Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci described his new defense budget plan yesterday as the beginning of an attempt to build a national consensus on defense rather than a quick fix that pushes the big problems of financing the military onto the next president. He also lamented the "simplistic" treatment of "very complex" defense issues in the presidential campaign.

"If I were just doing a transitional budget," Carlucci said in an interview with a group of reporters, "I would not have done what I did. The easiest thing to do would have been to do what was done in the '70s -- cut back on readiness and sustainability and stretch out production lines.

"This certainly would have been more palatable on the Hill" rather than his decision to cut the size of the active-duty Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, he said. "Despite all the rhetoric on the Hill in support of readiness" of U.S. forces to fight, "look at the account in 1988 that was savaged the most. It was O and M," he said, referring to the operation and maintenance fund for overhauling ships and repairing aircraft.

The nation is better off with a "smaller effective force than a larger ineffective force," Carlucci said, while noting that a cut in the number of troops "drives home the reality of what happens when the defense consensus is shattered. What we and the Congress have to do together is somehow find a way to get that defense consensus back.

"Unfortunately," he said, "the quality of the debate on national security issues in the political campaign leaves a good deal to be desired" by offering "simplistic solutions to very complex problems.

"The next president is going to have to immerse himself in some detail," the defense secretary said. "But this is not a problem a president alone can solve. It takes the cooperation of the Congress. And for that you need to have the American people more acquainted with what the facts are. We're making an intensive effort to do that."

Carlucci added, "What I want to do is leave my successor and the next president with the best possible ramp for defense spending in the {budget's} out years even though that means taking a considerable amount of political flak this year."

Carlucci has told Congress that bringing the Defense Department budget down from the projected 3 percent annual real (inflation-adjusted) growth in the 1990s to 2 percent real growth will require a new five-year plan for the military, some $200 billion under the current blueprint. He has told Congress he will restructure the five-year plan under "a very intense program review" this summer.

If Congress appropriates less than the requested 2 percent annual increases for the department, Carlucci said, he would absorb the cuts by additional manpower cuts. His current budget calls for taking 36,000 men and women off the payrolls of the military services.

The defense secretary did not cite specific examples of what he termed the "simplistic" debate on military budget issues in the political campaign. He did say that there is no evidence to substantiate the claim of Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson that the Soviets have medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba.