Alarmed by the Soviet move into Afghanistan, we are now frantically rushing to fill the power vacuum in the Persian Gulf area that we failed to fill when the British withdrew in 1971. At that time we recklessly turned over the defense of the area to the shah with the understanding that we would stay out. That decision was made in the name of the "Nixon Doctrine," which events have now shown to be a dangerous fatuity; for, if we have learned anything from the drama of the year just past, it is that we cannot secure the protection of a strategic region by entrusting its defense to a local ruler whom we then overload with sophisticated weapons. We do not strengthen that ruler's military clout by indulging his passion for elegant hardware; we are more likely to inflate his imperial pretensions and hasten the demise of his regime.

Thus the clear lesson of our searing experience in Iran is that we ourselves must provide the defense of those strategic outposts that are unquestionably vital to our interests. To do that, we must build up our combat and logistic resources.

Our present stringency is dramatically illustrated in the Western Pacific.

The Seventh Fleet's two carriers have been redeployed to the Indian Ocean, so for the first time in many years there has been no carrier patrolling the waters around Japan and Korea -- even at a time when the current political uncertainty in Seoul might inspire the North Korean leader, Kim II Sung, to another invasion.

We are caught in an awkward strategic conjunction. If the Soviets continue their aggressive adventures, we must have a capability for quick response that requires some pre-positioning of force in critical areas. Since small countries are now wary of granting forward bases, the emphasis is on floating air fields in the form of carriers. But while the Soviet Union has for the past decade been expanding its naval reach, the United States has dangerously curtailed the number of ships and personnel at its command.

Since we now know that we cannot depend on local powers for effective regional defense, we should try to share more of the burden with our industrialized allies -- and particularly with Japan, where the disparity in relative defense efforts is becoming increasingly exasperating as Japanese industries steadily enlarge their share of American market. Someone should tell Japan that its present happy situation cannot continue -- that, increasingly, public awareness of our mounting defense burden will inflame the already formidable agitation for protection against Japanese products.

Today the United States spends 6 percent of its gross national product on defense; Japan spends only 1.1 percent. Sensitive to the tender memories of other Asian nations, our government has never encouraged Japan to build a large defense establishment. But even without expanding its own armed forces, Japan could contribute more to the common defense.

Let us suppose that the Japanese construct two large carriers. They now have excess merchantship building capacity, which presumably could be expanded and adapted for the construction of carriers, and they would benefit by obtaining our carrier technology. Japan would, on completing the carriers, turn them over to the United States under a lend-lease agreement of the kind used effectively during World War II, when we and our allies pooled our efforts to resist a common enemy: Britain contributed its soldiers and sailors to fight the Nazis; the United States provided the supplies and equipment used in the common struggle. Once victory was achieved, the lend-lease equipment still extant was either returned to America or acquired by Britian through financial settlement.

Though the exact terms of an arrangement with Japan would have to be negotiated, its broad lines are easy to envisage. By providing two carriers, Japan could be assured that one would be constantly on station for the defense of Japan, Korea and the neighboring Pacific area; only with Japanese approval would it be deployed elsewhere -- perhaps to the Indian Ocean to guard the tanker lanes that are Japan's lifeline.

Though both carriers would remain under United States command and control, they would be returned to Japan whenever the Japanese declared the intention to assume full reponsibility for the common defense of the area or both parties agreed that the carriers were no longer needed.

I mention carriers only to show how the lend-lease concept could be utilized to narrow the disparity in the defense burden between Japan and the United States. The total cost of two carriers -- roughly $4 billon -- would, when spread over three years, increase the defense share of Japan's GNP by merely 0.3 percent. Though that, of course, would only modestly reduce the disparity with America, there could obviously be other applications -- including, for example, support ships for the carriers -- once the principle of pooling resources was established.

Meanwhile, we should use the present moment of shared anxiety to inject that principle into our relations with Japan -- and we should do it promptly. If the Japanese continue to enjoy their current unfair advantage, Americans will grow increasingly resentful as our own defense burden increases and our economy slows down. That will not be good for either country.

It is time for the Japanese government to awake and respond; it has had a free ride too long.