One feature of President Reagan's strategic nuclear program announced on Oct. 2 has not received either sufficient public or sufficient congressional attention: the decision to ''deploy several hundred nuclear armed sea launched cruise missiles on general purpose submarines beginning in 1984.''
This decision has literally been eclipsed by other features of the President's package. But the negative implications of this deployment for arms control and for America's long-range national security have not been adequately discussed. It is an omission which could come back to haunt the United States in the years ahead.
Rear Adm. William A. Williams III, in testimony prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 30, said that these sea-launched cruise missiles, or ''SLCMs,'' would ''provide additional survivable nuclear forces for the strategic reserve force.'' He went on to say that ''the latter role could be pivotal in the postwar balance and struggle for recovery.''
I won't dwell on what this last statement might mean with respect to Reagan administration plans for nuclear ''warfighting,'' though it does seem to suggest that the administration believes that somehow one side or the other can come out ''ahead'' in a post-nuclear war situation.
I do want to make the point that we have already deployed thousands of highly survivable nuclear warheads on our ballistic submarines. With the Trident program, we will be adding in the 1980s to our capabilities in this area.
I do not believe that the administration has made a convincing military case for its SLCM decision. Indeed, it has made almost no case at all. But most important, the administration has given little indication that it has weighed the very clear arms control drawbacks to the SLCM deployment decision against the rather tentative military advantages of going ahead.
Arms control depends on the ability of each side to verify with a high degree of confidence the number and capabilities of the weapons being limited by any agreement. In both SALT I and SALT II, the United States pressed for provisions intended to safeguard its ability to monitor Soviet compliance with treaty provisions through our own independent means, including satellite surveillance.
Verification has always been more a US problem than that of the Soviets. Our open society and public debate permits the outside observer to know with a good deal of confidence what our weapons deployments consist of. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, is not so forthcoming.
Cruise missiles by their very nature create verification problems. They are relatively small and easily transportable. It is extremely difficult to verify by national technical means (such as satellite surveillance) their range or whether they are conventionally or nuclear armed.
SALT II addressed the verification problem with respect to air-launched cruise missiles in a way acceptable to both sides. Ground-launched cruise missiles are on the negotiating table in Geneva at this moment. But the SLCM problem remains, and it is a serious one.
The US will shortly begin placing nuclear-armed, long-range, land-attack cruise missiles on attack submarines and may soon expand this program to include surface ships. Once they are in place, it will be virtually impossible for the Soviet Union to determine by national technical means which submarines or which ships are armed with these SLCMs. All our submarines and all our ships will become potential nuclear launch platforms in Soviet eyes. This situation may temporarily be militarily attractive, but the benefits could be fleeting.
At present, the Soviet Union lags behind the US in cruise missile technology. Its cruise missiles are crude in comparison to ours. However, we have found too often in the past that our lead in a given weapons technology can be erased by Soviet gains in the same area.
Once Soviet technology has progressed to the point where the Russians can duplicate our relatively small cruise missiles, we could have a serious problem. The day may not be too far off when we will have to consider every Soviet fishing trawler operating off our coasts as potentially nuclear armed.
Clearly if both sides were to engage in a massive deployment of long-range, nuclear-armed cruise missiles at sea, then President Reagan's search for an arms control agreement incorporating verifiable deep cuts in nuclear arsenals could become a practical impossibility. There would be little possibility of verifying with any confidence the nuclear arsenals of the other side.
I believe that the Reagan administration, in its search for readily available solutions to perceived US strategic nuclear inferiorities, has not adequately considered the arms control implications of this particular decision. As is too often the case on major decisions, the unintended effects of the decision may prove to be more significant than those contemplated by the decisionmaker at the moment the decision was taken.
I believe, however, that the President still has an opportunity to call on the Soviet Union to join the US in mutually controlling this new technology before significant deployments, difficult to retract, are undertaken.
In 1969, then Senator Brooke of Massachusetts made a determined effort to get the US to negotiate with the Soviet Union to halt the MIRVing of ballistic missiles. His call went unheeded. We had a technological advantage over the Soviets that we were determined to exploit. Now that advantage is gone, and our land-based forces are vulnerable to Soviet MIRVed ICBMs.
Let us not repeat the same error with SLCMs. Let us at least make a conscious effort to see whether control is possible.