Kenneth L. Adelman, President Reagan's nominee to head the embattled Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, ran into trouble yesterday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) declared his opposition to Adelman, 36, and the deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations. Cranston called him "a man who is clearly a novice in the arms control field" and "scornful" of past arms control efforts.

Before the day-long hearing was over, it appeared likely the committee will use the nomination as a way to examine what several senators described as the "disarray" in the Reagan administration's arms control efforts. It was agreed that Adelman's predecessor, Eugene V. Rostow, would be called to testify next week, undoubtedly about the circumstances surrounding his firing by President Reagan two weeks ago.

Committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) used the hearing to bring up an issue that has been troubling him: the administration's handling of two nuclear test-ban treaties negotiated by the previous administration.

"I want an answer next Thursday as to when we can get that [ratification] done, and I am not inclined to vote for confirmation until that's done," he told Adelman.

Percy said his plan was to have the committee vote on the nomination next week, sending it to the Senate floor after the Lincoln's Birthday recess.

Concern over Adelman's lack of experience and the strength of his commitment to arms control was voiced by several senators, including Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.).

Outside the hearing room, Cranston said he has at least five other votes against Adelman on the Foreign Relations Committee but that he has not decided just how hard he will fight the nomination.

Only Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) spoke out during the session in complete support of Adelman. Helms has delayed action on several ACDA nominations or forced their withdrawal over the past year because he believed their arms control positions were not tough enough. But he told Adelman, "I hope you'll be reported out and be confirmed as quickly as possible."

The session was spiced with several sharp exchanges as a handful of senators pursued critical questions with the articulate nominee.

Citing Adelman's writings over the past five years, Cranston described him as "clearly scornful of past strategic arms limitation efforts, scornful of arms control advocates and scornful of public opinion on nuclear issues."

Many of the quotes came from articles that were critical of the Carter administration's strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) with the Soviets.

Adelman responded by saying that although he had opposed that treaty, he was "not a very hard and fast critic of SALT" because the Carter agreement was "irrelevant because it did not reduce nuclear weapons, it codified the increases in nuclear weapons around the world."

He said the Reagan Strategic Arms Reduction Talks proposals (START) represented a "movement toward real reductions."

In response to several questions about his experience, Adelman described his service with the Office of Economic Opportunity during the Nixon years, three years in Africa working in small villages, and a one-year stint as special assistant to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

During the Carter years, Adelman worked for the Stanford Research Institute and wrote for several conservative political journals. He also served on the executive board of the Committee on the Present Danger, a group organized, in part, to oppose Carter's SALT II treaty. Adelman noted that the board's members had included Rostow and the two current U.S. negotiators in Geneva, Paul H. Nitze and retired Gen. Edward Rowney.

After Reagan's 1980 election, Adelman served on the State Department transition team and then was offered a job as one of the ACDA's assistant directors, which he turned down. Instead he took the No. 2 job with the U.S. mission at the United Nations.

When Cranston asked him if the Soviets had violated any provisions of the unratified SALT II treaty, Adelman replied that he had "not looked into that."

When Boschwitz asked if he believed the MX intercontinental ballistic missile's "Dense Pack" basing plan violated SALT II, he replied, "I have to look at that." After the lunch break, however, Adelman corrected himself and said he had been told Dense Pack did not violate the treaty, which had been the stated position of the Reagan administration.

Adelman also confounded several senators when he answered a Helms question by saying that he had never considered what he would do if the Soviets offered "a verifiable treaty that called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons."

"That's breathtaking," Adelman said, "I"d have to think about that . . . . I've never considered that."

Later, Boschwitz said he was "somewhat alarmed and somewhat surprised" by Adelman's answer.

Trying to salvage the exchange, Adelman said that even simple reductions of nuclear weapons are difficult to achieve and that although complete nuclear disarmament is "certainly a long-term goal," the ACDA had "only limited resources."

Asked by Pell if he believed a nuclear war could be a limited conflict, Adelman responded, "I have no, honestly, no thoughts on that area . . . . "

When pressed, he added, that he agreed "with the president that there would be no winners in a nuclear war."

With regard to a nuclear freeze, he cited the START proposal's call for sharp reductions in strategic weapons and the Soviet response of a 25 percent reduction. "It's against the interest of arms control," he said, "to go for a freeze when there is a chance for real reductions."

In another exchange that was sometimes tense, and sometimes humorous, Tsongas tried to get Adelman to say whether he would resign if he found that Reagan was not serious about pursuing an arms control agreement.

Each time, Adelman demurred, saying he was convinced the president wanted a legitimate agreement and that he had "not considered circumstances" under which he would resign.

Tsongas then characterized Adelman as a "loyalist" to Reagan who had "limited expertise and no political constituency." Referring to the Rostow resignation, Tsongas told Adelman, "The hard-liners are going to chew you up, too."

At one point, Cranston cited a 1981 study that Adelman had prepared for the Stanford Research Institute on the impact on American security of South Africa acquisition of nuclear weapons. Quoting a section--"a clear South African nuclear capability might be helpful to American interests"--that Cranston said Adelman had written, the senator asked how this fit in with an ACDA director's role to support nuclear non-proliferation.

Adelman responded that Cranston had omitted the study's main finding: that South Africa's acquisition of a nuclear weapon "would be negative" to overall American interests and that U.S. policy makers should "head off" such a development.