As budget negotiations between Congress and the White House continue, it now seems inevitable that the one area President Reagan would like to keep intact--defense spending--will be cut. The tide of events and opinion is moving forcefully in this direction:
Among recent developments:
* Veteran Republican Rep. John J. Rhodes of Arizona this week called for major reductions in key military programs. Among those targeted for reductions or cancellation by this self-described hawk are the MX missile, B-1 bomber, the Rapid Deployment Force, and the number of US troops stationed in Europe.
This follows recent criticisms of the Reagan defense plan by Melvin Laird (secretary of defense under Richard Nixon), and a call for slower defense spending by former President Gerald Ford:
* One of the nation's most respected defense analysts--political scientist William Kaufmann of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology- -reports that the Reagan defense buildup can be cut $130 billion (about 10 percent) over the next five years without harming US security.
Professor Kaufmann, who wrote the Pentagon's annual ''posture statements'' for eight years under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, says the United States should ''stop playing hare to the Russian tortoise'' by holding to a more evenly paced and steady military buildup rather than continuing ''the historical ebb and flow.'' Even with the cuts he proposes, Mr. Kaufmann favors a 6.5 percent annual growth rate (compared with 8 percent under the Reagan plan and 5 percent under Jimmy Carter).
* A Wall Street Journal/Gallup survey of top corporate executives last week showed 83 percent favoring a reduction in defense spending in order to reduce the federal deficit. Earlier opinion samples indicate a softening in general public support for a big defense buildup. The latest New York Times/CBS poll showed a plurality of 49 percent approving a reduction in Pentagon spending.
Observers find significant the number of Republicans and conservatives joining the more traditional critics of unchecked military spending.
A Republican congressional source notes the efforts by Pentagon officials to buy and spend more efficiently, but adds, ''Yes, I think there's more to be had there.''
He notes, for example, unneeded military bases that traditionally have been protected by ''rabid, parochial interest.'' ''Closing them has usually been too sensitive for the members,'' he says. ''But maybe this is the time when this kind of thing will be possible.''
Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger has written: ''Embarking on major new systems like MX or B-1 or new acquisitions like carrier task forces will ultimately lead to an ill-balanced force by leaving insufficient funds for operations, readiness, and sustainability.''
In a Washington Post column last week, Melvin Laird wrote: ''If we are not prudent in our defense buildup, we will lay the basis for a defense letdown.'' The administration's view that ''multiple nuclear weapons systems are . . . central to military strength,'' he says, ''is a bad misconception.''
Growing concerns about the administration's planned military buildup thus have to do with concepts of defense strategy as well as its unprecedented cost. This was most evident in the recent cutting of funds for the MX missile by the Republican-dominated Senate Armed Services Committee.
Congressman Rhodes says a reexamination of the country's defense needs ''is long overdue.'' This dual concern over broad military requirements and cost also is clear in a new study of the 1983 federal budget by the Brookings Institution, of which Professor Kaufmann's analysis is a key part.
On strategic nuclear weapons, he says the nation's ICBMs will continue to remain vulnerable, and that the B-1 is ''a lovely plane whose time has come and gone.'' Resources should be concentrated on submarine-launched missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, and the new advanced-technology ''Stealth'' bomber , he says.
Kaufmann's major disagreement with the administration over conventional arms has to do with the naval buildup. A 600-ship navy, he argues, is too small to ''knock out the Soviet Navy in port'' and more than enough to adequately control the seas. He would hold the US combat fleet to 535 ships (canceling the two planned nuclear aircraft carriers among others) and concentrate on sea control.
He would also cancel plans for 50 C-5N transport aircraft and spend more on fast cargo ships which, he contends, could move more troops and equipment during the initial phases of a military conflict. Kaufmann would also add more money for National Guard and Reserve equipment.
''America must to some degree rearm,'' writes Kaufmann. ''Permanent peace may not be at hand, but neither is a repetition of the Rhineland or Munich. . . . Accomplishing the task requires long-term efforts rather than a declaration of national emergency and crash programs to close this or that window of vulnerability.''