EARLY IN THIS CENTURY Teddy Roosevelt summed up his defense policy with . "Walk softly and carry a big stick." Now in 1981, President Reagan's defense policy seems to out of an old cowboy and Indian shoot 'em up: "The bastards are coming across the hill, boys. Here is a wad of cash. Rush to the hardware store and buy whatever you need to stop 'em."

What sweet words these are to the military managers who will indeed buy with great urgency and foggy foresight. Yet I don't think their envisioned purchases will in fact stop 'em.

My bet, unless cooler heads prevail, is that during the next five years America will spend $1.5 trillion replacing Vietnam era junk with a new generation of junk. It will be more wonder gear -- the latest marvels of the dreamers and schemers. The kind of junk that the military has been saddled with since the end of World War II.

During the many years I spent in Vietnam, the system belched out thouands of Buck Rogers-type junk weapons.

There was the daisy cutter, for example. The daisy cutter was a bomb designed to be dropped into a jungle from a B52, wherein it would cut down all the trees to provide a landing zone for helicopters. The only problem was that it created so much debris that putting a chopper down after one of those bombs hit was like trying to land on the side of Mount St. Helen's.

Then there was the people sniffer, which was a device that was supposed to search out even the best-hidden Viet Cong by detecting the ammonia the human body excretes. What it didn't take into account was that every water buffalo gives off the same smell.

The hydrofoil armored personnel carrier was brilliant, when it worked. It was like a light tank that could skim across the Delta. The problem was that it was so unreliable that is was called Westy's Wonder. It kept on breaking down, just as night fell, requiring the evacuation of infantry platoon of 30 troops and the crew. And then the boat had to be guarded until mechanics could get out to make it work again.

This junk and more like it was all touted as a panacea -- the ultimate of ultimates. Unfortunately, it was a question of too much, too complicated, too late. And without Buck to tell the troops how to use the weapons, they caused more trouble than they cured.

One does not need a PhD in military history to discover that America has always stumbled into war unprepared with the right hardward, and burdened with the tactics and mentality of the previous war.

During World War II, the nation was shocked when the Japanese sank our fleet at Pearl Harbor exactly as Billy Mitchell had predicted. All of our first fights with the Japs were with gear that should have been retired after 1918, such as bolt-action rifles that were 39 years old; a .45 pistol that was 31 years old, and World War I era British tin pot helmets. Even the ammunition was at least 30 years old.

It happened again in Korea. In 1950 my platoon tried to stop Russian T34 tanks with a bozooka that was labeled junk by the troops of World War II. And late, up the Yalu River, we froze in 30-degree-below-zero weather because we did not have any cold weather gear.

In 1965 my Vietnam-based paratroopers totally lost faith in their M16 rifle because it jammed more than it fired. It was hard to explain to them about production bugs not being ironed out. It was equally difficult to explain why some quite literally went barefoot because their jump boots fell apart from jungle rot and there were no replacements.

Today, America's military force is as ragtag and dispirited as the Bataan garrison just before they surrendered to the Japanese. Around the world we have tanks, ships, airplanes and other critical hardware that are not combat ready. Our army in Europe would melt like butter in the sun if the Russians charged across the border. Our state of readiness and military preparedness is so bad that our complete milti-billion-dollar military force could not get it together to conduct last year's Iranian raid without turning it into a tragic Keystone Cops comedy.

The main reason for this is that today's military organization and procurement policy is right out of "Catch-22." When it's quiet, even shoelaces are rationed. But when the drums begin to roll, crisis buying strikes, not unlike the panicky housewife's raid on the corner supermarket during a national transportation strike. We buy everything and anything. And by the time the conflict has ended, our military larder runneth over.

For example, at the end of World War II, we dumped millions of dollars in arms and equipment into the sea, only to have divers salvage a lot of it when we were hard-pressed in Korea.

And in Vietnam, when Gen. Creighton Abrams' much touted "Vietnamization program" sank like the Titanic, the North Vietnamese victors found mountains of our junk. They were too battle-wise to use any of Uncle Sam's finest. What the hell, they had won with the old Russian stuff.

During the 1961 Berlin Wall crisis my battle group was forced to exchange their reliable M1 rifle for the new M14 only hours before we rolled through East Germany. "Typical whiz kid logic," groaned a veteran sergeant. "If we end up like Custer no one will be accused of our not dying with the latest weapon. It doesn't matter if no one has fired it."

