Let the nuclear superpowers play Pac-Man

''Who would have won the war?'' This should be the relevant question for those contemplating and developing strategic defense and national security policy in the 1980s. We now have the capacity to develop an alternative to nuclear war and the arms buildup that avoids the destructive outcomes of nuclear war itself. The alternative meets the objectives of many groups that have been acting to increase war's probability.

The alternative is to stage, every four years, an Olympic Computerized War Simulation Competition (or OCWSC). The Soviet Union and the United States would compete.

Consider the objectives of those who insist that increased nuclear strength is essential - interests that aggregate to the present perilous international condition:

One aim is the destruction of the credibility and prestige (and consequently imperial power) of the competing economic and political system. Recently this has been civilized to be achievable without the loss of property: the neutron bomb is the product of this enlightenment.

Another is to limit the danger of death to a narrowing group: the combatants, not civilians. Witness advocacy of restricting strategies to use of battlefield nuclear weapons.

A third objective, particularly well articulated because its advocates are particularly articulate, is the development of high technology as a scientific end in itself. Research and development for military and civil technologies, it is argued, cannot be uncoupled. If we are to unilaterally disarm, if we put aside our nuclear research agenda, we will be like the Luddites. We will be sacrificing opportunities to create ethically neutral technologies - artifacts that can provide in the civilian mode for enhancement of the life quality of all citizens. As well, we will remove opportunities for the huge number of trained physicists, engineers, and other scientists to work, create, employ scientific genius and hence to be able to afford to eat.

Finally, improvements in nuclear strength keep the country from being surprised by the Enemy's technological prowess. We need to decrease uncertainty by defining and establishing the parameters of technological inquiry. If we determine the agenda of military research and development we need not fear that the Enemy's thermonuclear breakthroughs will jeopardize the stability of mutual deterrence. As a nice byproduct we avoid creating the Achilles' heel of perceived vulnerability.

The alternative, the technological equivalent of nuclear war, is intriguing because it meets all of these objectives. It keeps physicists, computer scientists, and engineers in work. It achieves everyone's professed goal of preventing nuclear destruction. It promotes vigorous and highly competitive research and development of technology (in computer software and hardware, weaponry, delivery systems, etc.). It limits (to zero) the number of those who will be sacrificed in combat. And finally - and presumably most important - it selects for the superior socio-politico-economic system.

In an Olympic competition each side could continue to pour billions of dollars into research and development of guidance systems, tracking systems, detection systems, surveillance and deployment systems. Each side would be told that, sometime during the Olympic month, these systems would be tested. An attack on the Enemy or retaliation would be necessitated. The United States and Soviet computer systems would then be linked for communication. And the full strategic potential that had been developed during the previous four years - except for the live nuclear warhead - would be put on trial. One side would win the ultimate video game.

Criteria for victory need to be worked out. They might include entering the video screen air space over the Capital of the Enemy or exceeding the number of ''meanies'' on the Enemy's printer in a given time (a sort of solid state throw-weight). The complete rules could be developed by some interested but objective observers, say Western Europe and Africa. In the alternative they could be developed by the statesmen, negotiators, and Kremlinologists and Washingtonologists who otherwise could be out of work.

The victor would hold for four years the Nuclear War Trophy and the prestige that accompanies a socio-economic-political system that generates the state-of-the-art technology that would have won the war: the superior system. (We might wish to have a handicap for that system that also managed to feed and house its citizens.)

Some might protest that International Pac-Man ignores the expansionist goals of the Enemy, i.e., what about the spoils of war? The question can be addressed in relative terms. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and other touchstones of nuclear weapons policy in recent years would not result in territorial accretion. Thus the technological equivalent need not encompass this previously presumed objective of war. Indeed, simple maintenance of existing sovereign boundaries will be viewed as a superior outcome to the leveling of New York, Leningrad, Washington, Los Angeles, and Moscow, currently an acceptable concomitant of the national policies for nuclear arms use.

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.