Washington — Cluster bombs used recently by Israel in Lebanon are little more than chain and nails stuffed down the mouth of a muzzle-loaded cannon when compared with sophisticated standoff weapons now being developed.
Advanced electronics and micro-miniaturization - two areas in which the United States and its allies have a distinct advantage over potential adversaries - mean the battle of the future may be won by a single pilot dropping a canister full of relatively cheap, precision-guided weapons, or ''submunition,'' that can knock out many tanks or a whole airfield at once.
The significance of this development, according to US and European defense experts, is that the Soviet Union could be deterred from launching a heavily armored blitzkrieg into Western Europe if it knew that its second and third echelons of tanks, artillery, and surface-to-air missile batteries were vulnerable from the start.
More important, it is felt, the risk of nuclear war in the European theater could be reduced - if the US and its allies built a credible conventional force based on its existing qualitative advantage rather than brute force alone.
In meeting with US officials and journalists recently, West German parliamentarian Manfred Worner stressed that such new weaponry ''gives a decisive advantage to the defender over the attacker.''
''It also allows us, with relatively modest financial increases, and without increases in personnel, to improve our conventional defenses,'' said Dr. Worner, a military affairs expert and deputy leader of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union parliamentary group. ''With this we can increase the nuclear threshold level and in the future, also avoid war.''
US Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, a recognized congressional defense expert, made the same point in his recent report on the NATO alliance.
''This is an area of weapons development in which we have much potential leverage, if we use it wisely,'' former US Navy Undersecretary R. James Woolsey writes in the current issue of Armed Forces Journal.
''Smart'' weapons were first developed and used by the US in Vietnam. The ''Walleye'' bomb was internally guided by a self-contained TV camera that directed the weapon with near-pinpoint accuracy after an attacking aircraft sighted its its target.
But the weapons now being developed take this ''fire-and-forget'' principle much further. Such weapons can be launched from a relatively safe spot outside the battle area, direct themselves (through laser, radar, or inertial guidance), detect and then home in on small targets. The new Wasp anti-armor weapon, for example, will carry 12 missiles within a pod, each of which can seek out an individual tank after the airplane that carried the pod it has departed. A single aircraft will be able to carry several such pods.
Coupled with airborne command posts (such as the American-built E-2C Hawkeye) and advanced electronic warfare systems that can detect and jam or destroy enemy radar, such weapons could provide a strong defense against an opposing force that has more tanks and planes.
Similar weapons are being developed that can be fired over relatively long ranges with artillery, and are also part of the Pentagon's ''Assault Breaker'' program directed against massive tank attack.
NATO planners also are considering using a warhead atop the first stage of a Trident ballistic missile to carry 384 submunitions that could be delivered 350 miles against Warsaw Pact airfields, according to a recent report in Aviation Week & Space Technology. Such missiles also could accurately deliver mines to block choke points through which opposing tanks would have to pass.
One area of weaponry proved particularly valuable by Israel in its recent battles with Syria - and one in which the US until now has lagged behind - is the use of ''remotely piloted vehicles,'' or drones. These apparently were the key to Israel's detecting and destroying the Soviet-built surface-to-air (SAM) missile sites.
Advanced drones (which are hard to detect and destroy) will not only be able to provide ''real time'' intelligence information with airborne TV, but should be able to direct laser-guided weapons to targets. US manufacturers and Pentagon planners are hustling to catch up with the Israelis in this area.