Nothing could have been more clear than the Kissinger argument: SALT II will merely register the military inferiority of the United States unless prompt action is taken.

Nothing could have been more obfuscating than what followed. How much more money would be needed? Three percent over inflation, the level promised by President Carter but not in fact delivered? Five percent, the increase suggested by Sen. Sam Nunn and others? And on what should the money be spent? Senior figures of the administration, men who had just gone through weeks of bureaucratic agony over excruciating budget-cutting choices, did their best to add to the confusion by claiming that the Pentagon would not know how to spend the money anyway. With their desks littered by service warnings of just how much the forces would be run down as inflation cut into real funding, the administration's loyalists could not stand their ground for very long: they soon explained that it was the "strategic-nuclear programs" that were already fully funded, not the rest.

In fact, Henry Kissinger had made it emphatically clear that, in calling for more spending, his first concern was precisely "the rest" -- that is, the Navy, the Air Force and the Army, and not just the Trident missile submarines and the MX missile system, which are indeed fully funded. And there could scarcely be an argument over the reality of those needs, at a time when the Navy is down to 398 ships (from 950-plus 10 years ago, with 600 needed for proper coverage of two oceans), when our ground forces are so constrained for training funds that tank crews in Germany can fire only a single round during a single annual exercise, and when our finest Air Force fighters are kept on the ground because there isn't money for spare parts. Single episodes reveal more than reams of statistics: Pentagon budgeteers have just ordered the Navy to provide the refueling tankers it needs by converting S3 aircraft, instead of buying new tanker versions of the same S3 aircraft. It sounds like plain common sense; tankers, after all, need not be tip-top new, theirs being an undemanding mission that calls for no acrobatics. But in fact this is a real horror story, an extreme example of how painful the budget situation really is: The S3 is not some older transport aircraft, just right for a new lease on life after conversion. It is a brand new anti-submarine aircraft crammed with advanced electronics -- a key instrument of one of our very few remaining military advantages, our superiority in submarine detection. As things now stand, the imperative need for carrier-based tankers (without which our Navy fighters would lose much of their effectiveness) could only be made good by ripping out sophisticated electronics to make way for jet fuel.

There are all too many such examples of ruinous stringency, where major capabilities are being sacrificed to save small amounts: the two-way squeeze between manpower costs and inflation leaves less and less for the hardware.

One more source of needless confusion has been the misleading assertion that the Pentagon is already awash with money duly appropriated by Congress but not spent. The congressmen who play this tune would hardly dare to deny their wives housekeeping money on the grounds that they still had some cash in hand. There are bills already in the mail for the Pentagon, too, and there are larger amounts already fully committed where contract negotiations are still not completed. There is now a real danger that the Pentagon might be driven to hasty decisions to avoid an accusation issued by those who have every reason to know better.

Beyond all the obfuscating talk of 1975 dollars and 1980 dollars, authorized funds and appropriated funds, there are harsh facts that will not be talked away. It is time to become serious. The Soviet Union is now very evidently on its way to globalizing its armed strength. Unless effectivelly discouraged by contervailing force, its new power will make the world an even nastier place for us and our friends. We are spending less than 5 percent of our gross national product on defense; they are spending around 15 percent of theirs, or roughly one-third more than we do in real terms.

The present Carter defense budget does not meet the need. Urgent priorities include a new aircraft carrier this year and another two over the next five years; 25 warships a year for the next five years, instead of the total of 46 now planned; and more Navy aircraft. For the Air Force, larger stocks of spare parts across the board and money for a new all-weather fighter-bomber in lieu of the cheaper daylight-only aircraft now being imposed. (The Russians might be excused for choosing to attack at night or in bad weather, but there is no excuse for equipping our Air Force as if Central Europe enjoyed the weather of Nevada). For the Marines, old landing craft and amphibious vehicles badly need to be replaced, preferably with fighting vehicles that can meet Russian armor -- now to be found all over the world. The Army's problems cannot really be solved by money alone: only conscription will fill its ranks with young men fit to fight a modern war. But it, too, needs money urgently to provide a combat vehicle for the infantry (even the Yugoslavs are ahead of us in that department), new-design tank destroyers and mobile air defense across the board, both guns and missiles.

Finally, the strategic forces: there is much to be said for a cheaper submarine to fit the Trident II missile than the 1,800-ton monsters now slowly being built, but equally there is little merit in relying on ancient B52s where a new bomber is badly needed; a cut-price B1 is now available that will be of use for non-nuclear missions over the oceans and as an assault-stopper on land, as well as to deliver nuclear air-ground missiles and plain bombs.

For a 5 percent budget growth fully clear of inflation, we could have all this, and nothing less will do. It is not a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war that we have to fear, but rather the steady deterioration of our leverage over world events. In the recent jamboree that gathered in Cuba, which included most members of OPEC, the "non-aligned" revealed their opinion of the balance of power all too clearly, in their open contempt for American power. It is time to "get with it."