Out in Colorado, the U.S. Army and a group of cattle ranchers are locked in a new version of that old guns-versus-butter dispute. Call this one tanks versus steaks.

The Army wants about 250,000 acres of semi-arid rangeland to expand its tank-training space for Fort Carson, in the southeastern part of the state. Without it, the army says in effect, the next war could be lost.

It won't much matter anyway, the ranchers are saying, because if the Army keeps invading farmland, there won't be food for the troops. Or steaks, or boots, or hamburgers.

The Colorado dispute has spilled into the halls of Congress, where a House Armed Services subcommittee took testimony yesterday on the Army expansion request. Land acquisition would cost at least $30 million; related costs, maybe $90 million more.

In a way, it is another of those bitter confrontations between an expanding federal government and private landowners who are trying to hang on to their piece of the rock.

The project has divided the state's congressional delegation (only Rep. Ray Kogovsec is actively opposing the Army), pitted rancher against rancher, and drawn strong support from state government and local officials at Colorado Springs, who see big economic benefits from an expansion of nearby Fort Carson.

Emotions run so high that when witness Bernard Parsons of Weston, in Las Animas County, called some of Kogovsec's statements "socialistic," Chairman Jack Brinkley (D-Ga.) gaveled him to silence. "From the west," Kogovsec said, "we tend to be more frank. I take no umbrage to what the gentleman is saying."

Military preparedness is one of the issues, but as rancher-witnesses noted, it could just as easily have been at the Agriculture Committee because the dispute highlights another major national problem -- the growing loss of farmland to urbanization and development.

The Army, however, plans no development. It wants the area for training because it is wide-open space and because the terrain is not unlike some parts of Europe and the Persian Gulf states.

Military spokesman said the Fort Carson reservation, about 60,000 acres near Colorado Springs, is too congested and too familiar for large-scale maneuvers that are needed to make tanker forces fully combat-ready.

If the Army acquired the Pinon Canyon territory, as it is called, tanks would be taken by rail about 100 miles from the fort and troops would move by truck and bus for training exercises.

Forty-two ranchers would be displaced, but they are not leaving without a fight. Their view is that tank training should be conducted at other bases and that cattle should be left alone.

Anyway, said rancher Willard C. Louden, if the army prevails, it might not matter much in the long run. "If you are starving, gentlemen, there is no security," he said. "I suggest to you that food is our most powerful weapon both offensively and defensively."

The food provided by ranchers in the area the Army covets for its 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) is beef -- enough by Louden's calculations to feed and boot most of the army 25,000 soldiers who would train on the land.

A rancher who wants to stay, Ken Clark of Kim, who's also a state senator, put the whole dispute in a neat package in talking with Rep. Ken Kramer (R), who represents Colorado Springs and supports the expansion in Kogovsec's district.

"We want to make a decision that is best for all," Kramer said, "but obviously that is not possible."

"The vote is in Colorado Springs and not in my area," replied the weatherbeaten cattleman. "That's the way politics works."