DANGEROUSLY SKEWING the recent decisions on which service should get what share of the new Reagan defense budget is an apparent shift in U.S. strategy toward primary reliance on maritime supremacy, even at the expense of defending Europe and Persian Gulf oil.

Of course the U.S. Navy, like its British counterpart, has long argued that as an "island" nation we should give primary emphasis to maritime supremacy. Today new weight is being given to this perennial argument by the articulate pleading of two high civilian officials in the Reagan Pentagon, Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. and Assistant Defense Secretary Francis J. (Bing) West Jr.

The new fiscal 1983 budget about to be presented to Congress will be heavily influenced by Lehman and West's sense of priorities. However, given rising costs and the inevitable constraints on overall U.S. defense spending, allocating even more to the Navy will seriously compromise our ability to defend our vital interests in Western Europe and the Persian Gulf.

Lehman, West and their disciples argue that, since our nuclear superiority has disappeared and our allies won't pull their weight in conventional forces, we already cannot successfully defend Europe and the Gulf. Therefore, they argue, we should shift our emphasis to the one area where we can be clearly superior -- the seas. Their strategy would call for widening any regional conflict by sweeping the Soviet navy and merchant fleet from all seas and attacking it in its bases with carrier strikes. The assumption behind this strategic concept is that no direct clash between U.S. and Soviet forces could be limited regionally, that it would inevitably escalate to worldwide war, at least at sea.

The logic of this is superficially convincing. But the argument is quite misleading -- and its implications for U.S. strategic policy in the 1980s are much more serious than even the billions of dollars involved.

The real issue is not whether to retain maritime superiority. That, unquestionably, is imperative for the United States. The question is how to do it, and how much we can afford to spend on it.

We in Harold Brown's Pentagon also stressed command of the seas wherever and whenever essential. We proposed to use that flexibility which is the hallmark of naval power for "sequential" operations, hitting an enemy first in one place and then shifting our strike forces to hit them in another. Even this involved spending more money on the Navy than on any other service -- including 12 carrier task forces -- but at least it permitted a balanced strategy of also meeting our NATO, Korean and Persian Gulf commitments.

Lehman, however, wants a 600-ship Navy, built around 15 big nuclear carrier task forces, to deal "simultaneously with conflicts in the Far East, Near East, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, the oil lifelines around Africa to the United States and Europe, the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, Caribbean and Eastern Pacific." Unfortunately, even with Reagan's original $1.5 trillion five-year defense program, there is no way in which we can fund such a 600-ship Navy, on top of $180 billion for the modernization of our strategic nuclear forces, without cutting back on the plans to upgrade our NATO-committed ground and air capabilities and to create a credible Rapid Deployment Force.

Such cutbacks already began taking place in Fiscal 1982. As Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a leading Democratic defense expert, has pointed out, the RDF was "one of the major casualties" of Reagan's fiscal '82 budget proposals. On top of the earlier delay in converting eight SL7 fast deployment ships, Nunn cited the "elimination" of six other ships that were to have been converted for prepositioning to support the rapid deployment of U.S. combat forces into the Persian Gulf.

Since the shortage of strategic mobility forces has been our Achilles heel in the Gulf as well as in Europe and Northeast Asia, it is equally significant that the Reagan team proposed cutting or deferring major airlift programs too: It did not fund new airlift transports, canceled the KC10 refueler and cut back funds for improving the performance of the KC135 tanker plane.

Some of these needs may be partially funded when the administration presents its new fiscal '83 defense budget and five-year program -- the first that it can really call its own. If it funds two more big carriers, it cannot possibly equip adequately our NATO-earmarked forces and the RDF, or provide them with enough lift.

The Reagan naval bill will be so high because Lehman, West and Co. plan to build maritime supremacy around those 15 big nuclear-powered carrier battle groups and costly F14 and F18 aircraft. Well over half the Navy's proposed ship-building program is earmarked for the three additional carrier battle groups, at what Lehman estimates is almost $17 billion per group in fiscal '82 dollars. Even procurement of P3 patrol planes and LAMPS helicopters, our most effective anti-submarine warfare systems, is reportedly being cut back to fund the big carriers.

