Washington — The US cruise missile is about to change the nature of conflict in a way that appeals to many military strategists and troubles arms control advocates. In recent days, several events have illustrated the promise and problems of the weapon, as well as the concerns these have raised.
The United States Navy last week successfully launched a Tomahawk cruise missile from a submarine against a target ship. This was welcomed by Navy officials, who had acknowledged in congressional testimony that the Tomahawk continues to have technical difficulties, particularly with its sophisticated guidance system.
A few days earlier, the Air Force test fired the third successful air-launched cruise missile in a row, following the failure of two previous tests of a weapon first deployed on B-52 bombers several months ago. Meanwhile, the Air Force continues to prepare for initial deployment of its ground-launched cruise missile in Europe five months from now.
During the weekend, women protesting the planned deployment by NATO of 160 of these US-built missiles in England were arrested outside an air base at Greenham Common. On Monday, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov traded tough comments on the deployment by East and West of new intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
Some senior Pentagon officials say the Soviet Union is more concerned about the 464 cruise missiles to be based in Europe than the 108 better-known Pershing II ballistic missiles also to be deployed there.
The Pentagon plans to deploy some 9,000 nuclear and conventional cruise missiles in coming years. With ranges reaching well over 1,000 miles and near-perfect accuracy, the Low%level pilotless jet represents an area of military capability in which the US has a distinct five- to 10-year advantage over the Soviet Union.
The missiles - descendants of the V-1 buzz bomb used by Germany during World War II - are only 21 feet long with a slim profile and stubby wings. They can skim just above treetop level at about 450 miles per hour and are guided with extreme accuracy by internal computer maps and radar. They can carry the equivalent of a 1,000-pound bomb or a nuclear warhead with a yield of up to 200 kilotons (more than 10 times the force exploded over Hiroshima).
As the cruise missile assumes its rapidly expanding role in the US arsenal, critics warn that a new and possibly irrevocable step is about to be taken in the arms spiral.
Such weapons are a major sticking point in US-Soviet strategic arms control talks. The Soviet Union wants to prevent the deployment of long-range cruise missiles and thus head off a US advantage. At the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in Geneva, President Reagan's proposal - which concentrates on the Soviet advantage in heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles - does not include specifics on how this new element in warfare might be reduced.
''The very compactness, flexibility, and mobility which make these missiles so alluring militarily will torpedo arms control verification, undermining any chance of halting the nuclear arms race,'' says Gene La Rocque, director of the Center for Defense Information (CDI) and a retired rear admiral. In a report last week, the group founded and run by former senior US military officers likened the coming cruise missile era to ''opening Pandora's box.'' In a letter to President Reagan, Admiral La Rocque asked that the December deployment by NATO be delayed a year to allow more time for missile testing and arms control negotiations.
Some more hawkish critics of the weapon say they detect a tendency at the Pentagon to view the cruise missile as a panacea for current US military vulnerabilities.
''I'm worried that they're being seen as this wonder weapon,'' said Robert Foelber, a military analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research organization.
While there have been persistent problems, the Navy and Air Force consider cruise missiles among their most important programs. ''No other weapon in the world can fly at the distance demonstrated by Tomahawk and strike targets with their degree of accuracy,'' Rear Adm. Stephen Hostettler, director of the Pentagon's joint cruise missiles project, told the House Armed Services Committee.
And with land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles like the MX becoming increasingly vulnerable, many see cruise missiles as a necessary addition to the US strategic arsenal. The President's Commission on Strategic Forces (the Scowcroft Commission) called them ''of vital importance to the maintenance of an effective deterrent.''
But others argue that superpower stability - the key to preventing nuclear war - is reduced with the deployment of thousands of cruise missiles. Air Force Secretary Verne Orr and others have said saturation attacks with these weapons would be necessary to penetrate Soviet defenses.
There are several theoretical military advantages to cruise missiles. They can be hidden on trucks or on small commercial vessels lurking offshore in international waters. Their high-technology potential and relative cheapness offer a unique combination of quality and quantity. And they can be diverted or destroyed after launch if desired.
But critics warn that the missile's attractiveness can make war more likely. In response to improved Soviet antiaircraft defenses (including ''look-down, shoot-down'' radar that enable higher-altitude aircraft to detect low-flying targets), the Air Force is scaling back purchases of air-launched cruise missiles in favor of advanced cruise missiles using ''stealth'' technology. This technology is designed to make the missile all but invisible to a defender's radar.
''When the program was initiated, long-range cruise missiles were considered 'stabilizing,' retaliatory weapons, useful only for second-strike attacks against 'soft' Soviet targets,'' the CDI says. ''However, improvements in speed, range, and survivability make the advanced cruise missile an ideal complement to a first strike.''