In the running fight over the 1981 U.S. budget, an exasperated senator, Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), charged that President Carter "doesn't want a balanced budget; he wants a campaign budget." True, but, of course, that's what Congress wants, too.

The inflammatory confrontation over the Pentagon's share of the budget has only limited relevance to the security of the United States. The administration wants to boost future military spending by a yearly average of 4 to 5 percent (over and above inflation), while the hawks on the Hill insist on its being still higher by a percentage point or two.

It's hard for objective observers to see how a fraction more or a fraction less, in a defense budget exceeding $150 billion, could be either the salvation or the destruction of the United States. If, however, the military distinction is less than significant, the same cannot be said about the political fallout.

Believing that the electorate is in a patriotic, anti-Soviet, defense-minded mood, an election-year Congress is eager to exploit the situation by upping the Pentagon ante, although there is no certainty about how the extra money would be spent or even whether it is needed at this time.

Carter, in an effort to placate the military bloc, inflated the Pentagon budget well beyond his original intention, but now he can't go higher except by deficit spending or by slashing domestic social programs strongly backed by a powerful coalition of Democratic liberals and independents.

Some of the congressional hawks have played into the president's hands by pushing more funds on the Pentagon than it requested. Both Carter and Defense Secretary Harold Brown sent letters to the Hill protesting that the extra billions would hurt rather than help national defense. They contended the unsought funds would cause "serious misallocations."

The president also told a group of editors that his military budget was "adequate" and that it was "approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secreatry of defense." Whereupon the chiefs were summoned before a House committee and individually asked on the record if they were getting all the money they wanted. Naturally, they said no.

The Pentagon spokesman, Assistant Secreatry Thomas Ross, said, "I can't recall a time when the Joint Chiefs have not proposed considerably larger budgets than have finally been approved." He couldn't have been more right.

When I was in Ross' job many years ago, there was never a time when the chiefs didn't seek more than they ultimately got. Hence their recent testimony is not so contradictory as it sounds: they didn't get all they wanted, but, as Carter said, they accepted the budget. This is equally true of the other federal departments and agencies: they all have to compromise at budget time.

The most disturbing testimony was that of Gen. E. C. Meyer, Army chief of staff, who said. "Right now, we have a hollow army." That raises questions about assurance by the president and the secretary of defense that the United States is prepared, if necessary, to use force to oppose aggression in the Persian Gulf or in Korea.

On his last visit to Seoul, Secretary Brown told the South Koreans that the United States would come to their defense "promptly and decisively" if they were attacked, but Gen. Meyer's unflattering description of the American army is not likely to reassure the Koreans. A more measured appraisal of our combat forces is provided by Gen. David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who says:

"U.S. combat forces for distant projection are generally superior to corresponding Soviet forces. U.S. amphibious forces are much stronger than their emerging Soviet equivalents. U.S. tactical aviation, including sea-based aviation, is better; the lack of tactical air capability at a distance is a serious Soviet deficiency. U.S. naval forces are generally superior to Soviet forces. Soviet naval forces are hampered by poor sustainability at long distances from port and by greater vulnerability to air and submarine attack." Gen. Jones believes Soviet capabilities to project military power "are minimal at present."

Although Carter made a 1976 campaign pledge to cut the defense budget by at least $5 billion a year, he has instead steadily increased military spending to record peacetime levels, well in excess of his Republican predecessors. Yet his chief critics are not doves, but a conservative coalition of hawks.

Under Carter's latest budget, the United States will spend in the next five years around a trillion dollars for war purposes -- even more if the Senate prevails. The sum is so unprecedented that no one can forsee what its impact will be on the American economy and American society.

Few disinterested observers believe, however, that it will materially alter the "balance of terror" that has so far kept the peace between the United States and Russia. The policy of "Mutual Assured Destruction" that has prevailed for years will doubtless continue to prevail, even if at a much costlier level.

The first priority for military expenditures, says the authoritative Center for Defense Information, should be ensuring that the existing military establishment, including personnel and weapons, is utilized in the most appropriate and efficient manner. Rep. Les Aspin, of the House Armed Services Committee, agrees. He has just called on both liberals and conversatives to "band together to expunge a mountain of wasteful programs" from the military budget.