Washington — Bulging Pentagon budgets and an increasingly confrontational world have prompted many experts in recent months to question the way Uncle Sam conducts his military affairs.
The key questions they pose: Are Defense Department civilian overseers, the armed services, Congress, and the intelligence agencies building and operating a system that is as rational, efficient, and - above all - as promoting of peace as it should be?
Critics and analysts range from the bipartisan military reform caucus on Capitol Hill, to those senior officers calling for a restructuring of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), to retired military-men-turned-scholars.
Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas announced on Tuesday plans for a broad inquiry into all institutions responsible for formulating and carrying out military policy. The powerful Armed Services Committee chairman wants to know how decisions are made, and how they could be made better. In the House, Rep. Tom Tauke (R) of Iowa is leading a group of Republicans and Democrats who have proposed a special commission on national defense planning.
''Our military decisionmaking system should produce an integrated plan for the purchase of weapons and the deployment of forces,'' Representative Tauke says. ''However, all too often the current structure for decisionmaking permits an intramural scramble for resources among the four services and fails to stimulate broad, strategic thinking on how best to defend the nation and which weapons are best suited for that purpose.''
Just a few yards down the hall from a harrowing display of art by Vietnam veterans, Senator Tower told reporters that hearings beginning in about a month would include testimony from former defense secretaries, top military men, and outside experts.
This flurry of activity is a reaction to what many analysts have been urging in response to things they find troubling: the failure of such United States military efforts as the hostage rescue mission in Iran, increased Soviet and Soviet-supported aggressiveness in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and a US rearmament that some find too rapid and poorly planned.
Carter administration Defense Secretary Harold Brown recently pondered these subjects in a new book, ''Thinking About National Security: Defense and Foreign Policy in a Dangerous World.'' The recently retired Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. David C. Jones, has been a prolific writer and speaker on JCS reform. So has the Army chief of staff, Gen. Edward C. Meyer, who retires this week.
In another recent study, former Army paratroop Col. John M. Collins (now a senior analyst with the Congressional Research Service) described the ''divided loyalties and jurisdictional disputes . . . disagreement on fundamental goals . . . absence of basic research . . . ponderous procedures . . . prejudiced opinions . . . and participants with vested interests and de facto veto powers'' which he said have marked US defense planning since the end of World War II.
Many more hawkish critics (like retired Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, who commanded the US Marines in Vietnam and has recently written a study on national security organization) fault the growing power of inexperienced civilians in the Pentagon and their overattention to detail. Colonel Collins points out that the typical US defense secretary spends less than three years in office.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri would replace the JCS with a uniformed principal military adviser to the president and a National Military Council of senior officers who (unlike the Joint Chiefs) would not also head their branches of the service.
''We will never get a handle on the defense budget and improve our defense capabilities until we drastically restructure the top level of our military,'' says Representative Skelton.
Strong resistance to such notions comes from many in the defense establishment, civilian as well as military. But the congressional groundswell - especially the push for a formal critique by an acknowledged hawk like Senator Tower - will not be easily ignored.
Tower says he will be scrutinizing the defense secretary's office, the JCS, the unified commands (Atlantic, Pacific, European, and Korean), budgeting, procurement, and weapons testing. His committee will also be examining the relationship between the Pentagon and other agencies (State Department, National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Emergency Management Agency).
Representative Tauke says that because the Congress is so directly involved in defense planning, an independent commission should do the probing. But Senator Tower says, ''I certainly don't exonerate the Congress in this at all.''
''Congress has been part of the problem,'' says Tower, an elisted man in the US Naval Reserve. ''I think it's a certainty that we will uncover our own transgressions.''