In the Sept. 21 Post (letters), Adm. Jimmy Holloway, my friend, classmate and successor as chief of naval operations, editorialized that "Big Carriers Are Best."

Adm. Holloway alleges that my "small carrier argument" and that of Adms. Worth Bagley and Stan Turner is as follows: "There are no planes today in our inventory that can operate from small carriers and come close to matching the combat performance of the Soviet counterparts they are intended to defeat. But carriers take six years to build and have a useful life of 30 years. Therefore, we should build small carriers for the future, when American technology can produce high-performance vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VSTOL) capable of operating from small decks and able to cope with the Russian threat."

This is not at all the argument of Adms. Zumwalt and Bagley.

Adm. Holloway, in his desire to cling to the traditional role of the aircraft carrier in an era in which technology is changing the role of its manned aircraft, seems to have invented an argument to fit his rebuttal, and attributed that argument to us.

A decade ago, we argued that the Navy should build a mix of small carriers (carrying helicopters and vertical takeoff aircraft) and large carriers in order to have enough platforms for distributed force. Had the VSTOL aircraft programs advocated by Adms. Zumwalt, Bagley and Turner been prosecuted enthusiastically by naval aviators over the past seven years, we would be able to deploy them on small carriers today. A decade ago, we also successfully pushed through a reluctant Congress appropriations for our fourth nuclear carrier, U.S.S. Vinson, which will be commissioned next year. To build that aircraft carrier today, nuclear escorts to protect it and the aircraft to man it would cost $12 billion.

Today, our argument is a clear part of the public record, and can be found most recently in an Aug. 9 editorial in The Los Angeles Times, in the Sept. 13 issue of the "Zumwalt/Bagley Report" and in an essay titled "Naval Battles We Could Lose" in the fall issue of International Defense Review. It is a half-truth to describe our position, as Jimmy Holloway does, as a "big carrier vs. small carrier argument." Ours is an argument for a more capable Navy with multiple offensive capabilities in which we use our big carriers for what they are best suited to do. I briefly summarize our argument:

Rather than having "battle groups" built around one large offensive ship (the aircraft carrier) and multiple smaller, defensively oriented ships (the carrier escorts), modern naval force structure should be based on a concept of "distributed force." This means that offensive and defensive power should be distributed across all ships of the force (not just carriers). It means that the ships should be tactically distributed to improve survivability in an age of guided weapons (conventional and nuclear) and geographically distributed to provide capable forces in many areas consistent with the emerging global scope of geopolitical conflict.

The technological base for "distributed force" is provided by space-based surveillance and by placing cruise missiles and moderate performance, subsonic VSTOL aircraft for cruise missile targeting on many warships. Under a distributed force concept, we specifically should not "spend $10 billion on research, development and production on high performance VSTOL aircraft" as suggested by Adm. Holloway (and as compared with the $36 billion he would spend for three new nuclear carrier battle groups). Adm. Holloway and certain other naval officers appear to be so exclusively focused on aircraft as weapons that they fail to see any other platform- weapon combination that could improve and diversify our Navy's offense. The cruise missile/targeting VSTOL aircraft is a potential combination and can be used to put offensive power on ships much smaller than big aircraft carriers. Big aircraft carriers are essential in providing air superiority aircraft, a high-performance type of aircraft that VSTOL technology does not easily support.

We have big aircraft carriers. We don't have the cruise missile ships, global surveillance and targeting VSTOL aircraft for a balanced "distributed force." We should put our money not on "more of the same" (three additional carrier battle groups at $36 billion), but on the new concept of distributed force (12 existing big carriers and many new capable, offensive cruise missile ships with organic VSTOL surveillance/targeting aircraft). In another 10 years, we can begin replacing the existing 12 carriers--if they still have a role beyond this century. The rapidly increasing Soviet cruise missile threat (much higher speed and much smaller cross section) suggests they will not.