THE Reagan administration's proposed defense budget for fiscal year 1988 - calling for $312 billion for defense - is, in accounting terms, an improvement on recent Pentagon requests. The defense budget is more realistic and, almost, conciliatory. And it is actually below the amount sought last year - coming in at $8 billion less than last year's request.
Where the defense budget most invites criticism is in its priorities. It continues too many expensive and duplicatory programs. It unduly stretches out or reduces the rate of purchase of weapons used for the nation's conventional forces, particularly the Army, but also the Air Force, while pumping added dollars into strategic forces at a time the nation is moving toward a new strategic arms control agreement. And it provides an overly generous increase for the Pentagon - 3 percent in real terms, after adjustment for inflation - at a time the administration is once again proposing cuts for such people-oriented programs as mass transit, student aid, housing, drug enforcement, and nutrition.
The strategic-over-conventional imprint is unmistakable. The Air Force, for example, will probably be forced to abandon its cherished goal of building up to 40 fighter wings, as it had planned, and instead settle for the current 37 wings, although with better aircraft.
The underlying issue is not whether the Pentagon should be provided a 3 percent real increase, or 2 percent, or even a zero increase. It is that Congress should provide only those funds necessary to maintain a US military system that best meets the defense needs of the 1980s and '90s. By that test, many administration programs are put in question.
The White House, for example, wants added funding for not just one, but two, land-based strategic nuclear missiles, the 10-warhead MX, and the smaller, one-warhead Midgetman.
The administration is also requesting a costly study of plans to put the MX on railroad cars during periods of crisis. But Congress has shot down the railroad proposal before. Many defense experts suspect Congress will do so again, given - as the past week's unhappy news out of Maryland shows - questions about the safety and reliability of US railroad systems.
Early reaction to the new budget suggests lawmakers will not be quick to buy it. The new Democratic-led Congress is likely to take a hard look at arms spending. Witness what's happening in the House. Rep. Les Aspin may or may not survive a second vote to retain chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. But a number of Democrats voting against him have sent a signal that they want a more independent chairman, someone not beholden to the Pentagon, as some Democrats think has been true of Mr. Aspin, who finally supported the MX missile.
Given the enormous size of the Pentagon budget, a careful review is amply justified.