MR. CARTER'S State of the Union plea that his defense program be supported is not likely to be granted by the Congress or the public -- at least not without a lot of combat and a lot of changes. The defense part of the total federal budget has become a totem around which a variety of different dances are done each year to the accompaniment of different incantations: It is too big... It is too small... It is composed of all the wrong things. This year Jimmy Carterhs problem with it was especially acute. He was obliged to show a real growth of 3 percent in total outlays by way of honoring a commitment made to our NATO allies. He was also obliged to demonstrate to those in Congress who must pas on any SALT deal he brings home and who are leery of his resolve that he is in fact going forward with strategic nuclear programs meant to counter the Soviet buildup. And he was finally compelled to do all this in the context of a very tight budget overall -- one that would feature hold-downs and cuts in nonmilitary programs, so that some very disagreeable contrast ("weapons v. widows") were certain to be made.

Given the impossible, self-contradicting nature of the mission, how did Mr. Carter do? Not bad. Our preliminary reading shows that there is a real 3 percent increase as pledged, that the are forward steps on the big nuclear systems at issue, that the choices have -- not all, but for the most part -- been seriously and sensibly made and that they do not constitute a great and greedy overreaching of the military as will most assuredly be charged. On the 3 percent pledge to NATO, you will no doubt be hearing a certain amount about how it depends which calculation one makes and how the increase in obligational authority is only 1.7 percent and so forth. But the outlay figure is real. And beyond that it seems only necessary to say that doing these things by flat percentage increases is slightly crazy to begin with, and that it is actually reassuring, not disappointing, to find that the administration used some discretion and discrimination in reaching its increase goal.

Obviously everything wasn't calibrated across the board to increase by precisely that fraction which would add up to a 3 percent increase in the aggregate. Choices were made, and generally they reflected some huge increases in programs specifically directed to NATO. For example: Air-defense and antitank procurements that the Europe-oriented went up by enormous amounts. Like wise, on the SALT-related weapons, a very big part of the boost in spending for FY 1980 would be earmarked for the MX missile, envisioned as a replacement for some part of the landbased ICBM (Minuteman) forece. This is meant to address a problem very much on the minds of Mr. Carter's SALT critics. Notably, the budget also calls for a step-up in R&D for the Pershing II missile, a mediumrange ballistic missile that would take on added importance if a SALT accord were to put a temporary freeze on the development of ground-launched cruise milliles.

There are plenty of elements to this part of the budget that can and will be challenged (the president has, in our view, gone and bought himself more trouble with his choice of the kind of new carrier he wants the Navy to have) and much remains to be spelled out. It is also important to remember that in some respects the budget is little more than an announcement, an announcement of how certain internal political and bureaucratic struggles have been resolved -- and a definition of the turf over which the remaining congressional-executive struggles will take place. Finally, we would add this one deflating and rather painful thought: The big question concerning American military systems and strength and the outlays of money they represent is finally not how much is being spent or even for what. Rather it concerns how -- precisely how -- American and allied military might is related to the stormy and cataclysmic political conflicts and changes that mark the world landscape today. These are things the Congress and the administration are going to have to think about hard if the military budget is to have any but symbolic meaning.