Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III has recommended that the F-14 Tomcat fighter plane be put back into production, a proposal sure to provoke controversy in the Pentagon and Congress where defense leaders have been debating what planes the Navy should buy for the post-Cold War era.

"I believe the time is right to reinstitute new manufacture of {the} F-14D and let that aircraft be our fighter into the next century," Garrett recently wrote Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney in an internal memorandum obtained by The Washington Post. "New manufacture, as proposed, will avoid quantity shortfalls, high costs and the need, for now, to pursue an all-new fighter."

The thrust of Garrett's argument is that the Navy would be better off relying on a plane already flying rather than untested, more modern aircraft which could prove too costly to buy in quantity within the tighter contraints of reduced Pentagon budgets. Cost overruns on the new Navy A-12 bomber, currently in development, have made the money crunch even more severe, Navy executives said.

The F-14 was developed in the 1960s. Its primary role was to protect the U.S. fleet from Soviet aircraft. The F-14 carries long-range Phoenix air-to-air missiles as well as shorter-range missiles and guns for close-in dogfights.

Congress discontinued production of the F-14 last year in favor of the more modern F/A-18, a combination fighter and bomber now in service, and a Navy version of the Air Force Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) still on the drawing boards.

Given the ATF's rising costs and other problems, Navy leaders doubt this aircraft can fulfill the near-term needs of the fleet. Another option would be to modify the F/A-18, extending its range to that of the F-14's and allowing it to stay on patrol longer without refueling. But advocates of the F-14 warn that the costs of modifying the F/A-18 could be excessive and the resulting performance less than desired.

Under the defense authorization bill passed last year, Grumman Corp., which makes the twin-jet F-14, would stop producing new models of the plane and settle for renovating existing ones by installing new engines, avionics and cockpits. Congress authorized $1.2 billion in fiscal 1990 to produce a final batch of 18 F-14s, after which the production line is to be dismantled, except for tooling to refurbish the fighters.

Grumman executives and the company's allies in Congress have warned that the firm might not survive as a primary airplane manufacturer if it does not get orders for new aircraft. The company, headquartered on Long Island, recently reduced its work force by 1,900 as an economy move but still employs 25,500 people. It lost out in competition to build the A-12, successor to the Grumman A-6, and has no substantial new military aircraft business in sight.

Garrett in his memo not only recommended building 132 new F-14s from fiscal 1992 (the budget now being completed) through fiscal 1997, but also called for scrapping plans to buy long-range versions of the F/A-18 in fiscal 1995, 1996 and 1997. Although Garrett declined to elaborate on his memo, other Navy officials said there are not enough F-14s worth renovating to fill the fleet's needs.

Aides to Cheney said he was "skeptical" of the Garrett proposal to continue production of F-14s but agreed the battle over the plane almost certainly will be refought in Congress next year. Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) from Grumman's home area of Long Island has vowed that F-14 production would be stopped only "over my dead body."

The F-14 controversy is part of a larger policy debate over what kind of Navy the United States should build for the next century. The Pentagon comptroller's office has recommended reducing the number of deployable aircraft carriers from 14 to 12 between now and 1995, meaning fewer aircraft would be needed to fill the decks.

Congress this year issued new orders to the Navy and other military services, declaring that the Soviet Union was no longer a major threat and therefore the military should restructure itself for handling lesser potential conflicts in distant troublespots.

F/A-18 advocates contend that the highly agile combination fighter and bomber is ideally suited for this role and can be upgraded in the future.