The new cruise missile was [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for the first time in public here yesterday in hopes of projecting a reducing image of military superiority [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the American people.

"I think that the Soviet Union is more aware of what our capabilities are than the American public," said Defense Secretary Harold Brown after watching a torpedo-shaped Tomahawk cruise missile foil simulated Soviet defenses.

The cruise missile launched from a Navy A-6 jet flew at various altitudes over this vast testing ground of brown and white and dotted with sagebrush. The Pentagon's research director here termed the missile's performance "letter perfect."

Brown, when asked why the heretofore secret tests were suddenly opened to the press, said, "It is important for the American people to perceive that the United States is not inferior to any country in military capability. It's important to get that message across."

The cruise missile is a pilotless jet with a mechanical brain that compares a map it has memorized before launch with the features its radar "feels" on the ground as the missile flies along. The missile corrects its course to follow the line plotted on the map until hitting the target.

Brown intends to follow up yesterday's missile demonstration with a speech in San Francisco tomorrow on military policy. His theme is scheduled to be that there is no need to panic over the Soviet military buildup, and that President Carter's upgraded defense effort will keep the United States "second to none" militarily.

Carter appears to be sending out both Brown and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance to extinguish the political fires ignited by the recent hot rhetoric from the White House about Soviet and Cuban military adventurism.

Also, by emphasizing the military strengths of the United States through such demonstrations as yesterday's missile test, administration leaders may hope to make the public more receptive to an agreement at the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union.

A year ago this month, Carter upset some hawkish constituencies in Congress and elsewhere by rejecting the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and deciding to build the $1-million-a-copy cruise missile instead of the Air Force's $100 million B-1 bomber.

Brown said yesterday's test flight "confirms for us" that the cruise missile decision was the right one. He said the weapon will be able "to penetrate any defense" the Soviets will be able to deploy against it in the foreseeable future.

"You've seen for yourself that it's not an easy object to detect," said Brown after reporters and photographers tried to pick out, with mixed success, the gray Tomahawk cruise missile streaking along the desert floor at a speed of 450 knots.

William Perry, Pentagon research director, said the missile flew at altitudes ranging from 300 feet to "below a hundred feet" against simulated Soviet air defenses, with the Hawk anti-aircraft missile playing the part of the Soviet SA-10 missile. The defending missiles were not actually fired but tried to lock their radar on to the Tomahawk.

At the lowest level, Perry said, the defense "didn't have a ghost of a chance" of hitting the Tomahawk. Without a radar that could look down from above, Perry said, the Soviets could not pick out the Tomahawk from the "ground clutter" which would show up on their present-day radar scopes.

If the Soviets do improve their anti-missile defenses, Brown told a press conference at the test site near Holloman Air Force Base, the United States can thwart them by putting additional evasion techniques into the cruise missile.

As for the criticism that the new cruise missile carries too small a nuclear warhead to destroy protected targets, Brown replied: "If you have enough" cruise missiles, each carrying a nuclear warhead of between 100 and 200 kilotons, they "would be capable of doing an impressive amount of damage."