Despite the Reagan administration's warnings of dire consequences, the Senate has disregarded the proposed defense budget and slashed authorizations significantly. The House may go even further. Barring an unforeseen international crisis or a major Soviet foreign policy blunder that galvanizes U.S. public opinion against them, these caps on U.S. defense spending are likely to be around for some time.

In January, the Reagan administration declared that 6 percent real growth in this year's defense budget was the "bottom line," below which national security would be genuinely endangered. Now, no real growth in spending looks like the "upper line." And the administration has suddenly acquiesced in this congressional imposition. Just as surprising, the secretary of defense has just announced that $4 billion in special "contingency funds" for 1985 would be sacrificed to meet congressional cuts in 1986 -- a move that no doubt will erode the administration's credibility among friends and foes alike.

The already confused atmosphere surrounding the debate over defense is made more volatile by real and inferred examples of waste, fraud, abuse and incompetence, including the famous toilet seat, actual and pending indictments of major defense corporations for outright felonies, and questions certain to be raised by the crash of a new fighter aircraft, which was recently inserted into the Air Force's budget on the grounds of substantial cost savings.

This is some way of providing for the common defense. In our preoccupation with arbitrary levels of defense spending and images of scandal or incompetence, the relationship of national security needs to military capabilities becomes obscured or ignored. It is the responsibility of government -- and that means both ongress and the executive branch -- to define and act on key defense issues in terms that can be understood by the public. This need for understanding of relevant issues becomes more essential when long-term defense spending is curtailed and tough defense decisions and tradeoffs can no longer be deferred.

A one-year cut in defense can be absorbed. Beyond that, U.S. military capabilities and national security will suffer greatly if budget constraints are not handled appropriately by both Congress and the executive.

Several corrective measures are needed now:

The administration must evaluate different levels of defense spending against their likely impact on U.S. military capabilities and relate those findings to how they help or harm overall national security.

Constrained budgets mean that tough choices must be made among military capabilities. Given the recent generosity in defense budgets, these choices have been deferred. This is no longer possible.

Congress must get out of the micro-management business. Thousands of congressional staffers pore over the defense budget. The Defense Department probably spends more time responding to congressional requests for testimony and information as well as revisions to proposed defense programs than it does on strategic planning and thinking. That is wasteful. Staffs must be cut in Congress and the Pentagon, but especially on the Hill. Congress should provide broad oversight but leave detail to the Pentagon.

A blue-ribbon panel should be formed and charged with the responsibility for streamlining and improving the current weapons acquisition process. There is sufficient blame and fault spread among all parties -- ranging from some of the more ludicrous and tedious contracting regulations to outright fraud -- to warrant serious review. These faults must be corrected without delay.

For the past five years, two administrations have significantly increased defense spending. Big dollars permitted deferring tough defense choices because most projects could be funded. That condition will no longer apply. Now we must choose among them. So, too, streamlining the procurement process to remove obvious and unnecessary obstacles to efficiency and effectiveness must be accomplished. These suggestions will alleviate many of the sticking points that produce the wrong stuff.