During the Cuban missile crisis we had enough last-minute untried gear strapped on us that we were not sure if our chutes could take the weight. Of course, there was mad issuing of machetes, bowie knoves, switchblades and experimental hand grenades and experimental antitank rocket launchers. But in addition, there were things like the experimental single sideband radios that we used to have to put behind trees before switching on, since they had the nasty habit of sometimes blowing up like hand grenades.

Luckily, Khurschev backed down and our jump into Cuba was canceled. But it has always been this way: feast or famine, and the guy who does the fighting invariably has to pay the price.

A German POW replied to my teen-age taunt, "If you are such supermen, why am I outside and you're inside?" He replied," Cause my 88-mm antitank battery ran out of ammo and you did not run out of tanks." And that sums up how we have won every war, less one. We have always had time, after we have been socked, to rub our jaw, recoil, and ask our assembly lines to save us with their magic outpourings. We have blown our opponent back to the Stone Age.

In Vietnam, we painfully discovered that all of our bombs, bullets and miracles could not get us into the winner's circle. We also discovered that we had spent billions of dollars on crash programs that produced highly sophisticated junk. Sadly, America's basic military vehicle today is an Edsel, which is coughing and sputtering all over the world and partly accounts for why the U.S. military could not fight its way out of a wet paper bag.

One does not need a crystal ball to know that Russia could outgun America in a conventional shootout in almost any quarter of the world. Hence it does follow that the only way we could stop the Russians would be to employ nuclear weapons. That was NATO's way of stopping them in a 1977 war game which envisioned the Russians charging across the border, and that is the major argument for the recent decision to produce the neutron bomb.

Now those same people who gave us McNamara's "electronic wall," and Westmoreland's "automatic battlefield," are embarking on yet another crash program that will cause our military to be stuck with more sophisticated, highly technical wonder gear for the next two decades, just like they saddled us with the nuclear rifle two decades ago.

Maxwell Taylor's nuclear rifle. That was the Davy Crockett. It looked like a recoilless rifle. It shot a half-kiloton nuclear bomb. The first problem was that it barely shot it a mile before it went off, which is closer than anybody wants to be to a nuclear explosion. The second problem was that it was meant to stop tanks coming over the hill at speed, and a corporal in the field manning this thing needed so many clearances to fire a nuclear weapon that it took at least two and a half hours to get permission, by which time the tanks could be in Paris. The third problem was that after the brass had okayed the firing of this weapon, the corporal had to call up every friendly soldier in the area and tell him that a nuke was about to be shot off, so the friendly soldier would know not to look in j that direction and be blinded.

I think that it is time that the fuzzy thinkers, whiz kids, arms lobbyists and military dilettantes who produce such weapons stop doing any more damage to the security of America. Their belief that massive firepower, goodies and gimmicks can give us a strong, well balanced force is as fallacious as Abrams' Vietnamization program.

Imagine David's dilemma if Solomon said, "Goliath is in the east. No, change one. He is in the west and there is ten of him. No, change two. He is in the north and there is ten of him. No, change two. He is in the north and there is seven of him." Well, the military dilemma is the same. Like David, the military has little idea of how many and what type rocks they will need to combat their adversary. Our foreign policy chops and changes direction like a spinning top. And foreign policy dictates what rock throwers will be armed with and where they will move to. America needs a clear, long-range, consistent foreign policy in order to have the balanced military muscle to back up that policy.

First, our foreign policy makers must realize that America cannot fight anywhere at any time and stop thumping their chests. The president must set a clear long-term strategy of where we're willing to fight and when, and then the Department of Defense must realistically determine what hardware is needed.

Second, our military requirements from 1985 to 1995 cannot be forged with 1952 thinking or an organization that should have retired with Harry Truman. We need a revolutionary change. We need one unified service. Tradition was great when a soldier cost $21 a month and a basic rifle cost $19. But times have changed and so must our military structure.

Such a unified service would stop the interservice backstabbing and costly duplication and pare down U.S. manpower requirements by half. The envisioned unified force would be divided into two elements -- a conventional force and a nuclear force.

The conventional force would be composed of lean and mean, dedicated warriors who would be equipped with rugged, reliable, simple, flexible, easy-to-produce, GI-proof gear. This force would be a cross between the French Foreign Legion, the Israeli army and our own Ranger units. It would not be like our army during Vietnam, which had 500,000 military personnel and not more than 40,000 fighters in the bush fighting the 300,000-odd soldiers of Gen. Giap.

This force would be heavy on fighters, light on logistics and creature comforts. Their leaders would not be self-serving amateurs who have ticket-punched their way to the top, but fighting commanders.

