THE proposed January meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State George Shultz will compel the administration to choose between continued attacks on Soviet treaty compliance and renewed negotiations with the Soviets. Deep divisions within the administration may make this choice difficult. Moreover, the first item on the agenda for these discussions should be an agreement to continue observing the provisions of the SALT II treaty until a new agreement is reached.
The release of yet another report on Soviet arms control compliance - prepared by the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament - has refocused attention on the highly charged issue of Soviet ''cheating.'' Discredited by the inclusion of factual inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and issues that were resolved under former administrations, the report failed to win the formal endorsement of the Reagan administration. Even so, renewed controversy over Soviet compliance threatens to provide further impetus to those who advocate abandoning the already besieged SALT and ABM treaties. If allowed to continue, the unraveling of more than two decades of arms control progress would have serious consequences for American security.
The only existing arms control treaty limiting offensive weapons - SALT II - will expire at the end of next year. Although both the US and USSR have pledged not to undercut this unratified treaty, the agreement is already in peril. The Reagan administration has refused to commit itself to compensate for the introduction of the seventh Trident submarine next October, a development that will put the United States over the crucial SALT ceiling on missiles with multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). A year later, under current plans, the number of B-52 bombers carrying cruise missiles will also exceed the SALT limits. Administration officials have indicated that they may pursue both programs in response to alleged Soviet violations.
The ongoing controversy over Soviet treaty violations has largely ignored the important point that none of the activities in question constitute a tangible military threat. In contrast to these minor, and debatable, issues, the abrogation of SALT could result in a dangerous new arms race the United States had little chance of winning. The Soviets have traditionally relied on larger numbers, and in the case of ICBMs, larger missiles, to offset American technological and operational advantages. Since SALT is basically a series of quantitative limits, it favors these American qualitative advantages, while restricting the Soviet penchant for mass and quantity.
A favorite target of arms control critics, SALT has been greatly underrated. With a few minor exceptions, the treaty would allow the current, and substantial , strategic buildup initiated by the Reagan administration to continue. Yet SALT II would severely restrict the future options of the USSR, which has already reached or come close to the SALT limits on both land and sea-based MIRVed ballistic missiles.
In the absence of SALT, the Soviets could expand strategic forces markedly. Unlike the United States, the Soviets have a number of new ICBMs and SLBMs already under production or advanced development. Under SALT, most of these new systems could only be deployed by making compensatory retirements of existing systems. Without the agreement, the Soviets will have every reason simply to add thousands of new warheads while retaining their current forces.
The Soviets are proceeding with the testing of the SS-24 ICBM, their one new missile type allowed under SALT. Without the treaty, the Soviets could also begin the testing and deployment of at least one other, far more capable large ICBM, the SS-X-26, now reportedly in early development. The Soviets could also introduce long-range cruise missiles on hundreds of Backfire bombers, a dramatic improvement in capability now prohibited by the treaty.
Finally, and most important, in deciding to abandon SALT at the same time we are renewing the development of ABM systems, America would in effect be issuing an open invitation for an unlimited arms race in offensive and defensive weapons. The Soviets have already expressed concern that the administration's Strategic Defensive Initiative, alias ''star wars,'' would ultimately lead to a full-scale ABM system and the inevitable demise of the ABM treaty. The most obvious, and effective, response to the threat of an American anti-missile system would be the wholesale proliferation of Soviet offensive missiles. The burst of Soviet missile testing activity over the past year could indicate that the Soviet Union is already gearing up for the potential abrogation of both SALT and the ABM treaty.
Ultimately, there is little to be gained from undercutting SALT at a time when negotiations on medium- and long-range nuclear weapons remain at an impasse. Nor can the United States expect much cooperation in resolving compliance issues so long as its commitment to both the SALT and ABM treaties remains questionable. The administration should initiate a twofold effort to resolve compliance issues through serious, private negotiations and to reaffirm its intention to abide by the SALT limits until a new treaty is concluded.