You've heard a clunker automobile referred to as a "bucket of bolts." Unhappily, the expression has particular application in the military forces.

Some contractors have been supplying the military with inferior bolts to repair tanks, TOW missile carriers, personnel carriers, and many other weapons. West German authorities complain that American tanks are losing so many bolts along the roadways that it creates a hazard to motorists.Although the Pentagon discovered two years ago that 30 percent of its stocks of bolts were potentially substandard, military officials told a congressional subcommittee the other day that troops in the field were only recently informed of the problem.

Moreover, the Pentagon brass told the committee that it has had only limited success in barring contractors who have sold the government faulty hardware from getting new orders. In one instance cited, the Small Business Administration overrode a Pentagon recommendation to debar a contractor.

Meanwhile, as the committee chairman, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, pointed out, defective bolts continue to threaten combat readiness and the safety of military personnel. What a strange way to run an army.