As Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. presides over opening new ports around the nation to service refurbished battleships, critics charge that his $1 billion program for "strategic dispersal" of the U.S. fleet is motivated more by "strategic politics" than national defense.

Lehman has scattered warships from Staten Island to the Gulf Coast to Everett, Wash., bypassing traditional Sun Belt and West Coast ports where the fleet has been concentrated for decades. His plan, he says, is to complicate Soviet targeting, place ships closer to potential conflict zones and diversify training environments.

But critics say Lehman is turning the most ambitious naval port expansion since World War II into a costly pork-barrel project to broaden his base of support in Congress for the 600-ship fleet the Reagan administration wants by 1990.

A list of Lehman's home-porting decisions for three refurbished battleships and an aircraft carrier is like a map of congressional power centers, with most political plums going to states or districts of key members of the House and Senate military authorization and appropriations committees who supervise defense spending.

With that strategy, Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) said the Navy "could get enough votes to raise and retrofit the Monitor and Merrimack, provided they promised one would be home-ported north, and one south, of the Mason-Dixon Line." Retired admiral Eugene Carroll said, "It's a blatant attempt to curry political favor. It can't be justified in strategic terms, except for strategic politics."

The General Accounting Office has called Lehman's strategic and operational arguments "questionable" and estimated that building and outfitting new ports would cost more than $1 billion, with annual operating and maintenance costs of as much as $30 million for each new facility.

A GAO survey prepared in July concluded that "existing home ports have the capacity to accommodate the ships that are to be assigned to the new ports."

Lehman devised the "strategic home-porting" concept in 1982 as the Navy geared up for its major shipbuilding program. With plans to add 121 warships by the end of the decade, he said, the Navy needed new ports for military reasons and lacked room for such growth.

"Militarily, it becomes unwise to have such a huge amount of fleet assets tied up in one place that can be mined, et cetera," Lehman told Seapower magazine, a publication of the Navy League, in April.

The concept also fit Lehman's political agenda, Navy officials acknowledge. In aligning congressional support for the shipbuilding program, he had something to offer lawmakers with coastal constituencies: the prospect of new ports in their districts or states, which would bring in jobs and revenue.

One measure of Lehman's leverage was taken in May when Exon, whose state is landlocked, introduced an amendment to kill a $475 million program to refurbish the USS Wisconsin, a World War II battleship.

The amendment was handily defeated after strenuous opposition in floor debate by both senators from each state then being considered by Lehman to berth the Wisconsin's 29-ship battle group -- Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama.

"This debate is really more concerned with politics than naval war-fighting capability," Exon said at the time. "The secretary of the Navy has done an amazing job of keeping a whole bunch of balls up in the air as to where this vessel will be home-ported. That juggling act has enlisted unusual interest and strength to get this battleship afloat."

Last month, Lehman decided to split the USS Wisconsin fleet among Gulf Coast ports in all five states, cutting a wide political swath for the Navy.

The Wisconsin, a cruiser, destroyer, mine sweeper and aircraft carrier went to Corpus Christi, Tex., at the urging of Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.), House Armed Services Committee member whose district includes the city. Both are strong supporters of the Reagan defense buildup, including the 600-ship Navy.

Other cities chosen as ports for the battle group, expected to generate 14,000 military and civilian jobs and $350 million-a-year in revenues, include:

* Pascagoula and Gulfport, Miss., represented by House Republican Whip Trent Lott; Sen. John C. Stennis, a conservative Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican member of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

* Pensacola, Fla., represented by Rep. Earl Hutto, a Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lawton Chiles, a Democratic member of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

* Mobile, Ala., home town of Sen. Jeremiah Denton, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee.

* Violet, La., represented by Sen. Russell B. Long, ranking Democratic member of the Finance Committee, and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, a Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

The Wisconsin is last of three refurbished World War II battleships "dispersed" by Lehman.

In late June, he selected Hunter's Point and Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay area as home ports for the USS Missouri and seven other ships. His decision came after strong lobbying by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), an Armed Services Committee member who left his hospital bed last May to cast a crucial vote for the GOP-backed deficit-reduction plan.

"The day Wilson was wheeled into the Senate chamber in his pajamas, he won the battleship," a Navy official said jokingly.

Staten Island was chosen for the USS Iowa's seven-ship battle group at the persistent urging of the powerful New York State House delegation, including Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo, Democratic chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, and Samuel S. Stratton (D-N.Y.) of the Armed Services Committee.

The 15-ship USS Nimitz carrier group was assigned to Everett, Wash., in a state whose House members include Majority Whip Thomas S. Foley (D) and Norman D. Dicks, a Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

Navy officials speak openly of the "convergence" of political and strategic interests served by Lehman's home-porting decisions. "What better way is there to build a constituency than to spread around ships? It's a buy-in for the Navy," one said.

They also are quick to note that the nine major ports where the U.S. fleet is bunched, including such politically influential areas as Charleston, S.C., and Norfolk, will continue to grow.

Officials insist, however, that home-porting is chiefly a strategic concept. The Gulf Coast force will assure quicker access to Central America, they argue, and the Everett carrier group will project U.S. naval power in the northern Pacific.

Turning Staten Island into a port will strengthen the northeast's military-industrial base, they add, while San Francisco's port will enhance "battle-group integrity" by adding its vessels to carriers in nearby Alameda, Calif.

Critics counter that dispersing the fleet will make it no less vulnerable to Soviet targeting, that proximity of warships to potential crisis zones will not significantly speed reaction time and that none of Lehman's reasons justify the huge cost of building new ports, given the adequacy of existing facilities.

But a Navy captain noted that "wartime is not a normal business proposition. If you want to apply normal business practices to Navy home-porting and let economics drive the decision," he said, "you'd put all the ships in one port in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific. But that wouldn't make any strategic-military sense."