If anyone had any doubts about whether the administration debate on the defense budget was symbolic, those doubts should have been swept away by the news from administration sources that Hamilton Jordon and Gerald Rafshoon were supporting a 3-percent increase. But evidence is abundant that the administration has been more concerned with appearances than with substantive defense issues.

In May 1977 at the NATO ministeral meeting, President Carter announced his support for a long-term NATO defense propgram, referring to programs already under way. At the defense ministers' meeting in June, Secretary Harold Brown proposed a long-term program of increasing budgets 3 percent per year. President Carter confirmed that increase in September in a document known as president Decision-18.

To what was the 3 percent to apply? Between June 1977 and January 1978, the administration used three different methods of calculating the figure. The 3 percent for 1978 was interpreted, first, as an increase over the Carter administration's proposed budget for 1977 and, then, as an increase over the lower level approved by Congress-both in terms of budget authority, the legal authority to commit funds. Then the amount of the increase was reduced even further by applying it to outlays-checks to be written on the Treasury during the year-which were slated to increase anyway because of the effects of prior-year programs.

The administration reduced its defense budget target by $4 billion during the year to meet its fiscal and other domestic objectives.But since 3 percent meant whatever the administration chose it to mean, it was unnecessary to discuss the military capability-tanks, airplanes, etc.-that was sacrificed as the target was reduced. The symbolic 3-percent increase was included in the budget, and that was what should matter to our allies.

This year the discussion is being repeated. A new interpretation is surfacing that allows for an even smaller 3-percent increase-the 3 percent may apply only to those parts of the budget related directly to conventional NATO forces.

It is unfortunate that the 3 percent goal was ever introduced. The public debate on defense spending has been carried out as a superficial numbers game. What is just as troubling is that the same superficial debate is being carried out within the administration. Moreover, our NATO allies are likely to be confused. Critics of defense lack an adequate explanation of defense needs and are troubled about domestic sacrifices necessary to support the defense establishment. Supporters of higher defense spending are concerned about the reductions in ship-building and strategic missiles and bombers. No one is happy. The president may find he has taken a position that has no constituency.

A more reasonable approach would be to concentrate approach would be to concentrate on the substance of the issue. What is the relationship between the increased millitary capability and the increased budget? What is the money to buy in troops, tanks, anti-tank missiles, artillery, tartical aircraft, airlift and so forth? What are our allies doing for their own defense? What are the military consequences of lower and higher programs?

The 3-percent goal might have been an acceptable symbol for our NATO allies and the public if the administration had adhered to the goal and not subjected it to manipulation. Having failed that, it would be useful for us all if the debate returned to the questions of military capability.