All the major superpower arms control talks are now in limbo. Three of them were suspended by the Soviets in reaction to deployment of NATO's initial 41 Euromissiles last December: the intermediate-range nuclear forces (the Euromissile or INF talks), the strategic arms reduction talks (START), and the multilateral mutual and balanced (conventional) force reduction talks (MBFR). The Soviet Union has subsequently agreed to resume the MBFR talks in March.
Two other talks were in effect suspended earlier by the Americans: the antisatellite (ASAT) and comprehensive (nuclear) test ban negotiations (CTB). The reasoning was that a ban on the development of antisatellite weapons would disadvantage the technologically exuberant US more than the technologically sluggish Soviet Union and that more on-site inspection was needed for verification of the absence of underground nuclear tests.
The conspicuous vacuum in arms control leaves the 35-nation Stockholm conference that began this January as the only major East-West forum now discussing mutual military restraints. And the Stockholm conference is concerned only with the somewhat peripheral question of lessening the chances of any surprise attack in Europe. It is not designed to - nor could it ever - carry the burden once assigned to the 1970s' Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT, the forerunner of START) as the main pillar of superpower relations in the era of detente.
At its worst the current lull in arms control negotiations therefore represents a breakdown in superpower dialogue. At its best it offers an opportunity - both for Reaganauts and for nuclear freeze advocates - to rethink some basic ends and means.
An afternoon - or even several evenings - of Great Decisions discussion hardly allows time to review the gamut of security and peace issues. But some focus can perhaps be achieved by looking first at the general issue of arms control and then at several specific negotiations.
What is needed now, suggests Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College, London, is ''a real effort to establish communication with the Russians not through arms control. This is the real opportunity now: to reorganize East-West relations on a more sensible basis and not to set arms to the fore of it.''
What he means is that mutually agreed military restraint is too important to leave to the vagaries of changing political moods. Survival is a constant need for both East and West even - or perhaps especially - when the superpowers are in a period of confrontation, as they are now.
Insofar as arms control helps codify that restraint and encourage stability, it should stand on its own, independent of the ebb and flow of political tensions. Restraint that prevails only in time of detente and vanishes in time of antagonism hardly helps contain the nuclear demons.
This at least has been the concept of arms controllers for 20 years. And it seems to have been adopted to a considerable extent by the Reagan administration , despite an initial instinct to arm first and negotiate only later.
Most of those who argue in principle that arms control saps the West's will to defend itself have been left out of the administration; with pragmatic insiders the conviction has grown instead that sensible arms control actually promotes security by increasing predictability and balance.
Because of this conviction - and, to be sure, because of the yearning of European publics and peace movements for a lessening of nuclear danger - the US has deplored the Soviet walkout from the START and INF talks.
The prospects for resumption of specific East-West arms control dialogue - and the issues the West is currently debating in each forum - look like this: INF
Without a doubt the superpowers' intermediate-range nuclear forces negotiations of the past two years have caught the public eye more than any other arms control talks. The reasons include:
1. The dramatic attempt by the Soviet Union - as NATO sees it - to achieve swift nuclear superiority in Europe on the cheap, by targeting 243, three-warhead, 3,000-mile-range SS-20 missiles on Europe (and an additional 135 on Asia) since 1977.
2. NATO's attempt to redress this imbalance by deploying in the mid-80s 572 intermediate-range, single-warhead Pershing II and cruise missiles against the 729 Soviet SS-20 European warheads - while simultaneously seeking to negotiate mutual limits on these weapons.
3. The resurgence of unilateralist, antinuclear movements in Europe, with record numbers of demonstrators, after two decades of relative apathy about the subject.
The last Soviet offer before Moscow ''discontinued'' the talks in November was 140 Europe-targeted SS-20s with 420 warheads vs. no NATO intermediate-range missiles whatsoever, France's 18 existing land-based intermediate-range single-warhead missiles, and the additional 144 single-warhead submarine missiles of France and Britain.
