Washington — As Ronald Reagan considers his strategy for restoring US defenses, woefully understrength and unready in his view, he is considering two key appointments: secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The three names getting the widest circulation here for defense-related posts are Sen. Henry Jackson (D) of Washington, Gen. Alexander Haig, and Reagan adviser William Van Cleave.
Although the defense community here would seem to favor the appointment of Senator Jackson as the next defense secretary, observers point out that he turned down the job when offered it in 1968 by President Richard Nixon.
But one source adds that there is a "real possibility" that Senator Jackson will accept the defense post, viewing it as "a not uninteresting last assignment before gradual retirement or going on a company board somewhere."
It is thought unlikely here that the former NATO commander in chief will succeed Harold Brown.
"I think people should understand," a well-informed source says, "that the National Security Act of 1947 prohibits any military man from being secretary of defense until he has been out of uniform for 10 years, unless he gets a special dispensation from Congress. This has been done once since we have had a secretary of defense. That was the exception made for George Catlett Marshall."
The source adds that when Congress granted the dispensation for the former Army chief of staff to become defense secretary in 1950, it made it very clear that it had not set a precedent.
"I think it is unlikely that we would go through that drill again," he observes.
However, the source notes that General Haig, a former chief of staff to Richard Nixon, is a contender for the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"My guess is that an early priority for the Reagan administration is to replace Gen. [David D.] Jones, who has been anathema to the conservatives," he says, adding that Haig could be recalled to active duty "just like John Kennedy recalled Maxwell Taylor and made him the chairman."
But General Haig's recent medical operation raises doubts as to his availability for either job, observers note.
Another contender for the Cabinet post is Reagan's senior defense adviser, William Van Cleave, director of the strategic studies program at the University of Southern California. Dr. Van Cleave, a former Marine Corps sergeant, has drawn up a defense budget for the Reagan administration that is believed to include funding for a new manned bomber, an accelerated deployment scheme for the MX missile, production of the neutron bomb, and a larger Navy.
But one observer doubts that he would be considered "a good enough politician" to take on the job. "Remember Jim Schlesinger was very well educated on defense matters but failed as a secretary because he couldn't get along with anybody on the Hill."
This source feels that Dr. Van Cleave will be "at least an undersecretary, possibly undersecretary for policy."
Defense analysts contend that Reagan has a considerable task ahead of him in dealing with the country's military issues. Declares Francis Hoeber, president of Hoebercorp, an Arlington, Va., consulting firm: "The first priority is the strategic forces."
He maintains that additional Minuteman III missiles should be deployed; MX missile production should be accelerated; and B-1 bomber production should be resumed.
But John Collins, senior specialist in national defense at the Library of Congress, feels that Reagan should attend immediately to the problem of US military readiness while also standing back and determining its foreign policy objectives and the forces needed to back them up.