Congress this week agreed on a $200 billion defense budget - the largest ever. But beneath this rearming of America -- something that most Americans apparently want -- is a growing movement to redirect military spending in ways that could fundamentally change the armed forces, their structure, and policies.
Like turning a battleship, it will take time. But the course change already has begun.
A ''military reform caucus,'' composed of liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, is growing on Capitol Hill. Their views are being listened to by the Reagan administration, reflected in Defense Department plans for the future, and included in this new spending bill for 1982.
At a time when the labels ''hawk'' and ''dove'' have fallen into disuse, this group (which now numbers 55, most of whom are Republicans) represents a cross section of Congress. Its members include Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado and former Navy Secretary John Warner, now a Republican senator from Virginia.
One of its founders is Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R) of Virginia, who perceives ''disturbing trends in the business of defending our country.''
''We are worried that our military can no longer win,'' he said this week. ''And we have doubts as to whether the American people will continue to support high and increasing budgets for a nonwinning military.''
High and increasing defense budgets undoubtedly will continue, at least through the Reagan administration.
''But,'' says Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, ''it doesn't matter how much money you spend if you spend it badly.''
If reformers on Capitol Hill (and, increasingly, among defense intellectuals and the military itself) have their way, changes will be made in three broad areas: personnel, strategy and tactics, and hardware.
Among armed forces personnel, for example, individual leadership has been replaced with more distant ''management'' and a centralized command structure in recent years. As a result, critics say, units are less cohesive, combat abilities have suffered, and reenlistments are dropping. Many Army lieutenant colonels are refusing command positions. Pilot retention is an increasing problem.
While more money is being spent on weapons, fewer tanks, planes, and ships are being produced. This is due largely to rapidly increasing technological sophistication that makes each item much more costly. Many now are wondering if a larger number of simpler (and more reliable) weapons is not in order.
Regarding military strategy, many of the reformers think ''firepower and attrition'' have been overemphasized at the expense of maneuverability. This same view was expressed recently by former CIA director Stansfield Turner, a retired Navy admiral.
Within the military establishment, this reform movement is viewed with considerable skepticism and defensiveness. One Air Force general at the Pentagon has called it an ''internal threat'' to the military.
But among the appointed civilians who oversee the military, there is more receptiveness to the growing reform effort. US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has met with the congressional group. Representative Whitehurst says, ''So far, the dialogue we've had has been very positive.''
In Senate testimony, Deputy Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci conceded that ''readiness considerations are secondary to hardware procurement and deployment.'' The result, he said, has been cost overruns caused not only by defense contractors but by program managers within the government.
The impact of the military reform movement has been felt in recent defense budget actions on Capitol Hill as well.
Over the military's objections, Congress adopted an amendment sponsored by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia (a staunch defense supporter and a reform caucus member) requiring Defense Department notification whenever the projected cost of a new weapon grows more than 15 percent. The General Accounting Office recently reported that the cost of 14 such weapons jumped 30 percent in the last year alone.
The House Appropriations Committee ordered the Army to consider armored infantry carriers less costly than the new M-2 (whose estimated pricetag has grown eightfold since 1977). It also told the Navy to consider augmenting the nuclear-powered submarine fleet with less-costly diesel-powered subs. Congressional defense committees turned down a request to spend $170 million on a new long-range transport plane.
To those who see in increased defense spending a heightened threat of nuclear war, Senator Hart answers that just the opposite may be true.
Says the Colorado Democrat, ''The hair trigger gets to be more of a hair trigger if you're not prepared to fight a conventional war to prevail and to avoid a nuclear war.''