Lawrence J. Korb was assistant secretary of defense, one of the highest-ranking civilians at the Pentagon, when he overheard his military subordinates griping about their pay. He offered to trade paychecks with either of them, a lieutenant colonel or a colonel.

"My check was the lowest in terms of net pay -- they had no medical, no life insurance {deductions}, no state income tax," said Korb, who left the government in 1985. "Most military people have no idea of the real value of their compensation."

The General Accounting Office has calculated that military compensation is now 27 percent higher, on the average, than that of civil servants.

The GAO found that, counting retirement and medical benefits, a 25-year-old man with a high school diploma made $29,639 in the service, compared to $25,953 in the bureaucracy. A 35-year-old man with a college education made $65,671 in the military, $46,382 in the civil service. The military advantage for women was even larger.

The movement of military pay past civilian pay in this generation, for the first time in American history, has raised new questions for federal policy-makers. The stakes are high: The annual payroll for each system is $74 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Are military personnel paid too much, or the bureaucrats too little? Are the jobs comparable, and if so, at what levels? Is the nation buying a higher quality military force than it needs? Is the quality of the civilian work force deteriorating? In a time of belt-tightening, should soldiers be a budget target like their civilian counterparts?

Thousands of military and civilian jobs are similar, federal officials say. But "comparisons between military pay and civilian pay don't mean very much unless you look at specific jobs," said Martin Binkin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"What do you compare an infantryman's job to on the civilian side? What about the guy who flies Navy jets off a carrier -- who do you compare him to?" he asked.

"Some people believe we're paying too much because we're overestimating how qualified {military recruits} need to be. The services naturally seek as many highly qualified people as they can get. Is military pay about right? It's hard to decide because there are no comparable jobs and nobody can define the kind of quality necessary," Binkin said. "But we're getting relatively more qualified people today than in the past."

While the military keeps records on the results of standardized tests taken by recruits, no comparable system exists on the civilian side. As a result, it is impossible to tell whether the pay gap is hurting the quality of newcomers in the civil service.

Politics, unarguably, has been a factor in military-civilian pay differences. As Alan K. (Scotty) Campbell, former head of the Office of Personnel Management, noted, the argument for civilian pay is "not nearly as strong on the Hill" as the case made for military pay. He thinks that the gap between military and civilian pay has grown over the past decade and he called the GAO study "healthy."

"It illustrates that pay makes a difference" for the military, he said. "The same thing is true on the civilian side -- pay is out of whack and inadequate pay, eventually and perhaps already, hurts in attracting people."

Richard A. Stubbing, a professor at Duke University and author of "The Defense Game," believes the military is overpaid. He blames this on the Pentagon's insistence on across-the-board increases in response to spot shortages in certain occupational specialties.

Military salaries compare favorably with those in business, Stubbing said. "The average young fellow in the military is drawing more than in every industry except durable goods, where the average age is likely to be 40 or 45 years old."

Pentagon officials failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on the report from the GAO, Congress' investigative agency.

For most of the nation's history, military recruits were paid like church mice. The military went from 1922 to 1941 without a raise, and even took a pay cut during the Depression.

In 1966, Rep. L. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) pushed through an amendment tying military pay to civilian pay, which at that time was higher and politically more popular. When the bureaucrats got a raise, the guy in the trenches was supposed to get the same increase.

Inside the administration, the OMB worked out a schedule like this: A private first class would get as much as a GS5 -- an entry-level civil service job. A master sergeant would get as much as a GS9 -- a journeyman professional or administrative job. A major general would make as much as a GS18 -- the pinnacle of the civilian schedule. Salaries would be set appropriately at intervening levels.

But when President Richard M. Nixon proposed the all-volunteer military, linkage gave way to competition -- the armed forces suddenly had to offer high enough salaries to attract volunteers. Almost overnight, entry-level military pay went up dramatically, in some categories by 100 percent.

Special allowances also increased to keep up with housing and other costs. Today a vast array of special kinds of pay exists: from a $10,000 "additional retention" bonus for a doctor to a $1,320 premium for toxic fuel-handlers.

From 1974, when typical members of the military were compensated at a rate just a hair above most civilians, until recently, the gap grew steadily. In 1982, President Reagan hiked military pay by 14.3 percent for officers and by from 10 to 17 percent for enlisted personnel. Civilian pay rose only 4.8 percent.

Counting only disposable income, an OMB official calculated that a major general outearned a GS18 by 23 percent in 1974 and by 36 percent today. A colonel made 6 percent more than a GS15 in 1974, compared to 27 percent more today.

A master sergeant made 0.4 percent less than a GS9 in 1974, but makes 44 percent more today. A private first class made 12 percent less than a GS5 in 1974 and today makes 30 percent more.

The GAO in its survey -- which was disclosed by the Project on Military Procurement, a defense watchdog group -- counted the value of only two military benefits: retirement and medical care. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association estimated the value of military health care at $3,410 per family, a figure that some administration officials said may be too high.

The GAO was careful to point out that its survey cannot take into account the "X factor" -- the soldier's disadvantages of constant transfers, irregular hours, lack of overtime and the difficulty a spouse has in establishing a career.

Another administration official pointed out that some military jobs still "treat people pretty poorly," and military jobs are more hazardous than most if not all other categories of work.