The Navy paid $16,571 for a three-cubic-foot refrigerator designed to hold crew lunches and drinks during long flights on P3 Orion submarine-hunter planes, Navy officials said yesterday.

The officials said they last paid that amount in 1982 and have since sought competitive bids on the refrigerator contract, reducing the unit price to $6,580. They said commercial airlines sometimes pay as much for somewhat larger refrigerators and noted that the Navy spotted the original high price.

But last spring, the Navy bought eight additional refrigerators, each measuring less than two cubic feet, for $12,000 apiece. They were purchased directly from the manufacturer with no competition, a Navy spokesman said.

The Navy said the refrigerators were designed to meet "rigid vibration standards" and "to operate safely at high altitudes in unpressurized situations." Officials said they are reviewing design requirements to see whether the refrigerators could be built more simply and cheaply.

"Generally, the military thinking is to design things to even more stringent requirements," said Rich Stadler, a spokesman for Lockheed Corp., which makes the P3. "You're not just thinking about keeping people's dinner cold between London and New York. You're thinking about what happens if we have a war and this sucker gets shot down someplace -- are these things still going to be working?"

Navy officials discussed the refrigerators after inquiries by Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who recently criticized the Air Force for buying $7,400 coffee brewers.

"Yes, it seems that the price was too high," said a Navy spokesman, who asked not to be named. "But we caught it ourselves. We're fixing it through the competitive-buying system."

The P3 is designed to seek and track submarines by dropping sonar buoys and using other sensitive listening equipment. P3 crews, flying from bases in Maine, Florida and elsewhere, generally spend 10 to 12 consecutive hours on patrol.

The refrigerators are manufactured by Western Gear Corp. of Jamestown, N.D., a subsidiary of Bucyrus Erie Corp. of Milwaukee. Mike Decker, treasurer of the parent company, said yesterday that the unit's high price reflects small quantities purchased and stringent military requirements.

"Whether or not they need to be as sophisticated as they are according to specifications, I couldn't say," Decker said. "I'm not an engineer. But we supplied them according to specification."

The specifications include weight limitations; resistance to vibration, and sudden drops or loss of cabin pressure; "shielding" to block interference with electromagnetic waves of the plane's listening devices, and ability to cool quickly.

After seeking competitive bids, the Navy bought 35 refrigerators from MGR Equipment Corp. of Inwood, N.Y., last July for $6,580 each for the P3C model of the Orion.

The eight machines purchased for $12,000 each last spring were built for older Orions, the P3A and P3B, and the Navy said it did not seek competition for those because it lacked "sufficient technical data to solicit sources other than the original manufacturer."

Even refrigerators for civilian airliners can cost more than $10,000, according to Lockheed's Stadler.

"These refrigerators are very special," he said. "You don't punch them out like you do an Amana. You're not making hundreds of thousands or even thousands. At most, you're making hundreds."