Washington — There is a fault line in the Reagan military strategy that was bound to produce a crisis once growth of the defense budget was slowed or, as is now the case, virtually stopped. In short, not only the Reagan strategy, but the strategy of all administrations back to the Nixon years, has rested on the assumption that the part-time citizen soldiers of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve could substitute for active Army units in the first days and weeks of a major emergency.
That assumption made it possible to launch a massive modernization of the strategic nuclear forces, the rebuilding of the Navy to 600 ships centered on 15 aircraft-carrier battle groups, and the launching of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), while keeping active Army strength at about 780,000 with no diminution of the Army's worldwide commitments.
So much money was available for everyone, including the Guard and Reserve, during the first five Reagan years that no one in the military felt discomfited or threatened enough to challenge this key assumption, despite the fact that successive Army War College studies have shown that it has no basis in demonstrated performance.
Almost exactly coincident with the emergence of SDI as a central budgetary as well as arms control issue, long-dormant questions about Guard and Reserve readiness began to be raised in public, a reflection of active Army concern over continuing congressional efforts to transfer active Army missions and resources to the less costly Guard and Reserve.
In what he intended to be an internal memorandum only, Maj. Gen. Robert E. Wagner, chief of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, warned that the Army is deceiving itself in thinking that it can rely on National Guard and Reserve ``roundout'' units to be ready for almost instant deployment in the event of a major war. General Wagner has an impressive combat arms background, notably as the former commander of an armored cavalry regiment deployed along the East German border, one of the Army's most demanding assignments.
Copies of Wagner's memorandum were sent to reporters, apparently by someone who saw the implications: Either build up the active Army or devise a national strategy that greatly lessens the requirement for US land forces, at least in the early months of a major conflict. Either alternative would greatly lessen dependence on the Guard and Reserve, and thereby greatly lessen their claim on the defense budget.
If the intent of the unauthorized release of the memorandum was to protect the Guard and Reserve budget by getting Wagner into trouble, it may have backfired. He received support from what had seemed an unlikely source, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs James H. Webb Jr.
``I called him and congratulated him on his honesty,'' Mr. Webb says.
A graduate of the Naval Academy, a decorated Marine platoon leader and company commander in Vietnam, and author of the best-selling novel, ``Fields of Fire,'' Webb is the first occupant of a post created largely on the initiative of the several influential Guard and Reserve lobbies.
``They thought they had a Trojan horse up here,'' Webb says, ``but that is not what they have got.''
Webb says his studies show that Army National Guard officers, in particular, tend to be over-age for the sort of duties they would face in combat. This reflects a system of officer management, in both of the Army's reserve components, that puts a premium on longevity in any given assignment.
Dependence on part-time leadership at all levels and the Army's lack of a reliable unit performance testing system, in Webb's view, compound the readiness problem.
Webb believes that part of the solution lies in the more centralized system of officer management in use in the Marine Corps Reserve, in the full-time command structure pioneered in the 4th (Reserve) Marine Division, and in a standardized unit performance test adopted by the Marines in recent years.
If the deficiencies cited by Wagner and by Webb's own studies are valid, does this not bring into question the ability of the US to support the present European strategy? Webb answered yes.
Webb stated that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is increasingly aware of these problems and is determined to do something about them.
Efforts by defense secretaries, most recently in the mid-1960s, to make substantial changes in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve have foundered in Congress.
With Congress itself forced to show how to meet defense needs with less money, however, the way may be opened to a successful challenge of the deeply entrenched citizen reserve establishments.
That could be the beginning of a much more fundamental debate, particularly concerning the role the US has played since the 1950s in the defense of Western Europe.
William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs. He has served as an intelligence officer in the Strategic Air Command, and from 1967 to 1984 as a strategic research analyst and faculty member at the Army War College.