While U.S. military commanders count on air strikes to cripple Iraq in the event of war, the Air Force will hand out furlough notices today to 234,500 civilian workers warning them to brace for a possible 20 percent pay cut because of a political-budget crisis at home.

The letter, which will go to 6,500 people here, advises civilians they will be furloughed one day a week starting in mid-October unless Congress and the White House agree on a budget for the fiscal year that starts in 12 days.

About 2 million federal workers are threatened with furloughs. Negotiators from the White House, the Senate and the House have been meeting in seclusion at Andrews Air Force Base seeking a budget compromise that would eliminate the need for furloughs.

Most people think furloughs can be avoided. But agencies by law must prepare for them.

There are nearly 400,000 federal workers in the Washington-Baltimore area. The metropolitan area would lose about $70 million in income for each furlough day.

The Air Force, like many other agencies, has decided to issue the so-called short furlough plan. That means it anticipates the furloughs would not last more than 22 days. Some agencies have warned workers that they would have to be furloughed for much longer periods of time, up to two or three days a week, because of the budget impasse.

Although the budget summit group has time to reach agreement to head off automatic spending cuts, the agreement could be costly to federal workers and retirees. Last week, the group had tentatively approved cutting federal benefits by:

Freezing federal-military pensions through January 1992. Afterward, retirees would get so-called diet-COLAs, a raise each January that is one percentage point less than the rise in living costs.

Giving the diet-COLAs only to civilian and military retirees who are 62 or older. Younger retirees would get no raise.

Eliminating the lump-sum pension payment option as of Oct. 1. But congressional sources said yesterday the group is now considering a less drastic plan. It would keep the lump-sum option but spread payments to retirees over three years.

The furlough flap has an "Alice in Wonderland" quality. While most experts doubt there will be furloughs, Congress requires agencies to warn employees of the possibility. To that end, each affected worker has gotten or will get a packet, which can run up to 35 pages, explaining the who, what, when and how of furloughs.

In some agencies, personnel, legal and labor-relations offices have done nothing for weeks but prepare for and answer questions about furloughs that nobody really expects will happen.

In the meantime, Congress is looking for ways to cut federal waste.

If this was a private company, instead of an outfit run by a political board of directors, a lot of top people would be furloughed permanently while the rank-and-file workers were allowed to do their jobs.