Washington — The often-used term ''arms race'' is a misnomer. We are really immersed in a technological race with our adversaries. Our computer-technology advances in the past have given us considerable leverage in this race, but we must work hard to remain ahead.
- Edith W. Martin, deputy undersecretary of defensefor research and advanced technology
Speaking to the Seattle Rotary Club the other day, Air Force Secretary Verne Orr chided the United States for becoming ''a scientifically illiterate nation.'' This country's qualitative edge over the Soviet Union, he added, ''will be in jeopardy within the next five to 10 years.''
The US and its allies know that in any military confrontation with the Warsaw Pact, they will have to be able to ''fight smarter'' to offset much larger numbers of enemy weapons. This means relying on computers to penetrate the ''fog of war'' and provide information to highly accurate stand-off weapons that are themselves fired and directed by computer.
Thus, warnings such as these from Dr. Martin and Secretary Orr are being heard with increasing frequency and intensity from US officials these days, particularly as they relate to computers.
They are behind the recent flap over the US computer (said to relate to missile guidance) that was almost spirited to the Soviet Union via South Africa and Sweden. They accompany the ''off-limits to Soviets'' sign now hanging over Silicon Valley in California and the recent split of this country's largest computer network into civilian and military parts for security reasons, both occurring within the past few weeks.
The issue is an important part of concern over the performance of new US missiles like the Tomahawk, now being shipped to Britain and other NATO countries. And it underlies the quiet but determined push at the Pentagon to develop ''supercomputers,'' high-speed integrated circuits, artificial intelligence, and other advanced computer science.
The Defense Department sponsored the development of the first large-scale computer so it could calculate ballistic missile performance. Scratch any new weapons system today - from conventional battlefield antitank rockets to the controversial Pershing II medium-range nuclear missile - and you find a computer at its heart.
''The use of computers in both tactical and strategic (nuclear) military systems is already so widespread that it is difficult to envision a future major system that will not employ them,'' Dr. Martin of the Pentagon's research division said in congressional testimony earlier this month.
''Our future systems demand very capable, highly complex, and extremely reliable hardware and software. Requirements in each of these areas continue to grow rapidly, almost at an exponential rate.''
This may be especially true if President Reagan's plan to prevent a nuclear ''day after'' holocaust with defensive systems in space is to become reality.
''The President's recently announced initiative in space-based defense will perhaps present the most severe of all future military computational requirements,'' Martin said. ''As advanced and sophisticated as the Apollo-Skylab and the space shuttle are in computer and software technology, they will be dwarfed in comparison.''
More immediately, the new missiles now being sent to NATO countries - the ground-launched Tomahawk cruise and Pershing II missiles - rely entirely on computers that direct the highly sophisticated terrain contour-matching (Tercom) radars designed to provide near-pinpoint accuracy. It remains to be seen whether either missile will perform entirely as advertised. Although its overall test record is good, the latest flight-tested Tomahawk crashed 20 minutes after takeoff.
Heavy reliance on computers for military purposes explains new restrictions and other recent security activity by the Defense Department and other US agencies.
The Defense Department has some 8,000 large computers. Exercises with specially trained ''tiger teams'' have shown that determined experts can penetrate some of the most secure computers. Defense experts are working to limit this until more secure computers can be developed.
They are also seeking ways to prevent the possible insertion by enemy agents of ''Trojan horse'' software into computer-directed weapons and other military systems. Such software could foul up command and communications, rendering an opponent's systems useless in time of war.
Acquiring an opponent's militarily useful computers (such as the one that nearly reached the Soviet Union through Sweden recently) makes it easier to do such things.
The Pentagon last month announced that it was splitting up its Advanced Research Projects Agency computer network (ARPAnet), which had joined both military and civilian users in a cooperative effort. In order to restrict access by universities and other non-Defense Department participants who do some work for the Pentagon, a new ''MILnet'' has been formed to make the most sensitive military information available to Pentagon users only. This is designed to prevent intrusion by computer ''hackers'' as well as foreign agents.