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The MX message

Let's dispense quickly with the media's stress on defeat for President Reagan in the House's vote against MX production. To use the language of warfare in the national effort to deter warfare is a thoughtless echo of the old politics of conflict when the age demands the new politics of cooperation. When both Congress and the White House are strenuously working for peace and security, the results may be mistaken, as Mr. Reagan says in this instance, or prudent, as they seem to many others. But they should not be read like bulletins from the battlefields all sides should be trying to forestall.

In this light the message from the House of Representatives is not so much surrender as go back to the drawing board. It left $2.5 billion in the budget for research and development of the MX. All it cut was close to $1 billion for missile production, a step that logically has to wait on successful research anyway. The Senate could restore this, leaving reconciliation to a conference committee.

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But even such a former strong supporter of MX as Senator Nunn has reportedly shifted to favoring submarine missiles as the main strategic deterrent. The growing accuracy of such missiles is one factor calling into question the need for beefing up the land-based leg of America's traditional ''triad'' of land, submarine, and airborne deterrents.

Mr. Reagan had met the congressional deadline for an MX basing mode. But his ''dense pack'' array was different from three modes he earlier had described as most promising. He failed to make a credible case for its necessity, workability, and cost.

By withholding the customary blank check for military expenditures, the House at least gave the President a $1 billion hint that the Pentagon budget is not going to be exempt from scrutiny. Members may have been nudged in this direction by the election and the polls suggesting a public concern about excessive military buildup; its contribution to horrendous federal deficits; and the threat to security from a weakened economy whatever the level of arms. But they also have been learning of the waste and inefficiency in military spending still prey to pork-barreling and duplication among the services. And once more there are predictions of costs rising even beyond present budget requests.

Republican Sen. Mark Andrews, who describes himself as a hawk, has said he was quite appalled when he dug into the Pentagon budget as an appropriations subcommittee member. He was reported particularly alarmed over a lack of quality control.

It is correctly pointed out that much of the military budget goes for personnel, operations, and maintenance, with presumably little room for reduction. However, even here there should be scrutiny. The pension system, with early retirement encouraging two-career privileges, is one candidate for review.

But still the Reagan administration has called for so much in the way of new weapons - $150 billion out of a $526 billion budget through 1984 - that Congress appears to have considerable opportunity to see whether more than the MX should go back to the drawing board. Through 1987 the requests for weapons production, research, and development total $600 billion.

Among expensive weapons being looked at by those in search of more cost-effective alternatives are the B-1B bomber, the M-1 tank, the F-18 fighter, and two large Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

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Americans do not want to deny their country any defenses genuinely needed. But neither do they, as their representatives in Congress are realizing, want to undercut the national economy with unnecessary military expenditures.

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