The Soviet Union says it will not resume negotiations until NATO removes all the initial 41 Pershing IIs and cruises deployed in West Germany, Britain, and Italy at the end of 1983. But East German leader Erich Honecker, a staunch Soviet ally who has proclaimed his wish to ''limit the damage'' of the missile clash, has said negotiations will be resumed ''sooner or later,'' even if in some new forum.
The last American offer before the talks broke up was a global ceiling (for both Europe and Asia) of 420 warheads for both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with no reference to British and French missiles. The US would deploy half of its total in Europe but would unilaterally waive deployment of the other half and would instead keep those missiles in reserve in the US.
Washington, on behalf of the West, says it is ready to resume negotiations at any time. The West trusts Mr. Honecker's judgment that Euromissile talks will be resumed at some point. Nonetheless, it believes that getting from here to there will be tricky, since Moscow has invested so much prestige in not returning to the table while Western deployment proceeds.
Talks or no talks, hopes of any separate agreement limiting Euromissiles have virtually vanished, however. The Western analysis is that the first ''window of opportunity'' for an agreement - prior to the start of NATO deployments, when Moscow might have hoped to limit those deployments - has passed without any serious Soviet interest in a deal.
The expectation now is that - for reasons of Soviet prestige - the next opportunity will not come until the West has enough missiles in place to destroy a symbolic few of its own along with the great many Soviet SS-20s that would have to be destroyed in any equalization of numbers. START
Substantively, the outlook is better for strategic than for Euromissile arms control. But the strategic equation is the most complex of all the military balances. Because of this a strong political push has always been required to compel arms control agreement. That political push is precisely what is missing in the present period of confrontation. On the strategic balance itself the two sides are roughly equal: The US has about 10,000 to the Soviet Union's 8,000 intercontinental warheads, while the Soviet Union has three times America's ''throw weight.''
With its giant, eight-warhead SS-18s, the Soviet Union currently has the theoretical potential for greater ''first-strike'' (surprise attack) damage of American missiles. But the US will acquire the theoretical potential for greater first-strike damage of Soviet missiles, as its highly accurate Trident II and MX come on line in the next few years.
By the late '80s this threat will be far worse for Moscow than for Washington , since the Soviet Union has three-fourths of its strategic missile force on vulnerable land-based missiles, while the US has only one-fourth of its missiles so deployed.
This mutual threat should eventually bring the Soviets to share the present American concern about the growing number of accurate first-strike weapons as well as about ''crisis instability'' - i.e., the risk of a ''use 'em or lose em'' miscalculation and a preemptive strike if either side thinks attack by the other is imminent.
A major hitch, however, is that it is much more difficult for the Soviets to restructure their land-based missiles to make them more secure than it is for the Americans to do the same, because of the Soviets' larger proportion of land-based missiles.
Nonetheless, there are two foundations that could be built upon, should the political will to do so reappear. One is the Soviet START offer of ''SALT minus.'' The other is the American START offer of ''build down.''
The Soviet position follows the pattern of the SALT II treaty, which both sides have pledged to observe even though the US Senate has never ratified it. The Soviet offer would retain the SALT II framework but cut the numbers for missile ceilings.
The American build-down concept aims at cutting the superpower strategic nuclear armories in half - down to 5,000 warheads each - over a decade. And it uses modernization - the usual sleeper in any arms control agreement - to help the build-down rather than evade it.
It would compel the dismantling of two old intercontinental ballistic missiles with MIRVed warheads for each new one deployed as well as three-old-for-two-new submarine-launched ballistic missiles with MIRVed warheads. In any case, each side would have to dismantle at a minimum 5 percent of their old warheads per year.
Neither side has accepted the other's position as a basis for negotiation. But, given intensive negotiation - and the political will to agree - there would seem to be nothing intrinsically hostile to the other's interests in either proposal. MBFR and the Stockholm conference
The lethargic 10-year-old mutual and balanced force reduction talks in Vienna to reduce conventional forces in the front-line countries of East and West Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Benelux nations are being superseded to some extent by the current Stockholm talks.
