At the heart of the crucial arms-control infighting in Washington over the next few weeks will be the evaluation of Soviet nuclear intentions. Few issues have generated so much heat in recent years. Hawks have decried Soviet ''war-fighting'' aims (and called for a similar policy in the United States). Doves have seen the Soviet (and American) guideline as the far less scary one of deterrence.
As this debate intensifies as Washington shapes its negotiating position for the Euromissile arms-control talks due to resume in Geneva at the end of January , some fresh light has been cast on the heat by University of Edinburgh Professor John Erickson.
Professor Erickson is one of the West's leading experts on military affairs. He is impatient with both hawk and dove in his own synthesis of views in the November/December issue of Survival, the magazine of the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Russians do believe in deterrence rather than war-fighting as such, he concludes from his scrutiny of both Soviet military doctrine and civilian foreign policy. But their concept of deterrence ''depends crucially on overinsurance.'' And this, by implication, makes it very difficult to reconcile Soviet and Western notions of arms control.
In his essay, Erickson first raps the knuckles of 1960s Western doves who in a ''condescending'' fashion thought the Soviet Union simply lagged behind the United States a few years in its strategic thinking and needed only to be educated.
He attacks with even greater acerbity, however, the hawks' ''exaggeration of American vulnerabilities'' and ''strategic demonology.''
Very roughly, the classical dove theory has anticipated convergence of Soviet with American strategic doctrine in distinguishing between ''good'' deterrence (prevention of war altogether) - and ''bad defense'' or war-fighting (plans for actually using or countering nuclear weapons once deterrence fails).
It has anticipated further convergence in distinguishing between bad ''first-strike'' capability (which worries the adversary because it could wipe out major segments of his nuclear weapons in any surprise attack) - and good ''second-strike'' capability which reassures, since there is no ''use it or lose it'' pressure in a crisis, and weapons can even sit out an opponent's surprise attack with enough surviving warheads to retaliate.
This view, asserts Erickson, fails to take into account ''the factor of sheer military weight in Soviet priorities.''
Very roughly, the classical hawk theory holds that Soviet military doctrine regards nuclear weapons rather like any other weapon and would use them routinely in any war; that war is an accepted Clausewitzian instrument of implacable Soviet expansionist policy; and that Moscow's theoretical ''first-strike'' threat against the land leg of the American land-sea-air triad in the 1980s is a potentially mortal danger.
This view, asserts Erickson, ignores the particular Soviet continuum of politics and war, the weight of orthodox and cautious military thinking in Soviet views, the continuing trauma about surprise attack left over from Soviet experience in World War II, and the overall nuclear balance.
In Erickson's own analysis, ''after the near catastrophe'' of Hitler's surprise attack on the Soviet Union in June of 1941 ''it is inconceivable that any Soviet leadership will countenance absorbing ''any initial strike.'' Hence the Soviet ''premium on defense in the first instance, so that defense and ''deterrence'' must go hand in hand. Hence, too, the ironic mutual mistrust when the US saw Soviet defense efforts, including civil defense, as part of Soviet development of a first-strike policy - ''while Soviet opinion saw in the [very] lack of a defense program in the US more than a hint'' of an American first-strike policy.
Soviet talk of ''victory'' in a nuclear war - one of the main alarm signals for hawks - Erickson regards as ''little more than expressions of ideological . . . rectitude.''