EVERY CRITIC worth his salt wants to be provocative. The trick, of course, is to base one's ground-breaking observations in reality. Nobody ever said that this was an easy thing to do in writing about defense, where matters of advanced technology, economic policy, military strategy and bureaucratic infighting overlap.

Undaunted, critics keep serving up books with eye-catching titles. Two recent ones are Defense or Delusion? and The Baroque Arsenal. The two books make an interesting pair, for they show how hard it is to strike a proper balance between originality and a workmanlike rendering of fact.

Defense or Delusion? is the better book, though it is not without its problems. Written by Thomas H. Etzold, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, the book is billed by its publisher as "the first full disclosure to come from within the defense establishment" of America's "military malaise." In fact, the book is something less than that.

The book may be the product of the defense establishment; but much of its material comes from outsiders: namely journalists. Citations to newspapers and magazine articles are so numerous that reading Defense or Delusion? is a little like leafing through a clipping file on major defense questions.

Far from being an inside account of the military, some parts of the book are cautious and reserved. In writing about the Rapid Deployment Force, for instance, Etzold recounts columnist Jack Anderson's report that the Carter administration was planning a second mission to rescue the hostages in Iran. "Although the White House asserted that Anderson had merely learned something of the routine contingency planning and training involving the RDF," he writes, "the story was not completely in error--at least, so I learned from a high military official." After titillating us with this morsel, Etzold gives us nothing more.

Etzold's extreme dependence on secondary sources is a shame, for what little first-hand material there is in the book is revealing. In discussing the Navy's love affair with the aircraft carrier, for example, Etzold tells us of the reluctance of some Navy officials to acknowledge the ship's vulnerabilities. "In more than five years of experience as an umpire and adviser in high-level naval war games," he writes, "I have witnessed the unwillingness of senior naval officers to permit carriers to be sunk, even when taken under overwhelming attack." If only our adversaries would play by the same artificial rules!

Despite its limitations, there is much that one can learn by working his way through Etzold's book. The book deals systematically with most major defense issues, and its treatment of these questions is generally balanced and well researched. While much of the military manpower debate is polarized between supporters and foes of the all-volunteer force, Etzold provides us with a valuable discussion of just what manpower problems the draft might and might not solve.

Etzold joins in the criticism of "complex" weaponry that figures so prominently in the present defense debate. But his diagnosis of some of the Pentagon's procurement problems is less sensationalistic than some accounts and apportions a fair measure of blame to other institutional players in the budget process. Some of Etzold's remedies, such as his proposal to have an independent agency test military equipment, have much to recommend them, too.

What Defense or Delusion? lacks in bold originality is more than made up for by The Baroque Arsenal, by Mary Kaldor. Kaldor, who teaches politics at the University of Sussex, reviews many contemporary U.S. weapons systems without having a good word for most of them. Neither the Army's M-1 tank nor the Air Force's "grotesque" MX missile passes muster. The Air Force's F-15 and F-16 are also condemned for their "persistent operational failures," as is the Navy's F-14. For good measure, Kaldor also disapproves of the Trident submarine.

Many of Kaldor's complaints resemble the familiar criticisms of military reformers who argue that much of American weaponry is too expensive, too hard to maintain and too close to the frontiers of technology. But Kaldor and the reformers part company when it comes to outlining solutions.

While many reformers see the need to build cheaper and simpler weapons, Kaldor wants to do more. Specifically, she wants to take a great technological leap forward and develop a military heavily dependent on precision-guided munitions, such as "smart" bombs and cruise missiles.

At stake, in her judgment, is national security since she claims that "complex capital intensive" military technology contributed significantly to the American "failure" in Vietnam. But also at risk is the economic health of the industrialized West. Kaldor asserts that the production of ships, tanks, planes and other mainstays of the U.S. military has helped preserve the industrial structure of the 1940s and has siphoned away investment from more dynamic industries, such as advanced electronics.

In Kaldor's analysis, investment in the military technology of the future will help modernize our civilian industry. But one obstacle, she suggests darkly, is the military-industrial complex. A switch to precision guided munitions, she states, "would vitiate the role of the present prime contractors."

What is one to make of all this? You have to give Kaldor high marks for intellectual audacity, but the plaudits stop there. For one thing, the book betrays little in the way of original reporting. Much of her condemnation of recent weaponry is based of government reports, research institute studies and magazine articles. The designers of these weapons, who are not stupid people, have undoubtedly read these same reports and have some counter- arguments. Unfortunately, you don't get a hint of what such arguments may be, which is a major flaw for a book that condemns virtually the entire Pentagon procurement budget.

There are other serious deficiencies, too. Kaldor's insinuation that vested military- industrial interests are blocking the widespread procurement of precision guided munitions is unsupported by a single example. Anyone who has ever attended the Air Force Association's annual convention in Washington, with its lavish contractor displays of electronic wizardy, has to wonder just what Kaldor is talking about.

Kaldor's economic arguments are also weak. Why defense spending to the tune of 5 percent of the gross national product has condemned the entire U.S. economy to industrial obsolescence is never convincingly explained. Other criticisms seem to suffer from internal contradictions. After Kaldor's sweeping criticism of the alleged operational failures of "capital intensive technology," her abiding faith in precision guided munitions is something of a mystery. How, for example, would an arsenal of "smart" bombs and cruise missiles have helped the United States win a guerrilla war in Southeast Asia?

Neither of these books will receive any awards for style. But you can learn something about defense from Defense or Delusion?. The same cannot be said of The Baroque Arsenal.y MICHAEL R. GORDON covers national security and defense issues for the National Journal.