Almost unnoticed in the FY '83 defense budget authorization just passed by the Senate is a decision with major strategic overtones. The Senate, apparently with the assent of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, deferred $803 million to produce the new AH64 helicopter, while fully authorizing the construction of two big nuclear-powered carriers at $3.4 billion apiece. Here is a splendid example of how our strategy often gets predetermined by our weapons decisions, instead of the other way around. These contrasting actions amount to a Senate vote in favor of a maritime supremacy strategy at the expense of helping hold on to West- ern Europe and the Persian Gulf. These are the two schools of strategy now vying for constrained U.S. resources.

The Army and Marines increasingly see in the attack helicopter a much needed "force multiplier" in coping with Soviet armor. It is generally agreed that the new AH64 is a fine aircraft, which along with its "fire and forget" Hellfire anti-armor missile, has more than met all specifications. The only trouble is its major cost escalation to $15 million per copy. Such cost escalation is deplorable, as it is on most other Pentagon weapons systems. But the real issue is whether the AH64 is such a cost-effective means of killing enemy tanks that the high cost involved is justified in relation to other expensive systems.

Ever since the Howze Board report in the early 1960s, the Army has looked to the anti-tank missile-carrying helicopter to help NATO defense. The AH64 with Hellfire is a big improvement on the present Cobra for this purpose. But it would be even more useful in defense of Persian Gulf oil against a hostile armored thrust. Only the AH64, not the Cobra, can operate efficiently in the heat and often high altitudes of that vitally important region.

Of course, we could send tanks to kill tanks, but a key problem facing our Rapid Deployment Force planners is the difficulty of deploying heavy tanks rapidly enough to the remote Persian Gulf area. But the Army points out that the AH64 is self-deployable, which could make an enormous difference. In other words, the Army's new attack helicopter is ideally suited for the main RDF mission. It can stop Soviet armor before it reaches the main oilfields. Can carriers do that? Can carriers defend Europe against a Soviet armored blitzkrieg, too?

What we buy now will determine our future strategic options. Even if the big carrier can do all the Navy says it can, do we need all 15 of them more than we need enough ground/tactical air capability to help deter attack on such vital interests as a Western Europe whose GNP now exceeds our own, or on Persian Gulf oi, which fuels the industrialized economies of our allies? Even at $15 million per copy, the total proposed Army purchase of 468 AH64s and 36,000 Hellfire missiles is only $7.2 billion in FY '82 dollars--less than half the $16.8 billion cost of one nuclear carrier battle group.

This is the kind of critical tradeoff Congress ought to scrutinize painstakingly, when the Pentagon cannot have all the fancy hardware that it wants. No doubt the big carrier advocates will counter that only a year's deferral of the AH64 is involved. But why defer it and not one carrier? Surely cost escalation as a result of delay will affect both. Besides, the AH64 is a weapon of tomorrow, the carrier increasingly a weapon of the past. Hence, the strategic implications of the Senate vote deserve to be highlighted, lest we back into a maritime strategy by default, without fully realizing the strategic consequences of which weapons systems we choose.