The bottom line on the INF accord

THE ink is not dry on the US-Soviet treaty to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear (INF) missiles. Yet already the battle lines are being drawn. We can anticipate months, possibly reaching into late spring of next year, of Senate hearings, candidate debates, and public dispute. The concerns of treaty opponents are not without legitimacy; in the end, however, treaty supporters should be able to garner the two-thirds majority of the Senate needed for ratification. The most common concern will be verification; that is, whether the Reagan administration can convince people that the United States has the capacity to detect Soviet cheating. Part of what kept the Carter administration's Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II from being ratified was widespread concern that the US would have trouble monitoring Soviet compliance, as a result of the loss of intelligence posts in Iran after the revolution there.

The concern over verification gains force from its apparent simplicity - cheating is something we can all understand - and from the controversial Soviet record of compliance with existing accords. The Soviets appear to have violated provisions of radioactive debris outside national boundaries, the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty's guidelines for large phased-array radars, SALT II's allowances for new missile types, to name a few. Just as important, the Soviets also have a record of exploiting textual ambiguities unavoidable in arms control pacts.

The potential in the INF Treaty for verification uncertainties and compliance problems is considerable. The treaty calls for elimination of both sides' intermediate land-based missiles, but it is not clear whether we know exactly how many Soviet missiles of this class exist. To complicate matters, the treaty bans the Soviet SS-20 missile but not the longer-range SS-25s, one of whose stages appears all but identical to the prohibited SS-20.

On balance, though, concern over verification is likely to be met. The extreme detail of the treaty - the text with all its annexes and data tables runs some 200 pages, more than 20 times the length of SALT I or the ABM Treaty - should reduce areas of contention. The agreement to eliminate rather than limit missiles simplifies the challenge; detecting the existence of one missile is more a cut-and-dried matter than counting a large number of mobile systems. Provision for intrusive, on-site inspection of key production facilities should complement satellites and other so-called national technical means of verification. So long as the standard is one of adequate verification - an ability to detect violations before they reach a level of military significance - the treaty defenders ought to be able to carry the day.

A second major concern will be the balance, or more accurately imbalance, in those forces that will remain in Europe once the INF Treaty takes effect. The Warsaw Pact enjoys considerable superiority in conventional, chemical, and short-range nuclear forces, an advantage not offset by areas of NATO qualitative excellence. Moreover, the INF Treaty exacerbates certain problems by eliminating the most modern European-based nuclear missiles capable of reaching the Soviet Union and closing off the possibility of using these systems with conventional warheads.

The bottom line, however, is that it is hard to argue that an agreement that calls for the USSR to eliminate four nuclear warheads for every one that we destroy makes matters worse. NATO's military capability is better than it has ever been, and the military balance is sufficiently robust to withstand the effects of the treaty. To fault this or any arms control pact because it does not solve all our security problems is simply to expect too much. We shall have to look to future negotiations, or more likely our own military modernization, to fill any gaps in European security.

Related to this concern over the resulting military balance is a third concern, that the treaty weakens the political tie binding the US to Europe. NATO and stability in Europe depend above all on the credibility in the US commitment and willingness to resort to nuclear weapons to compensate for conventional military inferiority. An agreement that reduces US nuclear weapons runs the risk of straining Europe's confidence in US dependability.

Again, there is some truth in this charge. That said, it is easy to exaggerate the treaty's impact. Even after the treaty takes full effect, the US will retain more than 4,000 nuclear weapons, along with some 300,000 troops and associated weapons, in and around Europe. More important, European confidence in American dependability is a function of much more than hardware: US competence in coping with the economic challenges will count for as much or more.

When all is said and done, the treaty deserves to be approved, if only to underline what we can achieve as an alliance when we remain strong. The time has arrived to declare moot the debate over whether the US ought to have proposed the so-called zero option that led to the INF Treaty. Any disarray in NATO caused by the treaty pales in comparison with the turmoil that would be triggered by our failure to ratify what has been negotiated.Predictability is essential to leadership; now is no time to reverse course on a treaty largely consistent with what we have sought since 1981.

Richard Haass is on the faculty of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is co-editor of the just published book ``Superpower Arms Control: Setting the Record Straight.''

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.