The most dramatic display of United States armed strength on the eve of election day has been the battleship Iowa steaming into New York Harbor. She was built during World War II. She was brought out of mothballs along with her sister ship the USS New Jersey on orders of President Reagan as part of his program to increase American armed strength. The Iowa has not seen combat this time around. The New Jersey did. She was off Beirut and fired from her 16 -inch main battery. The shells had no appreciable effect on the civil war in Lebanon.
No previous President has increased the military budget in peacetime as much as has Mr. Reagan. In 1981, he inherited from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, a proposed military budget of $200.3 billion. He is proposing for fiscal 1985 a military budget of $305 billion.
He claims that the increase during his years in office justifies him now in negotiating with the Soviets.
Military strength is relative. The billions that Mr. Reagan has authorized the Pentagon to spend will someday be reflected in new weapons. But the Soviets are building, too, and increasing their military budgets. The question is whether the relative military strength of the US has increased by enough to be significant today in terms of power politics.
Here are some figures bearing on the matter.
Since Mr. Reagan took office, US military manpower has gone up from 2,050,000 to 2,136,400. During the same time Soviet military manpower has gone up from 3, 658,000 to 5,050,000.
In Army and Marine Corps ground forces the US had 19 divisions four years ago , and it still has 19 divisions. The Soviets had 173 in 1980, of which 46 were armored. They now have 191, of which 50 are armored.
In intercontinental nuclear weapons there has been little change, both superpowers being engaged in substituting new weapons with multiple warheads for older ones with fewer. The Soviets have gained in numbers of warheads. The new American MX missile, which is supposed to close the alleged ''window of vulnerability,'' is still on the drawing boards.
At sea the US started with 14 aircraft carriers and has the same number now. The Soviets have gone from 2 to 3 Kiev class carriers. The US has gone up from 25 to 28 in guided-weapons cruisers; the Soviets have gone up from 20 to 27 in the same category.
In tactical air the US has gone up from 164 to 165 squadrons. The Soviets have increased from 16 to 20 air commands and from an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 combat aircraft.
The biggest US increase has been in modern battle tanks. In 1980 the new M-1 Abrams tanks were just coming on line. There were 152 with the troops. A current figure is 1,229, and it's going up.
Except for the refurbishing of the two old battleships, the new weapons that have joined the forces since 1980 were planned, authorized, and mostly under construction during the last year of the Carter administration. The overall force level today is only marginally more than it would have been without the extra spending of the Reagan years. Even the boost in pay, which has supposedly improved troop morale, was voted in 1980.
Some of the new funds have gone for necessary stockpiling of weapons and ammunition. Much of the new money is being spent on development of new weapons still in the future. The B-1 bomber is nearly ready, but it may be obsolescent when it comes on line. ''Stealth'' is more promising. It was started under Carter.
The increase in ready US military power over the last four years is not in itself sufficient to explain a change in Soviet readiness to negotiate. More likely factors in any change in Moscow are its own imperial failures (Afghanistan being the most visible) and the contrast between its own economic stagnation and the robust health of the American economy.