Robins Air Force Base, Ga. — Wearing a gas mask and green fatigues, Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Robert Walker suddenly drops his tools and sprints away from the side of the disabled fighter plane.
Once the "enemy attack" is over on this nippy afternoon here, he and the others on the bomb damage repair team emerge from their "bomb shelter" culvert and resume work on the airplane.
At a time when President Reagan has made military preparedness a major issue in Washington, Sergeant Walker and his cohorts at Air Force Reserve headquarters symbolize a bright spot on the US military horizon.
The Air Force REserve (AFRES), a small force by military standards (less than 60,000-strong), is one of the nation's most combat-ready forces today, according to both independent analysts and the AFRES itself.
These analysts also give the AFRES high marks on effectiveness. In contrast to most other reserve forces, much of the AFRES training consists of actual missions for the Air Force.
The independent analysts who have favorably assessed the AFRES include a General Accounting Office audit team leader, a military expert at Brookings Institution, and congressional staff sources.
"We're no longer a weekened-warrior, kick-the-tires outfit," says an AFRES spokesman, Maj. T. J. Skypeck.
In contrast to the pleas for money that Congress has been hearing from the military recently, the AFRES is in a "comfortable" position, says Maj. Gen. Edward Dillon, vice-commander of AFRES.
At a recent briefing for reporters here, however, he did put in a strong plug for additional aircraft and spare parts. And he said the AFRES is seeking F-16 and A-10 aricraft.
But, General Dillon said of the AFRES, "We don't have drastic need of 'X' million dollars."
On three fronts -- readiness, effectiveness, and cost -- the AFRES appears to be in comparatively good shape.
* Readiness: "We're ready to go to war in 72 hours," General Dillon said. That, Air Force Maj. Gen. James McAdoo told the Monitor, means having 50,000 AFRES personnel on their way to battle assignments within three days -- a "great improvement" over the past.
If fully mobilized, said General Dillon, some 470 planes and 3,000 pilots would be ready to go.
Seventy-two hours ready time is "very good," agrees Albert Shanefelter, a military audit team leader with the General Accounting Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency. He ranks the AFRES and the Air National Guard (which has a dual state-federal role) "head and shoulders" above other reserve forces.
A GAO audit of the AFRES in April 1979 found 83 percent of the units either "fully" or "substantially" combat ready, an improvement from 64 percent a year earlier when some new equipment was still being introduced.
* Effectiveness: Mr. Shanefelter says he found the AFRES "as good as the regular Air Force and maybe a little better."
Eighty-three percent of the personnel have prior military experience. The pilots get twice as much flying time as active duty pilots, says General Dillon.
The AFRES and the Air National Guard have more modern equipment and do more active missions than the Army National Guard, says a Pentagon spokesman.
'It's true that the AFRES and Air National Guard are relatively more ready than their Army counterparts, but you get what you pay for," says Martin Binkin, a military analyst at Brookings Institution.
* Cost: With such costly equipment and high use of civilians, maintaining an AFRES unit is several times more costly than for an Army Reserve unit, Mr. Binkin said.
The AFRES receives about 2.5 percent of the military budget, says General dillon. But keeping in readiness personnel who were already trained at great expense in the active military is a bargain for the nation, he adds.