Bedford, Mass. — ''In one sense, it would be good for the West if the Soviets had a better airborne early warning (AEW) system than they now have,'' says British Air Commodore Norman D. McEwen. ''The element of surprise, of fear of a surprise attack, might be diminished.''
That is one conclusion drawn by a gathering of leading military and civilian defense officials here following the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 7.
That incident highlights one of the more arcane and crucial needs of the armed forces and their commanders - to be able to see and talk with each other during a crisis, especially during or after the outbreak of a nuclear war.
In military terms it's called C3I. It stands for command, control, communications, and intelligence. The United States, with its NATO allies, has clear superiority over the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies in this area.
For the rest of this decade the US plans to spend about $20 billion on strategic (nuclear) related C3I. For fiscal year 1984 the Defense Department plans to spend approximately 10 percent of its $250 billion budget, or $25 billion, on conventional and nuclear strategic C3I.
The figures reflect the high priority given to C3I by the President's bipartisan commission on strategic forces (known as the Scowcroft Commission), and represents an increase from original administration figures in 1981, in which $18 billion for strategic C3I was considered adequate for the remainder of the decade.
''During a crisis, C3I has avoiding war as a principal objective,'' McGeorge Bundy told a national security symposium hosted here by the Air Force and MITRE Corporation, a private, nonprofit organization engaged in systems engineering for the Air Force.
Currently professor of history at New York University, he was special assistant to the President for national security during the Cuban missile crisis.
''It cannot be the object of policy to escalate into war. You must plan your C3I for a crisis situation where only the President conducts the communications, '' he said.
There is a ''two-edged sword when you enhance your C3I,'' says William C. Martel, defense analyst for Abt Associates Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. ''The capability that would allow you to have intra-nuclear-war communications (and therefore might entice you to fight a limited nuclear war) is the same kind of architecture you need to end it if it starts. If you don't have the ability to communicate before or during it, you almost necessarily condemn yourself to going to an all-out exchange.''
In physical terms, C3I can best be viewed as a conglomerate of communication systems that integrate large numbers of computers, telecommunications systems, sensors, and other electronic communications. Satellites, airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) aircraft, ground-based radar, shipboard tracking stations, and airborne command centers in converted 747s aloft 24 hours a day - these are some of the components of tactical and strategic C3I operations. The system emphasizes mobility, since military strategists assume fixed, land-based radar sites can be targeted and knocked out.
Besides seeking to reduce to a minimum the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch, the C3I network would be used to coordinate the response of US conventional forces worldwide prior to any outbreak of fighting.
''The advent of nuclear stalemate has made conventional forces much more critical,'' says former undersecretary of Defense Robert W. Komer, currently a consultant to the Rand Corporation. ''We can no longer get by with defense on the cheap, just relying on nukes.''
The current integration of micro-processors into the C3I system gives outnumbered NATO conventional forces the capability to deal with the ''phenomena of inferiority,'' says Lt. Gen. Robert T. Herres, USAF director of C3.
Though Warsaw Pact forces out-number NATO forces by 3- and 4-to-1 in certain categories of weapons, C3I allows a battlefield commander to have in the right place at the right time ''numerical superiority at the (actual) point of conflict,'' says William J. Perry, former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. The advent of ''thinking computers'' at the end of this decade will increase the US lead, says Dr. Perry.
''It's what lets us calmly and confidently manage the more than 300 air-intercepts with Soviet aircraft each year when they enter our air region posing a potential threat,'' says Commodore McEwen. ''Both sides do this. It's one way of probing each other's air defenses. By intercepting, you show you're on your toes.''
''The big advantage of airborne radar systems is that you can see so much further,'' says McEwen. NATO can back up its no-shoot policy because accurate monitoring of any potential threat short of an all-out surprise attack is fairly certain.
For Mr. Bundy, another crucial role for C3I is to avoid targeting the other side's command structure: ''You must have someone to talk to, to end a war, otherwise both nuclear arsenals will flow towards emptying.''