Beginning in June, the first of hundreds of nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles will be deployed on American submarines and surface ships. About the same time, the Soviet Union also is expected to begin arming its Navy with a new generation of these low-flying missiles that carry a mighty nuclear punch.
Such weapons are not at the top of the list of concerns at the currently stalled strategic or intermediate-range nuclear force talks in Geneva. Some US officials and defense analysts suggest that superpower stability is increased with cruise missiles lurking at sea. They are not as vulnerable to surprise attack as land-based missiles, it is argued, and, therefore, any potential adversary would think twice about striking a nation's homeland.
But critics counter that with virtually every submarine and most surface combat ships becoming potential platforms for thousands of small but powerful cruise missiles, arms control will be horrendous.
They warn, too, that the United States is much more vulnerable to cruise missile attack. Most of the American population is relatively close to the coastline, but the majority of Soviet population centers and military facilities are well inland. Also, it is pointed out, the Soviet Union has many more submarines than the US does.
Within the past two years, the US has deployed ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, air-launched cruise missiles aboard B-52 bombers, and cruise missiles with conventional warheads on the battleship New Jersey. The nuclear version of the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) is the next step.
''We feel that deploying cruise missiles on surface ships and attack subs provides a more stable, survivable nuclear force than we presently possess,'' says Hubert Wang, director of Navy strategic programs at the Pentagon.
''They complicate a potential enemy's targeting requirements,'' Dr. Wang told a discussion group organized by the Committee for National Security last week.
Even among those who support cruise missiles as a relatively cheap ''force multiplier'' addition to the US arsenal, however, there are those who worry about cruise missiles with nuclear warheads at sea.
''Overall, I tend to like cruise missiles a lot and would even see conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles as useful,'' said Richard Betts of the Brookings Institution, a cruise missile expert. ''But I see the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile . . . as potentially offering large arms control headaches in exchange for negligible military value.''
The Reagan administration's enthusiasm for the missiles is part of its strategy of deterring war by being able to take the attack quickly to an adversary's homeland.
At the launching ceremony for the new attack submarine, USS Honolulu, last fall, former national-security adviser William Clark said, ''With the new cruise missile armament, our submarines will take on a new major role: that of force projection on a worldwide basis.''
Officials also have talked of these missiles providing a ''nuclear reserve'' after an initial nuclear exchange, stressing enhances US deterrent strength.
But critics say that once a nuclear war has started, command and control facilities will have been destroyed or degraded to the point where submarine commanders won't know where to aim the missiles or even whether they should fire them. And some military experts question the strategic deterrent role of such weapons.
''I don't see how the long-range Tomahawk missile with a nuclear warhead is going to be part of deterrence,'' says retired Vice-Adm. Ralph Weymouth, former director of Navy program planning at the Pentagon. ''It's going to be part of war-fighting.''
Cruise missiles have been deployed for years in the Soviet Union. Until recently, such weapons have been relatively unsophisticated, of much shorter range and less accuracy than those about to be deployed.
Thanks, at least in part, to purloined Western technology, that situation is changing rapidly and the arms race in modern SLCMs has accelerated on both sides.
Soviet submarines are soon to be equipped with the new SS-NX-21 land-attack cruise missile that will rival the US Navy's new Tomahawk. It will have a range of nearly 2,000 miles, be much more accurate than its predecessors, fly at supersonic speeds (US cruise missiles are subsonic), and (like the Tomahawk) carry a warhead with over 10 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb.
The Soviet fleet includes more than 350 submarines (more than twice as many as the US), and several new classes of subs are being built. The United States is launching new submarines as well, in addition to the refurbished battleships and new cruisers and destroyers that will carry sea-launched cruise missiles.
''Once deployment starts, SLCMs could proliferate to frightening numbers,'' warns a report by the Committee for National Security, a Washington-based nonpartisan study group. ''And the day is not too far off when any fishing trawler could conceivably have a cruise-launching capability.''
Sen. Charles Mathias (R) of Maryland last year narrowly lost a defense authorization vote that would have halted SLCM deployment while strategic arms talks proceeded. He will try again this year. But it may be a fruitless effort with START talks dormant and the first deployment just four months away.