The Stockholm Conference on Confidence- and Security-building Measures and Disarmament in Europe is expanding the geographic area to cover all of Europe, including the portion of the Soviet Union west of the Urals. It will focus (at least in Western proposals) on measures designed to help detect and therefore avert surprise attack.
Proposals include advance notification of maneuvers below the threshold of 25 ,000 troops specified in the Helsinki agreement of 1975 - with mandatory on-site observation of the maneuvers by officers from the adversary alliance.
Soviet proposals in Stockholm are expected to concentrate on what the West views as grand and unrealistic propaganda schemes of nuclear-free zones and nonaggression pacts. Last summer there was a surprising signal of Soviet interest in expanding on-site observation behind adversary front lines, however - an interest some Western analysts believe is whetted by the prospect of inspecting new NATO ''deep strike'' conventional weapons in the 1990s. ASAT
This is the joker in the pack, the one issue on which there could be a sharp clash of policy opinion in the US.
In the other nuclear building programs and arms control issues an American consensus has been hammered out, following the intercession of the Scowcroft presidential commission and Moscow's failure to negotiate intensively at either the START or INF talks.
But the Reagan administration enthusiasm for a new arms race in space without the fetters of any arms control treaty does not yet enjoy comparable bipartisan approval. The lines are just starting to form in this debate, but already the decision promises to be one of the most momentous ones for the rest of this century.
Basically, the Reagan administration would like to take weapons into space, for shooting down both ballistic missiles and satellites. Washington is confident it could surge ahead of Moscow technologically - some US Air Force generals even talk of regaining nuclear superiority - and stay five or so years ahead of Moscow in a decade in which the computer revolution is still moving fast.
A major American ASAT test program is being conducted this year and next, for the first time in two decades. The current US and Soviet ASAT programs both exploit nonnuclear technology, so do not violate - yet - the ban on testing and deployment of nuclear weapons in space in the 1963 test ban treaty and 1967 outer space treaty.)
The Soviet Union, which already has a slow, low-altitude ASAT capability, wants to avert this new US research and development cycle. The current Soviet weapons do not yet endanger the high, 21,000-mile-orbit geosyn-chronous satellites that so much of American navigation, intelligence, communications, and targeting now rely on.
The mobile, much swifter, and much more sophisticated ASAT weapon that the US intends to have operational by 1987 will not threaten the Soviet high-orbit electronic intelligence satellites either - but it does promise greater potential than the Soviet ASAT weapon by the 1990s.
An all-out arms race in space could overturn the whole postwar ''balance of terror'' of invulnerable weapons and totally vulnerable populations. It holds out the theoretical prospect at least of breaking out of the grim certainty that any nuclear attacker would be committing double suicide - a perversity that Western strategic analysts generally hold has preserved superpower peace and deterred nuclear war for the past 39 years.
Air Force champions of ''the high frontier'' contend that such a shift would be all to the good, since American technology should protect the American population while still holding the Soviet population hostage. European populations might still be hostage to the Soviet Union, but Americans would be safe, so long as the US remained the perpetual leader in the new race.
Some civilian critics foresee dangers instead in militarization of space. They believe it would destabilize superpower relations and heighten hair-trigger fears of some first strike so devastating that it would not allow for retaliation - and would thus undermine deterrence.
More concretely, they argue that the US would benefit far more by agreeing to halt development of all further ASAT capability than by inventing ingenious gadgets that the Soviets will always be able to duplicate five years later. A ban on the entire class of weapons would be possible at the present research stage, they contend. But it will not be possible once the genie has been let out of the bottle.
The consequences of such a Soviet-American competition could be grave for the US, the civilian critics say. Satellites are relatively fragile and easy to kill or blind, and there is every reason to believe that offensive technology, once begun, will always outpace defensive technology.
The US is much more dependent on satellites than the Soviet Union, however, and roughly equal Soviet and American ASAT capability would incapacitate many more American than Soviet eyes and ears in space.