The agonies that the Western Alliance has experienced to date (and may still have to experience further) as a result of its double- track decision of 1979--to deploy new missiles in Europe unless negotiations make this unnecessary--are well known. Yet, intriguingly, recent U.S. arms decisions have followed the 1979 example rather than shunning it.

Take two examples. The U.S. Congress has voted for the MX intercontinental missile in the hope that the START negotiations might render deployment superfluous. And the decision to fund production of binary chemical munitions has equally been presented as a contribution less to military security than to arms control.

The argument behind these votes is, indeed, a powerful one: only if the United States and the Alliance demonstrate the willingness to arm, will the Soviet Union agree to arms limitations. In fact, the Reagan administration, sensing the yearning for arms control in the country and in Congress, has discovered that major military programs often receive the necessary political support only if they can be presented as a first step to arms control.

But it is a shortsighted approach both to the task of defining the requirements for defense and the opportunities for arms control. The NATO experience should serve as a warning rather than as an example, for three reasons.

First, by making its own deployment conditional on the outcome of arms negotiations, the Alliance has weakened the military case for its program. It pretended that the rationale was to counter the Soviet SS20 missile, and that once that missile disappeared, so would the rationale for Western nuclear modernization. But the SS20 is only one of the Soviet systems that must concern the West, and the military case for Western modernization would be as strong or as weak even without that weapon. As a result, NATO has never acquired full credibility with its argument that, militarily, its program is really necessary.

Second, the political staying power of the Alliance, rather than military need, has become the chief argument for sticking to the program. Soviet pressure on European public opinion has been intense, and quite legitimately so: if the Soviet Union can stop Western deployment without paying for this by restraint of its own, it will be a good bargain from the Soviet point of view.

But the result has been to turn the NATO program into a matter of political principle rather than military rationale. Even the more doubtful aspects of the program, such as the highly accurate Pershing II ballistic missile, cannot be abandoned without unpleasant political consequences. Sticking it out has become more important than getting it right.

Third, arms control is less a concept for ordering the military competition between East and West than an escape route from a painful political decision. Today, most of the governments that supported, in 1979, the decision to station new medium-range missiles in Europe look to the Geneva negotiations in the hope that arms control will make the problem somehow go away. For European public opinion, as for many governments, any agreement in Geneva is more important than a good agreement.

The pressure for arms control is thus shaped by political opportunism and not by conceptual concern. The short term threatens to override the long term. Arms control has become a matter of political expediency rather than being a contribution to stabilize military competition between East and West.

Not all these shortcomings will be repeated if the NATO example becomes the Western rule, but many will. To escape them, arms and arms control must again be judged on their respective merits. A bad weapons program--and I consider the MX to fall into this category--will not become a good one merely because it might serve as a bargaining chip in arms control. And bad arms control is not becoming good arms control merely because it limits a bad system. Instead of ending up with sensible arsenals and sensible controls, we could end up with doubtful arsenals and doubtful controls.

There is, therefore, no alternative to the old-fashioned procedure: military requirements must be judged on what is needed militarily, no more and no less. And arms control objectives must be defined on what is needed to control dangerous military competition. At times, both objectives may contradict each other; it is then up to the political authorities to decide where the priority should lie.

To pretend that one can go ahead with questionable military programs because they may lead to desirable arms control means not only to fudge the issue. It is also a disservice to military security and to arms control alike.