These big carriers are not necessary to control the vital sea lanes. Nor are they designed for that purpose. They are designed for offensive projection of force against the Soviet Union itself, such as attacking the Soviet fleet in its home bases. Even if they could survive to launch such an attack -- a debatable proposition despite the billions gambled on it -- each carrier's offensive power at realistic ranges currently amounts to one puny squadron of 10 A6 attack jets carrying iron bombs. How seriously could the United States hurt a great heartland power like the Soviet Union by such nibbling at its maritime flanks?

In any case, is this the best way to achieve maritime supremacy? Not according to senior admirals like Elmo Zumwalt, Worth Bagley and Stansfield Turner. Former chief of naval operations Zumwalt argues that spending $18 billion over a five-year period to put cruise missiles on new and existing ships would do more to insure naval superiority than the $46-50 billion Lehman wants for new carrier battle groups. Zumwalt and other former Navy leaders do not regard large nuclear-powered carriers as essential for control of the sea lanes; they would invest instead in smaller carriers plus innovative new technology such as hydrofoil ships and vertical takeoff aircraft.

The new maritime strategy also is guaranteed to create additional rifts between us and our already restive allies. By virtually writing off the defense of the European mainland and the Persian Gulf oilfields on which they depend, we are throwing away a vital asset.

Although European and Japanese defense contributions may not be comparable to ours, they are still indispensable to our overall strategy. Even in terms of the naval balance alone, our allies contribute several hundred sea control ships and submarines which are overlooked by those who compare only U.S. and Soviet warship figures.

Look at the strategic tradeoffs: No doubt Lehman's 600-ship Navy would enable us to sweep the Soviets from the seas and perhaps to use our maritime superiority to deal with Soviet surrogates in Cuba, Angola, South Yemen and the like. But naval supremacy alone would not be enough to defeat a Eurasian heartland power like the Soviet Union, just as it was not enough to defeat Germany in two world wars. What if the Soviets responded by utilizing their great conventional force superiority to impose their will on Europe, to seize the Gulf's oil fields or to browbeat Japan and China into neutrality? The overall balance of power would turn against us decisively, and escalating to nuclear war would be our only option. Is this what we really want to do?

In fact, it is doubtful that the United States could even conduct a successful countervailing strategy aimed at bottling up the Soviet navy in its narrow home seas unless our allies joined us. Could we close the Baltic without Scandinavian cooperation? Close the Dardanelles without Turkish acquiescence? Limit the Soviet Pacific fleet to the Sea of Okhotsk without the willing collaboration of Japan?

The maritime strategists would argue that escalation to global war is inevitable in any U.S.-Soviet regional conflict. But that is a dubious and incredibly dangerous assumption. So far in the nuclear age, both sides have acted very prudently to limit the risks of escalation in any confrontation. For us to assume the opposite could lead to self-fulfilling disaster.

In the case of the Persian Gulf, the new maritime strategists assume that the nascent Rapid Deployment Force would be too little and too late to stop a Soviet drive on the oil fields. Clearly, U.S. forces would start at a vast geographic disadvantage. But even a tripwire, which only we can credibly provide, would compel Moscow to consider the risks of global escalation implicit in any attack. Nor could a maritime strategy of sweeping the Soviet navy from the Indian Ocean and then launching carrier strikes at the advancing Red Army prevent it from overrunning the oil fields themselves.

In sum, the Pentagon's new maritime thinking smacks of an essentially isolationist "go it alone" philosophy. It ignores the balance-of-power realities that have dictated U.S. strategy for over 30 years.

Granted that we and our allies have so far failed to invest enough, or invest wisely enough, to offer confidence that our present strategy can cope with growing Soviet military power. But an alternative strategy which emphasizes offensive naval force projection at the cost of giving up on NATO defense and the RDF, or proposes to defend Persian Gulf oil primarily by naval retaliation elsewhere, is an even poorer bargain.

For the cost of one more carrier battle group, we could pay for most of the unfunded NATO and Persian Gulf equipment we need so badly. For the cost of another, we could go a long way toward buying the airlift and sealift we need most urgently of all. Congress should take a hard look at what the maritime strategy advocates have talked Weinberger and the president into doing and not doing.