The Defense Department often pays more and gets less because it has sergeants, colonels, captains, generals and admirals handling civilian-type jobs, according to the General Accounting Office.

Although aimed at the Air Force and Navy audit operations, the GAO reports to Congress apply in many instances to other Pentagon operations that are dominated by the military. GAO says the two units that are supposed to keep track of spending and resources are backlogged, troubled by reassignments and sometimes lack clout because they lack civilian independence in dealing with military commanders.

Converting the Air Force's audit agency (which is split about 50-50 between military and civilian) to an all-civilian operation could save the taxpayers more than $2 million a year, GAO said.

GAO's cost-comparisons (drawn from its own data and from the 1976 Defense Appropriation bill) will irritate some military brass who contend they can get much more work out of military people than civilians.

In the Navy Audit Agency study, GAO said that it cost the taxpayers $7,536 more a year to have an admiral running it than a top-paid civil servant. Also, GAO said, a Navy captain cost $4,456 more than a comparable Grade 15 Civilian. And the cost of a lieutenant j.g. was $5,326 a year more than for Grade 8 or 9 civilian.

At the Air Force Audit agency, GAO said, "from the rank of staff sergeant to major general, the average total annual compensation and benefits of military personnel exceeds that of civilians in comparable grades by amounts ranging from $3,160 to $13,465."

Navy, the congressional watchdog agency reported, has not met its audit goals and has accumulated a large audit backlog. GAO said military rotation often hurt the workload and continuity of the audit operation.

Air Force, meantime, has already agreed to convert 100 of its military auditor jobs to civilian within the next few years.But it is still undecided about replacing high-ranking military aides with Civil servants.

Many military personnel argue that having military people in the top auditing jobs is important, because they are combat-oriented and understand the basic needs of the services better than civilians.

GAO said that both the Navy and Air Force audit functions lack clout on the bureaucratic and military totem pole, and that auditors don't have the freedom to pick targets they believe should be checked. In some cases, GAO said, local commanders will veto the visit of an auditor in favor of a visit from an Inspector General. The stated reason is to avoid duplication, but some old hands believe that military commanders would rather take their chances with an IG, rather than an independent auditor.

Federal employee unions are expected to use the GAO report in arguments with military commanders and Congress to block the conversion of civilian jobs to military. Army has already given local commanders authority to "borrow" military personnel when their civilian job ceilings have been cut without a corresponding reduction in workload.