While the rescue squad argues whether it's to be the hospital or the morgue for Chrysler, what shouldn't be missed about the prostrate corporation is that though its cars are losers, its army tanks are great, even if they cost $1 million apiece and are years behind schedule.

In that contrast of civil versus military quality, there is much to ponder, because among the many afflictions of the American economy, one of the most enfeebling may be its great overdoses of military research and development. The response of the Defense Department and its contractors is that the United States has chosen to rely on technological sophistication to counter the Soviet reliance on sheer numbers; this strategy, they insist, is relatively cheap and militarily advantageous.

Perhaps it is, but there are reasons to be worried about the blank-check prosperity that underlies military science and technology at a time when many important segments of academic and industrial research are on short rations. What we may be getting out of this imbalance are the best-defended obsolete factories known to history.

Through most of the postwar period, the U.S. government has paid for slightly over half of this country's research and development activities -- military, medical, agricultural, and so on, with the other half coming from industry, universities, state governments and various private sources. Year after year, national security objectives have taken up at least half -- by some reckonings, two-thirds -- of the federal contribution, so that this year, when the U.S. Treasury is providing some $30 billion for research and development, the Defense Department is getting about $15 billion directly, plus the use of another few billions tucked away in NASA and the Department of Energy.

But why worry about this enduring military domination of the government's research and development spending? First of all, the only other noncommunist country that gives its military half of all government research spending is Great Britain -- which should be a warning in itself. The West German spends only 10 percent of its research budget on military purposes; the Japanese spend far less than that.

Then, too, it should be recognized that federal R&D money is highly influential money, coming as it often does in big chunks, and unencumbered by the profit-making considerations that govern industry's investments in research. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the military did, in fact, invigorate many fields of science and technology that turned out to have valuable "spinoff" effects on the civilian economy; computers and commercial jet aircraft are the most striking examples. But today's military's requirements are so technologically sophisticated and remote from civilian needs, that -- even allowing for some beneficial spillover -- there is a big and growing divergence between the civilian and the military economies. The military's airtransport needs provided the technological foundation for the postwar civilian aviation industry. But there are very slim pickings for civilian purposes in the billions that are being spent on the development of cruise missiles, the Trident submarines and other exotic entries in the next stage of the arms race.

It's the military research objectives that increasingly command money and mass of effort and that provide great opportunities for professional excitement and achievement. And, as Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, pointed out in congressional testimony several months ago, it may be that our best scientific and engineering talents are now being taken up by military research.