President Reagan has long been adamant about not tampering with his plans for a military buildup. Yet many of his own advisers - prodded by the still stubborn recession and now by the voice of the American electorate - are finally persuaded that the pace of military spending will have to be slowed. It is high time. The nation must have a strong defense, but it must also have a strong civilian economy, and administration fiscal policy to date has not achieved the desired balance. The runaway trend toward larger and larger budget deficits acts as a drag on economic recovery and must be curbed if there is to be sturdy long-term growth.
The only area left for pronounced cuts is the defense budget.
Americans may not realize just how fast and high military spending has escalated. The figures - capsuled conveniently in Fortune magazine - are rather startling. In its early days the administration talked about a 7 percent real rate of increase in outlays, as compared with the 5 percent which President Carter had called for. That in itself represented a huge increase. Yet Mr. Reagan's first five-year budget plan provided for a real increase of 9.2 percent. ''It inserted the higher figure without mentioning what it was doing, let alone explaining why so much more was needed for the military,'' says Fortune.
If that is not enough to raise pointed questions, the rate has soared even higher. Because the budget figures do not take account of the drop in the inflation rate, Fortune explains, the budgeted real rate of increase has grown to almost 12 percent. It is estimated that even if the administration went back to the (still high) 9.2 percent rate, it could reduce budget spending by $75 billion over the three years from fiscal 1984 to 1986. If it returned to the original 7 percent rate, the savings over three years would come to $114 billion. And if anyone has the impression that big cuts could come out of the social security system, he should be sobered by Fortune's calculation that social security payments (beyond social security tax revenue) account for only $ 10 billion of a total anticipated deficit of $150 billion for fiscal 1983.
President Reagan's rationale for his defense policy is that any pullback would be misread in the Kremlin as a sign of flagging resolve. America needs to show it means business by gearing up its guns, runs the argument. But gearing up to what? To arms adequacy - or arms surfeit?
The risk is that an unrestrained US arms buildup will feed pressures in the Soviet Union for an equally irrational buildup on the Soviet side. The Russians will always give priority to their national security. Moreover, it may matter little how far ahead the United States gets in the military competition if it loses out in the global economic competition - the area where it must demonstrate its superiority to continue to be a world leader. A robust economy, after all, provides the foundation for a robust military - not the other way around.
Some administration voices contend in this connection that military expansion helps ease unemployment. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, for instance, claims that every extra $1 billion spent on national defense provides 35,000 more jobs. This is not an argument everyone accepts, however; many economists describe military spending as the least productive for the economy as a whole. A 1982 study by the Employment Research Associates of Lansing, Michigan, finds that two-thirds of Americans live in areas that receive a net loss in tax money when defense spending grows. The Joint Congressional Economic Committee and others warn that a rapid defense buildup could refuel inflation, aggravate the shortage of industrial engineers and scientists in the civilian sector, speed up regional imbalances, and increase cost overruns.
Where to take fat out of the military budget is, of course, a matter of controversy. Congress has nibbled away at some programs, but political tenacity will be required to resist the Pentagon's traditional habit to fight for all it can get and the pressures of the White House defense maximalists.
Take the MX nuclear missile. This is a $25 billion program. Yet even some conservatives in Congress have reservations about the missile basing mode which President Reagan may approve - the so-called ''dense pack'' plan that would put 100 of the land-based missiles in hardened silos arrayed over an area of 10 to 15 square miles. Cost aside, it is doubted the scheme would even work, whichever of several variants is chosen. Moreover, the MX is a destabilizing first-strike weapon which would further escalate the arms race, requiring among other things a revision of the US-Soviet ABM treaty. Why, then, go on with it?
Other ''big ticket'' items - like the B-1 bomber and two large aircraft carriers - also need to be reviewed in the context of the kind of weaponry needed to project American power and fight a war in this day and age.
National security requires the right strategies and the right weapons. It also requires sound economic management. With the election behind them - and yawning deficits ahead of them - Congress and administration can postpone the military budget issue no longer.