The nuclear force would be composed of all the tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. It would be manned with competent technical talent whose pay would be structured to compete with their civilian counterparts. It would be trained and ready to merge with the conventional force as required by the strategic situation.

There would obviously be an overlap between the conventional and nuclear forces as some weapons systems, such as the B52, or destroyers, or a 155-mm howitzer, all have a nuclear and a conventional capability. This would be resolved by following the common-sense guidance of Gen. Omar Bradley, who said, "Our military force is one team -- in the game to win regardless of who carries the ball."

The Canadians did this recently and their military rave about it. The idea would be that an Air Force navigator could just as easily be a Navy navigator. An Army finance officer could be a Navy finance officer. In such a fashion could much duplication, waste and backbiting be eliminated.

America's strategic requirements totally eliminate the need for the costly Guard and Reserve. Although their World War II record was indeed glorious, their paper tiger force cannot be carried for the sake of glory or political expediency. It high cost and military ineffieiency dictates that it, like the horse soldier, must ride off into the sunset.

The antiquated and out-of-step military procurement system would be streamlined and made responsive to the warrior. Procurement would be removed from the hands of the dreamers and the influence of the schemers. It would cease to be a captive of technology which wants to give every soldier a Rolex instead of an inexpensive, disposable Timex. The procurement people would steal a page from the Soviets and the Israelis and provide U.S. forces with realistic gear that is designed for the battlefield and does not need a PhD operator or a platoon of mechanics to keep it functioning.

The thick layer of fat that covers all procurement functions from the idea to research and development to procurement would be chopped away and replaced with one lean agency that is responsive to the ultimate consumer -- the warrior. All military procurement would be controlled by a committee of former warriors who understand what cold steel is all about.

The envisioned unified service would only be concerned with America's defense. All of the social, rehabilitation and Salvation yarmy functions that the services are now saddled with would be returned to the bleeding hearts. The Pentagon, and all the fat-cat headquarters, would be stripped to the bone. No longer would there be situations like Vietnam, where we had more generals and amdirals than Ike had when he conquered Europe -- all supervising 500,000 people. No wonder we lost, with everyone writing letters and few people fighting.

Lastly, since World War II, the Department of Defense civil service has grown like hordes of camp followers of days gone by. This self-serving bureaucratic army has too much power and has become the tail that wags the dog. This tail must be chopped off.

As Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger ponders such difficult problems as the B1 bomber program versus the Stealth and the $75 billion MX missile scheme, I would like to repeat the words of a country boy corporal when he first saw Taylor's incredibly expensive Davy Crockett nuclear rifle. "Sir, that thing just won't work on the battlefield." A few years later, of course, it was returned to weapon wonderland with thousands of other hare-brained, half-baked flops. Luckily, it came between wars and nobody was hurt except the taxpayers who paid millions for it.

Weinberger must reverse the trend of supporting expensive replacements for tired gear, replacements which will be virtually obsolete when they hit the field.

The M1 tank, for example, was in the research stage for 16 years, travels 48 miles an hour across the battlefield, firing as it goes. Unfortunately, it won't traverse most bridges in Europe because it is too heavy. It's an incredible gas guzzler. It's not air transportable, which negates any flexible response to a problem, despite the fact that flexibility is one of the key ideas behind armor. And again, it's a very sophisticated system which requires all sorts of maintenance backup. An examination of how long this tank was in development, given its inadequacies, demonstrates how sick the current system is.

For another example, it wasn't enough that we took the battleship New Jersey out of mothballs during Vietnam at a cost of $21 million to blow away coastal monkeys and apes. Now we're recommissioning it again at a cost of at least a third of a billion dollars to be a floating missile battlewagon, despite the obvious problem of shielding this sitting duck from enemy missiles. We thought all the battleship admirals were phased out after Pearl Harbor, but there obviously is at least one left lurking around the E ring of the Pentagon.

Instead, we must take the long view. We must design and provide the mos effective hardware and not just grab what is at hand or produce a weapon just because it is possible to build.

Another plus to this self-imposed coolness is that it might just take some of the madness out of the arms race.

Few people lisened to the corporal's critique of the Davy Crockett and fewer still paid heed to Gen. Billy Mitchell's predictions when he bucked the system and advocated air power, pointed out the vulnerability of our battleships and the Pacific fleet, and what the Japanese were up to. He was branded an extremist by the locked-in-concrete military-industrial clique. It was not until after the war that he was vindicated and awarded the Medal of Honor for his contributions. Yet that fine act did not bring one sailor, one soldier or one airman who died because America was not prepared with the right equipment for the right war.