Whereas national attention is focused on the outcome of the Geneva negotiations (INF) for limiting the numbers of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, we should feel greater concern over START, also under way in Geneva. In the latter, the issue is the relative strength worldwide of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces and the way to reduce them equitably. In this forum, the stakes are higher and the consequences of failure are far more serious than in the case of INF.

Unfortunately, the chances of failure in START are all too good. In the first place, the U.S. delegation to the talks is likely to be inferior to its Soviet counterpart, not in individual competence but because of the disorganized state of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. This is the element of the executive branch charged by law with assisting the president in formulating and carrying out arms control policy, duties that ACDA at present is ill-prepared to perform. Since last January, the agency has been without a director, and the replacement nominated by President Reagan has only just received senatorial confirmation. Meanwhile, noises from within the agency indicate divided views and loyalties among its key members.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to believe reports that no formal arms control policy exists to provide adequate guidance for our negotiators in their confrontation with their more experienced and better indoctrinated adversaries. An impartial gambler would surely bet on the latter to outclass our team in negotiating skill and thus effect an outcome unfavorable to the objectives of our side.

But what are these objectives? Lacking an arms control policy containing such information, we can do no better than assume that the primary objectives are those enunciated by President Reagan in his Los Angeles speech of March 31. According to the speech, we are seeking deep cuts in weapons on both sides, equality and balance in the residual forces, and an agreed procedure for assuring effective verification.

The controversial and complex nature of such objectives is another reason for concern over the outcome of START. Just to reach agreement on the meaning of such terms as "equality of strength," "balance of forces" and "effective verification" would entail prolonged debate, a detailed jockeying over compromises and, most of all, Job-like patience. Semantic battles like these would offer the Soviet team infinite opportunities to delay and stall before rejecting the American position.

This possibility of deliberate delay is yet another reason for anticipating eventual failure. The Soviets are scoring so many propaganda points during the INF negotiations that, rather than engage in serious negotiations, they may prefer to indulge in the same game in START. Moscow is well acquainted with American impatience and insistence on quick results from diplomatic dealings. Why hurry then to come to grips with basic issues when our delegation may be pressed to unwise and premature compromises by their bosses in Washington?

If failure comes, it may take one of three forms: (1) inability to reach an agreement satisfactory to both sides; (2) an agreement reached by both sides but rejected later by our Senate; (3) an indefinite stalemate with neither side wishing to take responsibility for breaking off talks.

Regardless of the form taken, the United States would pay a heavy price. No matter which side is demonstrably responsible for the outcome, there would be great disappointment at home and in Western Europe accompanied by much criticism of U.S. leadership. The arms race that we had hoped to abate would be likely to continue and even to gain in momentum. Relations with the Soviet Union would further degenerate while fear of nuclear war would intensify, particularly among our allies already inclined to take a neutral position vis-a-vis the two superpowers.

Such consequences could be avoided or mitigated only if our government had an alternative plan prepared in advance --which it does not. Let me propose one that may work.

I would recommend that the administration proclaim the elements of a new military policy that would no longer base force requirements--nuclear and conventional--on numerical parity with the Soviets but on the military strength necessary to cope with urgent threats to vital interests worldwide. This need would then be translated into the strategic tasks that our forces should be ready to perform. These tasks would then determine the necessary size and readiness of our forces.

Our strategic nuclear forces would have a single task --readiness under any conditions to destroy in retaliation sufficient Soviet targets to inflict damage and losses in a few hours comparable to those suffered by the Soviets in four years of World War II. Forces with this capability would be deemed deterrent effective forces (DEF) and would be required to maintain this standard indefinitely as a first-priority necessity of national security.

In structuring and maintaining the DEF, the emphasis would be placed on the reliability and survivability of the weapons with which they are armed. Weapons with a utility limited primarily to a first strike or which, by their exposure, would invite a first strike, would be progressively junked or used as bargaining chips in future negotiations.

Based upon this new military policy, the administration would then design an arms control policy consistent with it. When the latter was ready, the Soviets would be invited to renew negotiations. If they accepted, our negotiators would be given the following guidance:

4 Support a major reduction in strategic weapons, but stop short of the verified needs of the DEF. Make no commitment below that level without specific presidential permission. The same restriction would apply to any action that might adversely affect a commitment to an ally.

Refuse to measure relative nuclear strength in terms of numbers of launch platforms or weapons. Insist on using a measure reflecting destruction potential, such as warheads, throwweight or megatonnage. Seek agreement to define a stable balance of forces as one where both sides have a roughly equivalent destruction potential and neither has a significant first-strike advantage.

Insist upon effective verification procedures to include on-site inspections when necessary.

A policy along these lines would gain much for the United States whether or not START was renewed. By making a deterrent effective force the measure of sufficiency in strategic nuclear power, for the first time in history we would have a precise answer to the eternal question--how much is enough?

By equating effective deterrence to possession of a destruction potential capable of inflicting losses similar to those of the Soviets in World War II, we would have a blood-chilling but easily understood concept of what happens to an aggressor if deterrence fails.

By rejecting a fallacious belief in the essentiality of a numerical equality in weapons with the Soviets, we would eliminate once and for all any need for an arms race, exclude Moscow as a dominant influence in American policy-making and assure a better use of the resources available for military purposes.

The decision to arm the DEF exclusively with weapons that are reliable, survivable and, where possible, unadapted to first strikes, would necessitate eliminating our vulnerable land-based ICBMs and transferring their tasks to air- and sea-based ballistic and cruise missiles.

Finally, provided our leaders make clear to all concerned the reason for the new policy and its objectives, we could expect support for our actions from our allies and a substantial part of the Third World. For a change, we might even force the Soviets onto a propaganda defensive.

The only serious disadvantage I foresee in this proposal is the adverse reaction of addicts to the numbers fallacy who refuse to believe that beyond a certain point, larger and more numerous nuclear weapons add nothing to our safety. Such an attitude on the part of American leaders would reveal a susceptibility to self-intimidation through illusion capable of doing serious damage to the deterrent effectiveness of any strategic force we might design, whatever the size and number of its weapons.