose most encouraging to both sides of the Atlantic.

I must not fail to mention another encouraging consideration to raise our spirits regardless of which policy is chosen. It is the fact that the Soviets have several safer ways to accomplish their goals in Western Europe without needing to risk a military attack. They may resort, and already have, to such measures as the economic seduction of our allies by tempting deals such as the Siberian gas pipeline, the use of East- West trade to obtain the products of Western technology, the covert incitement of peace movements in the West, occasional threats directed at West Berlin, and various ploys to exploit European dependence on Mideast oil-- all this to the tune of blaring anti-American propaganda. With such alternatives at hand and a dogmatic belief in the inevitable collapse of capitalism from internal weaknesses, why should the Kremlin ever risk an attack regardless of the first-use policy in vogue in NATO?