Washington — Federal deficits looming to the right of them. Farmers, college students, and other hometown folk clamoring to the left of them. . . . Lawmakers increasingly are being pressed to look to defense as a way to cut government spending. And with a little help from outside experts, they are finding many potential targets of opportunity: duplicative conventional and strategic weapons, large and well-paid personnel rolls, ``cut insurance'' padding built into the Defense Department budget.
According to many analysts -- some with years of experience in crafting military budgets -- the White House request for $314 billion in 1986 defense spending could be reduced significantly without harming national security. In fact, some say, the armed services could be made more effective by slowing down the rate of increase and examining closely the way the military does business.
In congressional testimony this week, William Kaufmann of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University outlined how to save $50 billion in military spending over the next three years by holding the real rate of growth to 3 percent and reducing ``excessive duplication, mistaken pace, and questionable priorities.''
A longtime adviser of defense secretaries (Republican and Democratic), Mr. Kaufmann listed as prime candidates for cancellation the MX ballistic missile (savings: $9.8 billion through 1988), the B-1 bomber ($6.1 billion), chemical weapons ($2.4 billion), and the C-17 transport aircraft ($3.6 billion).
Kaufmann also recommends freezing research on space-based missile defense (savings: $10.9 billion) and slowing the production rate of other major weapons, including Navy and Air Force tactical aircraft ($15 billion) and the Army's M-1 tank and Bradley armored personnel carrier ($1.9 billion).
Such changes, Kaufmann says, would still allow the United States to maintain a strategic arsenal of more than 3,000 nuclear warheads, conduct successful conventional wartime operations in two theaters, improve intercontinental mobility, and control vital sealanes.
Richard Stubbings of Duke University, who spent 20 years analyzing defense issues for the White House budget office, urges lawmakers to freeze Pentagon spending. He notes that annual defense spending authority has jumped 50 percent (not counting inflation) since 1980.
Mr. Stubbings says that under the current administration the annual ``cut insurance'' typically built into the Pentagon budget has grown to $18 billion. Freezing defense spending, he says, ``would force some better management on the system.''
Edward Luttwak of Georgetown University, an outspoken supporter of more defense spending, says that there probably is $6 billion in ``cut insurance'' that could be harmlessly removed from the Pentagon budget. But in testimony before the Senate Budget Committee this week (and in his new book, ``The Pentagon and the Art of War''), Mr. Luttwak says ``the deep structural defects of the military institutions'' must be corrected before more widespread wastefulness can be stopped.
Among other things, he says that the armed services are ``lavishly serviced'' by a ``vast understructure'' of support forces and agencies that outnumber combat units. ``Multiple layers of management [and] diffusion of authority,'' Luttwak argues, ``greatly complicate everything that goes through the system.'' Luttwak says the number of officers above middle rank is ``grossly excessive,'' resulting in ``many separate military bureaucracies that have proliferated over the years to accommodate all those officers.''
At least one Republican lawmaker apparently agrees that the Pentagon's payroll may be too large. Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire this week said there should be a 10 percent reduction in Defense Department support personnel, which would eliminate 180,000 civilian and military jobs.
Senator Rudman also said the proposed 3 percent pay raise for those in uniform should be canceled and the administration's requested Defense Department personnel increase of 36,000 be rejected. Budget savings from the three measures, Rudman estimates, would total $21 million over the next three years.
Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico points out that the defense budget today is ``the largest since the height of the Korean war . . . even larger than at the peak of the Vietnam war, when we had an Army twice the size of today's Army.''
``There are growing concerns that we must do something about the deficit,'' Mr. Domenici added, ``and that defense must play a part.''