Our nation's security depends, above all else, on the skill and professionalism of career men and women in uniform --not first on a panoply of missiles seeking a basing mode, on an armada of new ships tilting from cost overruns or on intricate weapons systems for the ground forces.

The Soviet threat demands a carefully planned modernization of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Even with the large projected deficits for the next five years, defense spending must sustain an increase of at least 5 percent in real terms.

But what counts most and where defense dollars must be spent first is on measures that will guarantee that our all- volunteer forces are made up of top-caliber men and women who sign up for military service and make it a career.

To achieve that crucial objective, it is essential that we provide pay equity for our people in uniform. The American public understands this realistic fact, and that is why I believe Congress will take command and refuse to wipe out in 1983 a much-needed pay increase for career military people.

The 1984 budget before Congress would deny all men and women serving in the Armed Forces a pay adjustment during the next 20 months. This step, saving several billion dollars in Pentagon spending in fiscal year 1984, is designed to mollify critics of growing U.S. defense expenditures, while leaving the vast weapons-buying parts of the defense budget untouched.

The pay freeze looks bad from almost every angle. For one thing, few people are aware that the Pentagon is already shortchanging some troops by withholding promotion pay.

Several weeks ago, I spoke to a highly trained middle- grade Navy enlisted man who was promoted a few months back for outstanding job performance. Under existing policies, he has to wait a year to get the pay that goes with the new grade. How, he wondered--and so do I--could the Navy afford to double its spending for new ships this year when it could not find enough money to pay people what they have earned through promotions.

For career people who are torn between duty to country and family, the pay freeze looks like an invitation to leave. I am concerned that as many as 20,000 well-trained men and women will not reenlist or extend. Any time unemployment reaches 8 percent or above, first-term recruits will be no problem, as is the case today. It is the second- and third-termers, the people with critical skills, who present the problem.

The Pentagon knows this. So to ease the freeze, it has promised to restore next year the promised pay boost it wants to cancel for Oct. 1, 1983. This is a weak and ill-conceived hedge against the Pentagon's fear that a rapidly expanding civilian economy could trigger a mass exodus of disenchanted careerists who work in critical military occupations that are already undermanned.

Piggybacking this year's cancelled pay hike onto the 1984 raise also means that no long-term economies in defense spending will result. It is not the 1984 defense budget that presents a formidable fiscal problem; it is the 1986, 1987 and 1988 budgets. To achieve essential "out year" economies, the Pentagon must either freeze pay for the next three or four years--which would empty the ranks of talented people and cripple our defense efforts-- or begin to pare spending on those new hardware programs that would add little to the nation's future security.

Consensus is growing on Capitol Hill that without moderation in long-term growth of the defense budget, there will be little chance of eventually narrowing the federal deficit. Economists and bankers warn that uncontrolled deficits financed by government borrowing could send interest rates shooting upward again, choking off private borrowing and corporate investment. The recovery would halt, and in this case, I doubt the public would continue to support increases in defense spending.

There is a wiser course that would not jeopardize national security or economic recovery. It involves taking a hard-nosed look at all categories of defense spending to find sensible economies in both hardware programs and people programs.

One example of this sensible approach is outlined in legislation sponsored by Sen. John Tower. He proposes that the scheduled cost-of-living increase for career military people take effect only six months later than scheduled. Increases for recruits would be frozen until 1984. This approach, which is geared to meet essential defense needs, would save seeral billion dolars and send a strong message to the sergeants and petty officers that the nation values their services.

But a prudent policy on military pay is not a substitute for taking action on other parts of defense spending such as weapons procurement. It must be perceived by Main Street and Wall Street that serious efforts are under way on the expenditure side of the federal budget toward controlling federal deficits in 1984 and beyond.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff understandably have expressed their displeasure with the pay freeze. People are the nation's highest defense priority, not hardware. Our future military security hinges on keeping these priorities straight