A major Soviet objective in arms negotiations is to separate the United States from its European allies and thus weaken the NATO alliance. Surely this is some part of the purpose of the recent Gorbachev disarmament proposal. Its provision for freezing and then eliminating British and French nuclear forces nonetheless offers an opportunity that the alliance should seize to add to its military strength and to firm up American-European ties.

From the inception of NATO, the American advantage in nuclear weapons allowed member-states to avoid a more responsible and more expensive buildup of conventional forces. Then, as that advantage diminished, Britain and France undertook to establish "independent" nuclear forces to present an aggressor with losses greater than any potential gains in an attack on their national territory.

As British and French nuclear forces burgeoned, conventional forces were butchered to accommodate the cost. London is now increasing its nuclear arsenal from 64 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with 192 warheads to 768 warheads on four new submarines, at a cost of over $20 billion. The "force de frappe" of France will require over $30 billion to increase from a present triad of five submarines with the capability to attack 160 targets to seven submarines able to attack 592 targets; from 18 land- based missiles to 100; and from 110 planes armed only with bombs to 128 that can launch air-to-surface missiles. These "independent" nuclear forces will continue to be dependent on conventional cutbacks to fund their growth.

Although British and French nuclear forces have never been explicitly included in a U.S.-Soviet arms agreement, their existence has been accounted for in the framework of the treaty. In SALT negotiations, British and French nuclear forces, along with American nuclear-capable systems based in Europe and other areas, were excluded from restrictions in exchange for the Soviets being allowed to retain their 308 "heavy" ICBMs -- then the single-warhead SS-9 and now the 10- warhead SS-18, which threatens American ICBMs with a first strike.

Even with the planned growth in nuclear weapons, Britain and France are still dependent on the United States for deterrence. Although costly and crippling to NATO's conventional units, British and French nuclear forces upon completion will be but a fraction of the present U.S. or Soviet arsenals. If Moscow has opted to assume the risks of the U.S. nuclear triad in an attack on Europe, much smaller British and French forces will not be cause for hesitation. Dependence for deterrence will rest on American nuclear systems, as it has for four decades.

Halting their nuclear expansion in the near future would still leave London and Paris with formidable nuclear capabilities, however. Although limited compared with U.S. and Soviet nuclear power, Britain and France would have land-and sea-based missiles to attack 338 Soviet targets with 466 warheads packing a yield of over 750 million tons of high explosives. Over half of the Soviet populace and industrial capacity is located in only 100 targets. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by nuclear bombs with explosive power of under 15 thousand tons.

The control of European nuclear weapons would in fact result in a more powerful NATO. These nuclear weapons weaken conventional forces in three stages: in the planning stage, conventional units are shortchanged to fund the research and development for nuclear systems; when deployed, nuclear weapons are carried by missiles and warplanes ideal for conventional roles; and, after deployment, when budget-cutters search for defense savings, conventional forces are slashed as their operation and maintenance costs are higher than those of nuclear weapons.

NATO is a collective security organization, and it should negotiate as such. The exclusion of Britain and France from arms talks separates the United States from its allies and allows the Soviets large propaganda opportunities. Security for all members of the alliance will be the greater when Britain and France join in negotiations to reduce the Soviet threat, upgrade NATO's conventional capabilities with the savings from reduced nuclear forces and, most importantly, demonstrate that the "iron linkage" bonding Europe and the United States is not only vital but vibrant.

Whether the Gorbachev proposal is the much-needed answer to the nuclear dilemma is a matter to be seen. However, the inclusion of Britain and France in arms control negotiations is an issue whose time has come.