The advent of smart weapons -- such as torpedoes and missiles that steer themselves into their targets--confronts the United States with cultural as well as technological shock.

Ready or not, the long-range, precise weapons of devastation are here. Israel demonstrated this in Lebanon in knocking out Soviet-built anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and fighter planes. Argentina, a Third World country in military terms, showed that one smart, $200,000 missile, the French Exocet, could sink a warship, the British destroyer Sheffield.

The United States is developing weapons even smarter and more lethal than those used by Israel and Argentina, and with a longer range. It is also working on ways to foil them. Technology is at a full gallop, but thinking about whether, when and how to fire these weapons is at a slow walk.

Should an Air Force or Navy pilot in a future conflict be authorized to sink with a cruise missile a ship he did not identify first with his own eyes for fear of being shot down in the process? Should a submarine skipper lying in the depths be allowed to fire a torpedo at another submarine or ship strictly on the basis of what he hears? Or should he be required to surface to identify a ship and resist firing at a submarine he believes just launched a torpedo toward him?

Until now, these questions have been addressed largely in secret by the specialists, not out in the open by civilian policymakers. Yet, just as the smart weapons are here and now and will not go away, so are the questions about how to use them. To pretend the questions are not here is to risk letting machines, rather than men, answer them--and wrong answers could bring World War III through a case of mistaken identity.

Some specialists in the arms industries contend that advanced radars, sensors and long distance television eyes can identify a ship as friend or foe with the certainty needed to fire a smart weapon at it. They maintain that the United States must close its "cultural gap" and authorize its military officers to fire on the basis of what submariners call "a bearings-only solution," meaning relying on mechanical identification rather than eyesight.

Others who have pondered the problem of firing further than the human eye can see on the ocean or in the air, where friends and foes are intermingled, believe diplomacy should step in before it is too late. One idea is to get Washington and Moscow to work together on something akin to rules of engagement, dividing oceans, for example, into zones of free fire and no fire.

Adding urgency to the need for some kind of public discussion of the questions smart weapons have raised is the fact that a nuclear cruise missile in flight looks the same as a non-nuclear one. Yet if an American warship skipper should assume in some future crisis or war that the radar blip is a Soviet nuclear cruise missile headed toward him, he would be tempted to fire back with everything he has to save his ship.

Everything he has could include the nuclear-tipped, Standard anti-missile missile. If the skipper should guess wrong about whether the Soviet cruise missile is nuclear or not, his response could turn the war at sea into a nuclear one.

How to avoid firing off American intercontinental ballistic missiles in response to radar images that look like Soviet warheads, but could be ducks, has occupied decision-makers for two decades. Today's smart weapons, which can carry either a conventional or nuclear warhead, pose the same kind of danger but have not received the same kind of attention.