Two US aircraft carriers - one going home, the other headed for the Far East - rendezvoused 1,000 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. For several days, as the ships cruised side by side, critical weapons were moved from one vessel to the other. Finally, the supercarrier bound for Asia was fully armed and steamed away. The other carrier, its missiles removed, turned toward California.
Such mid-ocean transfers of weapons are essential today because of what some top military officers consider an extremely serious problem: There aren't enough weapons - especially missiles - to go around.
The Navy currently has 13 first-line aircraft carriers. But there are adequate supplies of high technology weapons in the Navy's arsenal for only five of these ships. The most glaring shortages, Pentagon officials say, are in air-to-air missiles, like the long-range Phoenix, the medium-range Sparrow, and the Sidewinder for use in aerial dogfights.
These concerns highlight two aspects of the defense debate in Washington:
* Military planners worry that despite critical shortages, support for Pentagon spending is waning, both on Capitol Hill and with voters.
* Democratic critics in Congress say that many of the most important shortages are the fault of the military, which has done a poor job of setting priorities.
Great Britain's experience in the Falklands war, where Her Majesty's fleet ran dangerously short of ammunition, most sharply brought home the need for larger stocks of weapons to Pentagon strategists. They say the United States should substantially raise its supplies of everything from million-dollar missiles to mundane items like bullets and mortar shells.
A study by the Navy Department on the Falklands war reflected this concern. The report says:
''It is perplexing to American planners to hear voices in the US Congress suggesting that Defense is getting too much budgetary support, when after 15 years of neglect it is not possible to fill the launchers and magazines of our active US Navy fleet of 514 ships even once with high technology munitions.''
The carriers are one of the most vivid examples of this problem.
Top Pentagon officials, who asked not to be identified by name, say that every time a supercarrier returns from a foreign deployment - whether in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, or the Pacific - it must transfer its weapons to the carrier that replaces it.
Such mid-ocean transfers are also made by smaller ships. A destroyer skipper interviewed here, for example, says he must give up some of his high technology weapons to another ship when he returns to a US port. The shortages run through the fleet.
In each of the services, these shortages are slowly being filled. But it will take until the 1990s, officials say, to close all the gaps.
On Capitol Hill, this Pentagon grumbling draws a mixed response, although even Democratic experts on military matters are concerned about the problem.
One specialist on the Navy says the shortage of high-tech ammunition ''really could mean we have only one-third or one-half the Navy we think we do. A ship without ammunition cannot fight.''
Another defense specialist says, however, that the Pentagon is responsible for ''not getting its priorities straight.
''There is a substantial problem,'' he explains. '' But there has been 63 percent real growth in the Defense budget since 1981. It is not a money problem. The key is the Pentagon's priorities.
''The services spend most of their allowance on aircraft, ships, and other big items. It is they who don't ask for missiles, rather than Congress which doesn't fund them. I can't think of a single year when the Pentagon's request for Phoenix, Sparrow, or Sidewinder missiles has been cut.''
Roots of the current shortages reach back to the 1950s and '60s, when US military thinking was geared to a short, intense war. In Europe, US strategy was to respond to a Soviet-bloc attack for about six days with conventional weapons, then ''go nuclear'' if necessary.
That has changed, of course. Today in Europe the Soviets have at least as much - if not more - nuclear clout than does NATO. Neither side is anxious to go nuclear. If war broke out, each side might find itself limited to conventional arms by a balance of nuclear terror.
The Soviets, however, have stockpiled conventional war supplies, including ammunition, to fight for ''many months,'' US officials say.
Western forces had only 15 days of conventional supplies, such as bullets and artillery shells, in 1979. In 1980, the situation was so serious that the US Army Chief of Staff called his forces ''the hollow army.''
Today, with the Reagan buildup, some of those hollow spaces are being filled. Army supplies in Europe are estimated currently at about 30 days. NATO is aiming for 60 days of supplies by 1990, and 90 days of supplies some time thereafter.
The Pentagon, however, remains unhappy with Congress, and on the Hill the feeling is mutual. Top Defense officials mutter over a $722 million cut that they blame Congress for making in the 1983 ammunition budget. Dropped from the budget were $460 million in Army ordnance, including bullets, mortars, and chemical weapons. Marines lost $186 million, the Air Force $48 million, the Navy $28 million.
Even so, the total ordnance budget was up over the previous year. And a House defense specialist notes that some of those trims cited by the Pentagon were later supported by the White House.
Back on board a US warship here, however, Navy officers say all this infighting only slows the help they need. Having a warship with empty magazines doesn't give them much comfort.