Does the United States really need three new aircraft carriers? I don't know. But it is one of the questions raised in a searching new public examination of the administration's national security program.
Two of the aircraft carriers would be presently funded for fiscal year 1983, if Congress goes along, with an additional one set for 1988. With associated aircraft, air-defense cruisers, and other escort vessels this three-carrier task force will cost $54 billion.
Now comes a prestigious group of former cabinet officers and a former chief of naval operations, acting as the front for a larger group of 500 business, academic, and professional leaders (and a still larger group behind them), asking if we are being wise in our defense policy. I use the point of the aircraft carriers only as an example. The defense critique covers the administration's defense budget. The critics are not pacifists, just the reverse. What alarms them is the fear that we are hurrying along too fast and too furiously. Among other questions, can the economy stand it? And so they offer a five-year plan of their own in which they think they can save $136 billion in national defense costs.
Who are they? They are former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, former National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. The four speak for themselves but are in a sense surrogates for a business coalition called the Bipartisan Budget Appeal. This, in turn (just to pile up evidence of its respectability), was founded by a group including former Secretary of Commerce Peter Peterson and five former secretaries of the treasury whose names I won't bother to include.
The group has presented its detailed analysis, with charts and graphs, to the chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees; two of the group, Bob McNamara and Cyrus Vance, held a press conference here the other day in which they expounded their position. This is, in brief, that there is extraordinary waste, duplication, and conflict in the plans for the present unparalleled peacetime arms buildup. This will cost $1,533.6 billion in the forthcoming five years. Answering reporters' questions, the two men said their alternative plan would reduce this by $135.9 billion. And perhaps more. They expressed doubts about proposed items all down the line.
Example: The US can now deliver 3,000 nuclear warheads on targets in the Soviet Union in a second strike. The group charges that duplicating programs are being proposed which are redundant: new Trident submarines, for example, and new air-launched cruise missiles; the latter are planned even before an agreement is reached on a basing system for the controversial MX ICBM. (It will require $3.8 billion for procurement and construction, in FY 1983, they argue.)
Dozens of other possible modifications are cited. The group calls itself bipartisan. Its tone is carefully low-keyed and judicious. It notes, however, that a deficit wave of debt hangs over the Treasury. Why, ask these sober men, spend ''very large sums on things we do not know how to do? For example, there is no persuasive evidence that either the US or USSR knows how to conduct a protracted nuclear war in such a way as to achieve any meaningful goal. Yet we are now in the process of investing millions for this purpose.''
Just to give another example from this detailed analysis, the writers say that the government is now investing $18 billion in a new ''command and control and communications'' system. Yes, we need to strengthen our 3-C system, they comment, but hardly as big as this for ''the conduct of a war that literally no one anywhere under-stands.''
The authors charge, in short, that the military system is being overloaded. Many awed civilians will be glad, in a problem as complex and expensive as this, that a conscientious outside group has intervened. They can hardly be charged either with provocation or pacifism. As they note at the end of a nine-page summary, if Congress and the President go ahead regardless, then other actions must be taken elsewhere. Example, taxes ''must be increased by the amount which the administration's defense budget exceeds the budget we propose - in fiscal year 1988, for example, by an additional $47 billion.''
Yes, it will cost a lot. Why not take every action for a detailed review as we go along?