THE United States has always been loath to bring its floating forces into the arms control harbor. A free-ranging navy is integral to the US role as a superpower able to respond to far-flung crises. At Malta, Mikhail Gorbachev made a plea to include naval systems in arms negotiations, joining the debate. President Bush didn't give an inch.
Gorbachev, for his part, weakly acknowledged that geography was a factor. In other words, yes, the US is a sea power whose paths to the rest of the world lie through open ocean. The Soviet claim to superpower status, by contrast, is massive land forces.
But Gorbachev has begun reducing his troops in Europe, spurred by economic necessity as well as strategic ``new thinking.'' Should the US respond with a willingness to draw in its area of superiority, the Navy?
Some reduction in naval power is already under way. Budget constraints have forced retirement of older ships, and Reagan-era dreams of a 600-ship Navy have evaporated. But military planners can make a good case for a large force responsive to important missions such as the recent Persian Gulf patrols. Some argue, too, that shrinking overseas bases make carrier groups, ``floating bases,'' more important than ever. These are strong arguments, and it's unlikely Congress or the President (an old Navy man) will be inclined to negotiate size of conventional naval forces.
Sea-based nuclear weapons are another matter. As strategic arms talks move toward sharp cuts in land-based systems, the American edge in naval systems - submarine-launched missiles, nuclear-armed cruise missiles, other tactical weapons on ships - will jut out. American distaste for the subject may have to yield.
The Navy has already quietly removed many tactical nuclear weapons from its ships - nuclear mines, for example, and antisubmarine missiles. These were old, but there is also a recognition that nuclear explosions at sea would knock out crucial radar capabilities. Some military thinkers point out, too, that oceans free of nukes would enhance US superiority, eliminating the only weapons that can knock out a carrier in one blow.
Verifying naval arms reduction has been a hurdle, since on-board inspections would give Soviets access to secret technology. That may eventually be a risk worth taking. In any case, radiation detection devices can allow screening of cruise missiles, for instance, before installation.
The world's accumulation of nuclear weaponry must be reduced, in the interests of both superpowers and of mankind. US resistance to any constraints on its Navy will have to give way.