An overseas recruiting war between U.S. agencies that have 178,000 foreign nationals on the payroll is costing American taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Those employes do a variety of chores, ranging from driving cars and emptying wastebaskets to handling top technical, cultural and administrative jobs for Uncle Sam.

The financial firefight is being won by the State Department. State is considered the pay and fringe benefil king. In some countries, mid-level foreigners working for the U.S. Embassy make more money, and get better pensions than they would in toplevel jobs in their own government, or local industry.

Defense Department agencies abroad often find that their main competition for top-notch workers comes from the State Department, rather than from local host government or giant manufacturing companies.

A new report by the General Accounting Office says State could save millions if it stopped being so generous with pay levels for foreign workers. And it says the federal civil services pension system is being loaded up with unnecessary financial burdens because State insists on enrolling foreign workers in it, rather than in retirement programs used in their own countries.

The Defense Department several years ago began getting tough in nogotiating pay and fringe benefits with foreign workers, but opposition from State Department post officials has blocked State from being a hard-bargainer in many areas.

State, for instance, often puts foreign employes on the civil service retirement program setup and used to pay annuities to long-service U.S. government workers. Defense, on the other hand, requires its foreign employes to live with the prevailing retirement plan of their own governments.

The pay and fringe benefit war has resulted in some interesting, and costly, pay quirks. For instance:

The average Japanese employe of the U.S. embassy in Tokyo now gets $17,000 a year in pay and benefits from the U.S. Government. That is almost equal to the white collar federal salary average in this area, and much, much more than the typical Japanese worker -- or government official -- gets. It is also more than Defense agencies are willing to pay, and they often lose employes or job candidates to State.

Because the State Department has local foreign nationals under the U.S. Civil Service retirement program, Philippine employes retiring from government services get pensions that are 300 percent more than the average family income in that nation.

The lowest paid white collar German worker in the U.S. Embassy in Bonn has a starting salary of $9,300 a year.

A GAO sampling showed that State paid foreign workers 9 percent more than the Defense Department did for comparable jobs, and about 5 percent more than the Veterans Administration.

Federal agencies, often working in the same cities in foreign countries, often use different wage surveys resulting in different pay scales for the same jobs.

Defense in the Philippines gives year-end bonuses to foreign workers equal to 125 percent of a month's pay. State in the same area gives foreign workers 100 percent bonuses.

In 1977 in Korea the Defense Department gave local workers a 23.6 percent pay raise while State gave its, Korean employes a 26.2 percent raise.

GAO's spot survey in Naples showed State paid its Italian workers 4 percent more than did Defense for the same jobs.

GAO has recommended that U.S. agencies overseas get together and pay the same basic salaries and has urged State to stop putting foreign nationals on the much-more generous U.S. civil service retirement plan.