The dispute between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands has clear and troubling lessons for the NATO alliance, and particularly for the United States, says US Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.
In a Monitor interview Mr. Lehman said the growing military confrontation in the south Atlantic points up the need for this country's European allies to reexamine their naval forces, which in general have been shrinking in recent years.
The Falklands situation also demonstrates ''the willingness of powers to seize territory by force,'' he said, particularly if there is a ''perception of weakness'' on one side.
The existence of nuclear weapons for more than 35 years has not prevented many regional wars, said Lehman.
In an hour-long interview, the Navy secretary also made these points:
* The public is being ''manipulated by simplistic sloganeering'' to support a US-Soviet ''freeze'' on nuclear weapons, an issue he called ''ephemera.'' Lehman , who served in high national security and arms control posts between 1969 and 1977, agrees with President Reagan that the Soviet Union has achieved a ''definite margin of superiority'' in strategic nuclear weapons.
The US announced that there was ''parity'' between the two countries in the early 1970s, he said, but since then the Soviet Union has been ''adding about 200 missiles a year while we've been sitting still.''
* Statements by some strong defense supporters (including at least one senior Pentagon official) that a large Navy--especially big aircraft carriers--are highly vulnerable are ''nonsense,'' Lehman said. Smaller carriers, which some argue should be built in larger numbers, would either be more expensive or more vulnerable because they would each require just as much defensive support to survive in combat, he argued.
* The Navy has made good progress in solving procurement problems. Competition for ship-building has increased, and the administration is requiring contractors to accept more of the cost of contract overruns.
The problem of recruiting and keeping personnel has abated, he said, and all Navy ships now are at ''bunk capacity.'' Experienced sailors with prior service now are returning to the Navy at the rate of about 1,000 a month.
* He dismisses calls for defense cuts from liberals and conservatives alike (including most recently Republicans Rep. John J. Rhodes of Arizona and former President Gerald Ford) as ''one of those trendy things people love to jump on.''
Projections of large budget deficits ''are based on a lot of speculative assumptions that have nothing to do with defense,'' Lehman said, adding: ''There's nothing more expensive than an outbreak of war, and the perception of weakness, as we've seen in the Falkland Islands, brings on war. . . . If the taxpayers are going to be so shortsighted--and their representatives--to mortgage the future and destroy the investment in reestablishing a common-sense ability to defend ourselves, then they're inviting war. It's as simple as that.''
Lehman is not one to suffer gladly critics, what he calls ''simplistes,'' or perhaps even what some would say is the tide of public opinion. He is a personable but unrepentent hawk who does not mince words in a town where obfuscation and waffling are common.
Some other responses to interview questions: The Falkland Islands
''What are we prepared to do to defend against seizures or blockades or infringements against our vital interests and those of our allies that we are bound to by treaty?'' he asked. ''We see that the most likely contingencies in the world--in the real world--are largely unpredictable. Second, they are likely to take place at the conventional level where conventional forces--particularly naval forces--are the determinant of the outcome even though the nuclear balance provides the environment in which that kind of threat can be carried out.''
He said ''a general slowdown in the modernization of the NATO navies'' ought to be ''reevaluated.''
He pointed out that ''Soviet ships are mixed right in with sport fishermen outside Norfolk Harbor and San Diego Harbor,'' and that in case of overseas deployment, more than half of US forces would have to steam by Cuba. That country, he notes, has ''submarines, patrol torpedo boats, frigates, and attack aircraft.'' Planned naval buildup
He reiterated his main theme that the US should attain ''clear maritime superiority'' and be ''visibly offensive.'' He pointed to last year's naval exercise in the Norwegian Sea (''the first in 20 years'') and the one now under way in the Caribbean to illustrate the latter.
''We've been deluding the American people and ourselves for the last 15 years by saluting and saying we'll do more with less as the Navy shrinks from 1,000 ships to 450 ships,'' he said. ''Every time a diplomat goes off somewhere we find ourselves committed to keep the fleet out at sea another month of the year to meet some grandiose commitment for 'presence' somewhere while the actual war-fighting capability gets thinner and thinner.'' Big ships vs. little ships
In an interview in Armed Forces Journal, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Richard DeLauer said: ''. . .one thing I'm certain of, that a 600-ship Navy will be a target-rich environment.'' Lehman calls this a ''nonsensical statement.''
In the same publication, William Van Cleave (a conservative defense specialist who headed the Reagan administration's Pentagon transition team) wrote in reference to the planned building of two new nuclear aircraft carriers: ''The fewer and more valuable the targets, the more they invite attack.''
In response, Lehman said: ''The most nonsensical, Alice-in-Wonderland logic persists in this town that somehow big ships are more vulnerable than little ships . . . . (Big ships are) faster, they're harder, they're more armored, they have more active defenses, more missiles, they have F-14 interceptors, and somehow they are more 'vulnerable.' The logic escapes me.'' Shipbuilding and cost overruns
Lehman ''fully agrees'' with those who say big weapons systems should be ''dual sourced,'' which means having competition throughout construction and not just at the beginning. He notes that there are now three shipyards building guided missile frigates and ''almost every ship'' is being built below the estimated cost. The Navy is holding a competition for a second shipyard to build the Aegis-class guided missile cruiser and, later, destroyers.
The builder of the new nuclear carrier Theodore Roosevelt has been offered a under contract cost.
Contracts for Trident submarines have been rewritten so that the contractor must pay half of all cost overruns instead of only 15 percent, as earlier agreed. Also, the contract is void if the total price escalates by more than 30 percent, instead of 50 percent as before. (It should be noted that these overruns are often government-induced by such things as underestimating inflation or adding requirements.)
The 15 new ships completed since Lehman became Navy secretary were delivered a total of more than 900 days ahead of schedule. ''I'm not taking personal credit for that,'' he said, ''But people tend to overlook that the Navy's procurement is under control.'' Nuclear arms
''You can't keep saying 'parity' forever,'' he said. ''We started out saying parity--and I know because I was the chief SALT-seller in 1972--and we haven't deployed a thing since then.
''Our subs have dropped from 41 to 32, our B-52s have dropped by nearly 100, and we still have the same old tired Minutemen (missiles) that we had 10 years ago . . . while the Soviets have been adding about 200 (missiles) a year.
Lehman said he does not think the public is deluded, naive, or misguided, and that most people still support the administration's planned military buildup. But he added: ''This country is not run by plebiscite, it's not run by referendum. It's a republican form of government and for good reason, because obviously the public opinion can be manipulated by simplistic sloganeering.''