Washington — It seems to be open season on the Carter administration's much-vaunted rapid deployment force (RDF), the expeditionary corps charged with repairing speedily to the Persian Gulf to smash any Soviet invasion of the oil-soaked region.
After former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger derided the RDF last week, claiming it was barely a force, let alone a rapid one, another former secretary of defense leveled a barrage of criticism at it.
"It would," Melvin Laird declared, "take a month to move a mechanized division into any area in the Middle East at the present time." He asserted the United States lacks the airlift capacity to move "significant forces" into the gulf region.
Mr. Laird, now a senior counselor to Reader's Digest, voices his dismay with the administration's defense policies. In appearances on behalf of the Republican National Committee, he claimed at a Washington news conference that the RDF, "which is made up of existing units with merely a paper organization," suffers from inadequate firepower and has "only 500 tanks."
He alleges that key component of its ground forces could not be rated "C1" -- for maximum combat readiness. In fact, he claimed that the crack 82nd Airborne Division is classified "C2" and the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) and 24th Infantry (Mechanized) divisions "C4." Maintaining that in 1976 and 1977 all home-based divisions were rated C1, he declared that "at the present time, we have not a single C1 division in the United States."
Laird, a former naval officer who served as secretary of defense from 1969 to 1972, also claimed that less than 60 percent of the tactical aircraft in the four RDF Air Force wings were combat ready. Moreover, he maintained that less than 60 percent of the warships and Navy tactical aircraft assigned the force were ready for battle.
Calling Mr. Schlesinger's recent attack on the RDF in the Washington Post "a fair and adequate appraisal of the situation," Laird observed that "none of our armed forces meets the goal of having 70 percent of its forces combat ready, largely due to critical personnel and spare parts shortages." He added that "lack of sustainability is very evident" as far as the RDF is concerned and that "supplies, ammunition, and spare parts would run short in less than two weeks."
In order to solve the problems associated with the RDF, says the former defense secretary, the US must be willing to commit up to 6 percent of its gross national product to defense -- and particularly to military preparedness and manpower costs.
Defense Department spokesman Thomas Ross points out that "when this administration took office, there was no rapid deployment force whatsoever. We have created one. We are spending lots of money on it."
But considerably more effort and expenditure would appear to be necessary if the RDF is to perform the task allotted it. Defense Secretary Harold Brown has said it may take $5 billion a year for five years to enlarge it, provide it with transportation, and to improve the bases it would deploy to in the region.