The United States is moving away from a global defense strategy stressing Western Europe and toward a more cooperative effort with allies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The "NATO first" policy required an automatic "swing" of US naval task forces , air wings, and ground troops from the Pacific to Europe in case of attack by conventional Soviet forces there.
Top US military planners now have discarded this in favor of stretching thinly spread US forces to face simultaneous Soviet threats, from Korea westward to the Persian Gulf and NATO's southeastern flank.
The swift-growing Soviet Navy and long-range Air Force now enjoy numerical superiority in the Far East and Europe, althrough not in the Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf theater. The Russian Navy includes a submarine force two to three times as large as that of the US and its allies, to cope with what Adm. Thomas Hayward, Chief of Naval Operations, calls a "three-ocean situation."
Alone, the US Navy, Admiral Hayward often points out, could deal only with "one and a half oceans" at once. In the new strategy, where US Pacific forces would not necessarily be speeded toward Europe to meet an emergency there, the principal US naval allies could make a major difference.
These allies -- Britain, France, Italy, West Germany, and Australia -- are contributing, despite their domestic budgetary and parliamentary restraints on defense. Australian patrols, including the old aircraft carrier Melbourne, already are helping to cover the vast Indian Ocean expanses where Soviet submarines (as in the South Atlantic, another "uncovered" area on vital Western shipping lanes) often have roamed, untracked or undetected.
In the Mediterranean, say US planners, the departure of one carrier group of the US Sixth Fleet for the Indian Ocean might be partially offset, in an emergency, by the navies and air power of Italy, France, and others. Balanced against this are Greek-Turkish frictions and mutual distrust, which have weakened allied command in the eastern Mediterranean.
Reversal of President Carter's 1977 decision to retain the "swing strategy" for automatic reinforcement of NATO from the Pacific was announced to allied leaders by US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and his chief NATO aide, Robert Komer, at top-level NATO meetings in Europe this month and last.
Allied statesmen and defense officials received it with some apprehension, but also with considerable understanding for the US strategic dilemma.
"We do understand," said one allied diplomat in Washington, "that in defending the oil lanes to the Far East, and the convoy supply routes in the Pacific, the US is defending all of us, too."
There is much more satisfaction among top US service chiefs over another, newer, decision by President Carter. This was made public in his Memorial Day greeting to 6,500 Navy men aboard the returning aircraft carrier Nimitz and its two escort ships at their home port, Norfolk Va., after nearly nine months of sea missions, including the aborted April 24 hostage rescue mission to Iran.
Reversing a memorandum he wrote to Secretary Brown last winter, which opposed pay raises in the services the President promised he would back legislation seeking to raise military fringe benefits. The memorandum noted, "When I was in the Navy, money didn't seem to matter so much" -- causing an audible wave of grousing among well-trained but poorly paid specialists who are leaving all the uniformed services at an increasing rate.
Mr. Carter's backing of the $3.5 billion Nunn-Warner amendment, raising crucial items like transfer travel allowances and reenlistment bonuses, brought and cheers from the returnees at Norfolk and rejoicing among top military brass.
"After months and months of patient explanations and pressure by the Joint Chiefs of Staff," affirmed one top officer, "the administration has gotten the message at last. You can't defend American interests, let alone the entire free world, on the cheap."