The debate on defense spending has failed to address the real issue. This is not money, but the inability to relate defense and arms control policy to new technologies:

* As nuclear stockpiles have grown and nuclear war has become equivalent to mutual annihilation, the West has refused to face up to the psychological impossibility of continuing to rely on general nuclear war as a plausible strategy.

* Such alternatives to all-out war as discriminatory targeting, conventional forces or strategic defense have remained fitful and inadequate because of domestic controversies or the refusal to pay for them.

* Arms control proposals have too often been inconsistent with the necessary adaptations to the new technology.

* The present Pentagon organization and budget procedures do not permit a systematic resolution of these issues.

The Reagan administration has tried to solve these problems by large increases in defense spending. But the additional resources do not of themselves solve doctrinal issues, especially when they perpetuate the priorities that are at the heart of America's defense problem.

On the other hand, surgery on the defense budget would add another element of confusion to an already confused situation. It would lead to a bitter debate about the merit of individual weapons rather than the nature of U.S. strategy.

I believe the wisest course this year would be to keep the defense budget substantially intact. At the same time, the administration must use the time to deal with the basic issues of defense policy and organization.

The strategy developed during the decades of nuclear monopoly and overwhelming strategic superiority is no longer feasible. In the early euphoric days it was possible for the West to threaten massive destruction as a counterweight to the Soviet manpower advantage. But once the Soviets developed large nuclear forces of their own -- as they did after the Cuban missile crisis -- the West's strategic premises were not revised.

Some tinkering did take place. A theory was developed that established a level of industrial and civilian damage theoretically unacceptable to the Soviet Union. As the casualties of what came to be known as Mutual Assured Destruction amounted to mass extermination, an esoteric psychological wrinkle was added: it was not necessary, so the argument went, for the threat of mutual annihilation to be totally credible; the Soviets would not risk testing American credibility so long as the American threat was sufficiently apocalyptic.

But the vision of apocalypse was especially debilitating for open societies. Throughout history, war could be justified as an instrument of national policy because the costs of defeat were plausibly worse than the costs of resistance. In the age of reciprocal extermination, nuclear war itself appears to an increasing number of democratic publics as the ultimate horror.

American presidents since Nixon and Ford have sought to devise alternatives to indiscriminate civilian destruction. But new weapons designed for discriminating targeting have had to run the gauntlet of arms control specialists and peace groups who think making nuclear war less destructive would make nuclear war more likely. No serious person can face nuclear war except with the deepest foreboding. But to refuse in a world of tens of thousands of warheads even to consider less apocalyptic alternatives is a sophisticated form of nihilism.

The better alternative of strengthening conventional forces has received lip service and, within the NATO command, considerable attention. But all democratic countries have recoiled before the financial burden of a serious conventional defense. The number of American divisions has remained at 16 for two decades. Most of America's allies cling to "immaculate deterrence" -- a heavy dependence on nuclear retaliation, even while many of them are willing to invoke the American nuclear guarantee only so long as the consequences are confined to its territory and its population.

At the same time, arms control policy concerning conventional weapons is at loggerheads with military necessities. The official NATO position in the talks dealing with conventional forces would create a lower ceiling for them. Those negotiations are now hung up on what troops to count, not on the principle of a freeze that would perpetuate the imbalance which has been the essence of the West's strategic problems for two decades and which is made even more dangerous by the Soviet geographic proximity.

President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative is the most recent attempt to overcome the military dead- end. I support the concept, but I fear that the plethora of explanations offered on its behalf may turn it into a slogan in search of a mission.

The principal U.S. arms control negotiator, Max Kampelman, has advocated the defense of missile sites in the United States. This would do little to enhance the credibility of the nuclear deterrent, since it would leave the U.S. populations exposed. The criteria arms control adviser Paul Nitze has laid down for building a strategic defense system seem unlikely to be met. President Reagan, nearly alone, speaks of the need to defend the American population as a means to escape nuclear devastation. But even if research proves this to be feasible, it will be a decade and a half before any such weapon can be built -- and probably longer, since the administration has committed itself to negotiate before actual deployment.

The United States is in danger of justifying a strategic defense for the late 1990s by so emphasizing the horrors of nuclear war today that it will wind up with a strategy based on weapons it dares not use, stigmatized by an arms control policy that professes to seek to banish them without at the same time developing any sustainable alternative for the immediate future.

In this climate, a debate about budgetary levels is peripheral to the central strategic problem: the relation of means to ends and of weapons decisions to arms control policies. And surgery could be dangerous because it would shift the debate to the wrong issues while perpetuating all current dilemmas. The merit of individual weapons is not the issue; a reexamination of U.S. overall strategy is.

Unfortunately, the current organization of the Defense Department is a principal obstacle to this effort. The National Security Act of 1947 established a Joint Chiefs of Staff representing the heads of the military services. The chairman is first among equals; the chiefs operate on the basis of consensus -- a practice that tends to produce a large staff, masses of memoranda and the least common denominator.

Edward Luttwak in a seminal new book -- "The Pentagon and the Art of War" -- has demonstrated the paralyzing impact of this state of affairs on operational planning and procurement.

The consequences for overall strategy are even more worrisome. Strategic planning occurs, if at all, in the joint commands, where the relevant services are brought together for specific missions. But the heads of the joint commands neither serve on the Joint Chiefs nor control their constituent elements in peacetime.

By contrast, the inevitable and natural concern of the service chiefs -- with their competitive and often mutually exclusive mandates -- is the future of their services, which depends on their share of the total budget. Their incentive is more to enhance the weapons they have under their exclusive control than to plan overall defense policy.

Interservice rivalry thus institutionalized is magnified by the extraordinary swings of congressional mood with respect to the defense budget.

The sharp increase of the 1960s was followed by a relentless assault on defense expenditures in the 1970s. The buildup of the Reagan administration had strong support in the beginning; it now confronts growing opposition.

Faced with such a pendulum effect, the service chiefs seek to protect their own by turning strategy into procurement. In periods of budgetary plenty, they spread the increase over as many weapons categories as possible. In periods of budgetary stringency, they tend to cut not the infamous $10,000 wrench but something visible and painful to evoke the greatest degree of public backlash. This leads me to the following conclusions:

* The defense budget submitted for this year should be approved with at most cosmetic reductions. It is not suited for political compromises related to the deficit.

* Before the next budget is submitted, top priority must be given to the development of a coherent defense strategy that takes into account the revolution in technology and provides real and immediate alternatives to the concept of assured destruction. Personally I doubt that there is a cut-rate route to this objective.

* Arms control policy should be treated not as a negotiating tool after weapons are already designed but as an integral part of the budgetary cycle.

* The military organization of the Department of Defense should be revised. The powers of the chairman should be strengthened, his staff augmented and missions should be related to actual tasks.

Such an approach should remove national defense and arms control from partisan politics. The requirements of American security do not change every four or eight years.