Less than four months after his stirring call to arms in the Jan. 23 State of the Union address, President Carter completed his molting as a born-again hawk by quietly insisting that Congress abandon efforts to save the Navy.

On May 15, the president wrote Chairman John Stennis to urge that his Senate Armed Services Committee remove from the defense authorization bill $6.2 billion in hardware added by the House Armed Services Committee. Specifically, Carter's unpublished letter said no to $3.1 billion in naval and air items, no to taking capital ships out of mothballs, no to stepping up F18 aircraft production, no to extra submarines and frigates and, of course, no to resurrecting the B1 bomber.

Nowhere in the terse letter is there a hint of world crisis set off by the Kremlin's Afghanistan adventure. Instead, the president made clear that the plight of the hard-pressed Navy should never obstruct the chimerical "balanced budget." While one Jimmy Carter speaks loudly to the Soviet Union by boycotting the Olympics, the other Jimmy Carter carries a small stick; it takes no genius in Moscow or NATO capitals to understand which is the real Jimmy Carter.

What is surprising is not the substance but the style. It is unusual enough for a president personally to set out such detailed military hardware desires ("like assigning tennis courts," one sarcastic defense contractor told us). Beyond that, Carter has dropped all deception, making clear it is not Congress that blocks a defense buildup.

The most predictable of Carter's requests is to remove $600 million for development of the proposed B1 bomber as a cruise-missile launcher. The president understandably opposes resurrecting the B1 on the shoulders of the cruise missile, but the modified B52 he proposees is a debatable, even risky alternative. In his letter, Carter urges Congress to wait for "full determination of the timing and specific form of an appropriate B52 follow-on."

That sets the tone for the rest of the letter. Although Carter ignores it, the hard-pressed Navy wants the red-penciled items as a quick fix for its desperate condition following years of inattention. In response, the president is calling for long-lead help in the by-and-by.

Thus, Carter wants to delete $560 million to reactivate two mothballed warships, the aircraft carrier Oriskany and the battleship New Jersey -- both pleaded for by Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations. With two carrier battle groups on station in the Indian Ocean since the Iranian-Afghan crises began, additional ships are needed quickly.

The president calls it "inefficient to apply hundreds of millions of dollars to resurrect 1940s technologies for only a few years of stretched operation." Actually, the Oriskany was not commissioned until 1950 (and deactivated in 1976); the New Jersey, mothballed most recently in 1979, is suitable for cruise missiles.

"Because they require thousands of new crew members," Carter wrote, "both these ships would aggravate current Navy ship-manning problems." Thus, the president has adopted a reverse beer-and-pretzels argument as rationale for the undersized Navy. The small size of the fleet justifies the low manpower level; but the manpower level limits the size of the fleet.

Carter similarly rejects modest increases in new shipbuilding, modest indeed when compared with the Soviet program. He rejects $495 million for increasing the four new guided-missile frigates to six, considered a bare minimum by the Navy for anti-aircraft protection. He also rejects $907 million for two badly needed 688-class nuclear submarines, asking the Navy instead to await a new class of submarine "we plan to design."

Finally, Carter comes down against yet another Navy priority: expanding F18 aircraft production from 48 to 72 at a cost of $492 million but at a saving of $4 million a plane. "An increase beyond 48 would likely be done at the expense of funds needed to operate and maintain existing Navy aircraft," Carter argued.

That buttresses the letter's overriding theme: a defense appropriations bill "consistent with a balanced budget" cannot contain these new planes and ships without "severe reductions" in operations, maintenance and personnel funds that "could adversely affect today's military readiness."

But the same president has been vigorously fighting amendments to the budget resolution that would increase money for operation, maintenance and personnel by taking it from social welfare spending. Furthermore, any chance for a balanced budget went down the drain with the onset of recession. President Carter, therefore, actually is calling for no change in the domestic priority amidst deficit spending. Afghanistan or not, that is just the same old policy.