The ink was hardly dry before the Pentagon was reacting -- downplaying as "premature" the off-lead story in Defense News about Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's list of replacement candidates for the air defense gun he canceled.

"I told the editors that their newspaper had it made," Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims told Time's Pentagon correspondent Bruce van Voorst at last night's Hay-Adams coming out party for The Times Journal Co.'s newest publication.

If having it "made" so early sounded like music to the editors of the country's first newspaper devoted exclusively to defense and foreign policy issues, there was every reason to suspect that it was only the first chorus.

"It's a wonderful time to be in the news business," crowed James Doyle, assistant editorial director of the Springfield-based firm and the man whose idea it was to add Defense News to its arsenal of publications ranging from suburban dailies to weeklies with a military/government focus.

Appropriately, Weinberger made the scene as the evening's official cake-cutter. Greeting him at the door were publisher Jack Kerrigan, former general advertising manager of The Washington Post, and Richard C. Barnard, editor of Defense News.

"It's great to have a newspaper devoted to spare parts," he noted loftily, even though he hadn't personally read the inaugural issue -- "My lawyer tells me never to comment on something I haven't read."

Inviting Weinberger to carve the cake, Barnard told the crowd of senior Pentagon, White House and State Department officials, reporters and defense company representatives, was all in the interest of "balance and fairness."

"Defense reporters in this town have been sticking it to Secretary Weinberger for five years now," said Barnard, former editor of the newsletter Defense Week and Navy Times, "and we thought on this one occasion it would be only fair to give him a chance to get even."

"Is that a Gramm-Rudman budget-cutting knife?" asked WTOP's Dave McConnell as Weinberger made the first slash.

"No," said Weinberger dourly. "The Congress will pass the budget."

"You notice," Weinberger pointed out afterward, "they didn't let me keep the knife."

At another point, Weinberger said he'd spent five years being concerned about what's going to happen. "But we're still going, and we think that if Congress passes the present budget we won't have any need for any losses. And we'll get the budget that is required. All we need to do is pass the president's budget. It just takes one vote."

When told that one wag had suggested the solution was to go back to the warlord system, Weinberger roared.

"I'm accused of being a warlord most of the time," he said.

Gramm-Rudman-Hollings was what everybody was talking about, including Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr., who said there is no doubt that the law's application in 1986 will have "impact and will slow down our program of modernization plus a number of other things we've been trying to do."

Speaking of the newspaper's goal, Jim Doyle said, "We want our publication to be to defense like Advertising Age is to the advertising business or Variety is to the entertainment world."

Among the guests were White House spokesman Larry Speakes, whose wife Laura works for the newspaper chain; Ralph Nader, a former colleague of Barnard's; Sen. John Warner (R-Va.); Reps. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Robert Badham (R-Calif.) and George Darden (D-Ga.); Common Cause's Fred Wertheimer; and the new weekly's 10-person editorial staff, half of whom are women.

Doyle, formerly with Newsweek, said he sent copies of the paper ("I should have sent one to Don Regan") to a number of people around town, circling the names of staff writers Iris J. Portny and Trish Gilmartin.

Said Doyle: "I said, 'If you need a woman to talk about throw-weights, try one of these.' "