SECRETARY of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko are to meet in Geneva Jan. 7 and 8 ''for a broad confidential exchange on all aspects of arms control.'' Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt has said that ''we'd like to get the negotiations actually started in Geneva in January, and we will be working to that end.'' Thus if all goes well, the United States and the Soviet Union should soon be engaged in arms control negotiations about space, and medium-range and strategic nuclear weapons.
These negotiations are certain to have one important characteristic. They will take time. The SALT I negotiations began in November 1969 and ended in May 1972, more than 21/2 years later. The SALT II negotiations ran from November 1972 until June 1979. A new agreement, which President Reagan says must include ''real'' reductions, will be complicated and time consuming.
But new weapons deployments will not be slow. The scientific laboratories and the armsmakers will continue producing more refined and sophisticated weapons. Demand will be heavy; many will be deployed.
SALT I imposed a ceiling on missiles. But multiple-warhead missiles (MIRVs) were developed and deployed so that the same number of missiles could carry many more warheads. The arms race outpaced the negotiations and significantly lessened the agreement's effect. Technology preempted the negotiations and may do so again.
There is a solution to this problem. Secretary Shultz should propose to Foreign Minister Gromyko when they meet a moratorium on the testing and deployment of a few key weapons that would provide a negotiating pause in the arms race. This bilateral moratorium could begin at once on the basis of an informal understanding between Mr. Shultz and Mr. Gromyko. Only weapons that could be verified unilaterally would be selected, so that verification arrangements would not be necessary.
To enhance bargaining leverage, the implicit threat to end the moratorium and to resume testing and deployment of weapons would have to be real. This would mean, for example, that Congress should provide the administration with contingency funds for the MX missile. With a moratorium, the US negotiator would have flexibility at the bargaining table; he could offer the full range of deployment possibilities from zero on up.
The moratorium should include three weapons:
* Antisatellite weapons (ASATs). A stop to the testing and deployment of ASATs would put on hold the most critical US-Soviet arms control issue. Do we want to extend the arms race to outer space? Is it in our interest to agree to the deployment of ASATs and thus to a Soviet capability to threaten vital US communication links?
* Multiple-warhead missiles (MIRVed ICBMs). The highly accurate MIRVed and ICBM missile is the most dangerous and deadly weapon in the arsenal of either country. In a crisis both sides would be acutely aware that many warheads could be destroyed by a few enemy missiles. Both sides would feel they must be used or lost to use. The pressures for a first strike would mount. Should not priority be given to the reduction of these dangerous weapons?
* Sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs). The rationale for deploying SLCMs is questionable. The administration says they are needed as a ''strategic reserve, '' presumably for a ''protracted'' nuclear war. SLCMs would be hard to verify; their deployment could create a gaping hole in arms control. Should SLCMs be banned?
And depending on allied views, the moratorium should include medium-range missiles (the Soviet SS-20 and the US Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles). There is a wide spectrum of opinion in Europe on the desirability of US medium-range missile deployments in Western Europe. The British, German, and French governments favor the deployments, as does the Italian government, although with serious reservations. The Dutch and Belgian governments, and the major opposition parties in Britain and Germany, do not. A moratorium might eventually end this division and result in a united policy.
US-Soviet negotiations on nuclear arms control will not slow the nuclear arms race. The arms race could even accelerate if each side justified new weapons as bargaining chips for the negotiations. That was the case in SALT with MIRVs and cruise missiles. A moratorium on certain key weapons would ensure that significant arms reduction remained a plausible result of the forthcoming negotiations, consistent with President Reagan's declared objective.
David Linebaugh, formerly a deputy assistant director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is a member of the Committee for National Security.