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The defense debate

How much defense does the United States need? Is the US military buildup running out of control? Should the government favor a nuclear freeze? Or should it persevere toward a step-by-step reduction of nuclear arms? How does the US deal with an adversary in peacetime and keep up its armed strength?

These are questions before the US government and public to which there are yet no clear-cut answers. But it can be counted hopeful that Americans are beginning to immerse themselves in the issues and that a national debate is at long last under way. In this age of nuclear danger, everyone should make the effort to be informed, and to think thoughtfully rather than emotionally about the subject.

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President Reagan may have contributed more heat than light to the discussion when, at a convention of evangelical Christians, he lashed out at a nuclear freeze as ''simple-minded appeasement.'' There are, to be sure, pacifists and unilateral disarmers among the hundreds of thousands advocating such a freeze. But it cannot be said that the vast majority fall in this category. Countless Americans want a strong defense, favor increased military spending for arms, but earnestly believe that US national security can best be secured if the Soviet Union and the US freeze their arsenals at present levels. And among the proponents are many prominent diplomats, arms experts, and public figures.

If Mr. Reagan's remarks were overdrawn, prompted no doubt by concern that the freeze movement may frustrate getting his defense budget through Congress, this is not to say that the freeze proposal merits unqualified support. The theory is appealing. The resolution passed by a House committee calls for a mutual and verifiablem freeze and reductionsm in nuclear arms - certainly a desirable objective. Yet the idea is hardly realizable given the present nature of Soviet society. Would the Russians ever permit the kind of detailed verification required for so sweeping a measure? And if they permitted less than a thorough surveillance of a freeze agreement, would this be acceptable to a broad segment of the American public? It's doubtful.

Here is another point for reflection. Is it possible in a democratic society to put a cap on everything without eroding the vigilance needed to deal with an adversary in peacetime? This is a painful thought, for it seems to imply that disarmament is a naive hope. We do not believe that. Yet some thoughtful analysts point out the dilemma for a democracy like America's, which is accustomed to gearing up its military only in time of war and tends to let down its guard when the danger is over and euphoria sets in. Today, the US cannot afford to let down its guard because the adversary remains. Never before has the US had to face this seeming contradiction.

This is not to suggest, however, that Mr. Reagan's prescriptions are any more realistic or less oversimplified. On the contrary. The idea that the US can outspend and outproduce the Soviet Union and somehow maintain military superiority is in its own way ''wishful thinking.'' The Russians are bound to match anything the US does, and they are willing to sacrifice to do it (without any public debate first). If nothing emerges from the arms control talks in Geneva, Washington can count on Moscow doing what it deems necessary to counter any NATO moves. In this connection, the nuclear freeze push does perhaps risk undercutting the Geneva negotiations if the Russians determine that all they need to do is bide their time until the US public forces the President's hand.

The administration's approach to defense, in any case, is cause for concern. Instead of engaging in a costly and wasteful numbers game with the Soviet Union, policymakers should be addressing the question of how much and what kind of weaponry the US actually needs to ensure its security. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Gen. Maxwell Taylor assails the ''numbers fallacy.'' Instead of matching Moscow in warheads, megatonnage, throwweight, he argues, the Pentagon should determine, first, the ''destruction potential'' the US needs to deter the Soviet Union from attack, and, second, the specific targets that would have to be destroyed and the specific weapons needed for this task. Then, when the Pentagon went to Congress for money for a given program, it could defend it ''not by a need to keep up numerically with the Russian Joneses but by its contribution to carrying out essential destruction tasks.'' The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also challenges the traditional triad doctrine as outmoded because it forces the Pentagon to buy weapons - like the MX - not dictated by military sufficiency.

This is a voice of experience which the administration, the Congress, and the public should be listening to. As the national debate continues, it is to be hoped that the extremism of both right and left will give way to realism and common sense.