Washington — Congressional wags like to say it's hard to cut defense because there's no line in the military budget labeled ''waste, fraud, and abuse.'' As critics of defense spending plans have long pointed out, even the most questionable weapon has many ardent defenders. Some sincerely believe it has military worth. Others like it because it brings jobs and federal dollars to a home state or district.
Military worth alone is open to debate (especially when cost is factored in). That's why experts outside the ''iron triangle'' of contractors, Congress, and the Pentagon have widely differing lists of which weapons deserve the ''pork barrel'' label.
But some of the worst offenders, in fact, are not guns, ships, or planes, but items less easily targeted. For example, 92 percent of all those who retired from the service last year had yet to reach age 50, and 26 percent were still in their 30s. Yet as soon as they had finished 20 years' service, they began collecting half-pay pensions. Most of these relatively young people receive more than $600 a month. Some take other government jobs and eventually become ''double-dippers'' who tap Uncle Sam for two or more pensions.
''. . . $150 a week isn't a living wage,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel and compensation. ''But these men go on to second careers and second paychecks, so the pension check is icing on the cake.''
Will the military retirement program be tightened as reformers for years have urged? If so, it will be an uphill battle. The most recent figures gathered by the National Taxpayers Union show that 14 members of Congress receive military retirement pensions in addition to their substantial pay and benefits as lawmakers. And veterans organizations are very powerful on Capitol Hill, especially since at least 148,000 full-time federal employees (including 900 congressional employees) are military retirees drawing pensions.
Another example of nonweapons pork barreling is military bases and other facilities heavily defended from budgetary attack by political backscratching in Congress.
Congressional Quarterly found that at the same time the House Armed Services Committee was cutting the administration's defense budget for 1983, it also was adding $296 million for military construction projects not requested by the Pentagon. Of that sizable sum, 69 percent was for projects in districts represented by committee members. Lawmakers on the military installations and facilities subcommittee (just 14 of the 435 House members) reserved 58 percent of the total construction add-ons for their districts. Republicans as well as majority Democrats were recipients.
With looming deficits in mind, the Senate Armed Services Committee broke tradition and resisted the temptation to fund unrequested military construction for 1983. But for 1982 it added $152 million, of which 88 percent was for committee members' states. Among these members were Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, who belongs to the ''military reform caucus'' on Capitol Hill and committee chairman John Tower (R) of Texas.
More recently, Senator Tower asked each of his Senate colleagues to suggest ways they would cut defense in their own states. At the end of a month, he had gotten just six replies from the other 99 senators, and two of those recommended nothing specific. In total, $65 million in outlay cuts - or 0.0003 percent of the Reagan defense budget for next year - were offered.
Some of the most vocal defense critics are conspicuously silent on questionable weapons produced in their states and districts. Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan hammers away at the MX missile and B-1 bomber, but likes the controversial $2.7 million M-1 tank, which is built in his state. Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California is running for president on an antinuclear-war platform, yet favors the strategic B-1 bomber, which will bring jobs to his state and at least half the $20 billion total investment in the project. Fellow liberal Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio likes the bomber, too: Its engines will be built in his state.
The B-1 also is a good example of well-thought-out political strategy by a defense contractor. It was shot down by the Carter administration, which instead favored placing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on B-52 bombers. Today, many experts say the refurbished and rearmed B-52 will suffice until the Advanced Technology (''Stealth'') Bomber comes along. The B-1 is high up on many a critic's weapons cut list.
But Common Cause estimates that 53 major subcontractors, together with 3,000 to 5,000 other subcontractors and suppliers will spread the B-1 wealth over 48 states.
''The B-1 is the classic,'' says Gordon Adams, defense analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of ''The Iron Triangle, The Politics of Defense Contracting.'' Dr. Adams points out that the Air Force recently scaled back its cruise missile procurement program because it realized that ''Stealth'' technology would be needed to penetrate Soviet air defenses. The same is true for manned bombers, says Adams, yet the Pentagon clings to the B-1 and Congress continues to acquiesce.
The complexities of congressional pork barreling, especially when mixed with interservice rivalries, is illustrated with the Army's AH-64 Apache helicopter and the Air Force's A-10 attack jet. Both are designed to provide air cover for ground troops.
While the AH-64 has had cost overrun problems and serious questions have been raised about its survivability and effectiveness in combat, the A-10 has generally proved itself as a relatively inexpensive and efficient tank-killer. The Army clings to the AH-64 because it's an Army program, and the Army years ago agreed to leave fixed-wing combat flying to the Air Force. The Air Force, on the other hand, doesn't want a lot of A-10s because it would rather duel enemy airplanes with high-performance fighters than provide ground support for the Army.
Consequently, the A-10's principle defender is Rep. Joseph Addabbo (D) of New York, the House defense appropriations subcommittee chairman (and very vocal Pentagon spending critic) who represents Long Island where the A-10 is made.
Next: Efforts to reform the pork barrel process.