The Reagan administration has not ruled out a return to the draft as a means of acquiring the 200,000 men and women urgently needed by the nation's burgeoning military machine.
Although a newly created military manpower task force has been charged by President Reagan with finding ways to "increase the effectiveness of the active and reserve all-volunteer services," the task force could well recommend a resumption of the draft, says a senior Pentagon official.
Both the President and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger have long voiced their opposition to conscription, but the Army is known to doubt that the number of troops needed by the mid-1980s can be recruited under the current voluntary system, set up in 1973 in the wake of the Vietnam war.
Some indication of the importance that President attaches to the task force, whose role is to ensure adequate military manpower for the nation by 1986, can be gauged from the names of its members. Many are trusted advisers and confidantes of the President, such as Secretary Weinberger (who will chair the panel), and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III. Other members include Gen. David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Richard Allen, Budget; as well as the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
According to the Pentagon, the total strength of the US armed forces is currently 2,062,000. Of the additional 200,000 men it requires, 100,000 would go to the Army; 79,000 to the Navy; and some 20,000 to the Air Force. Such increased manpower would permit the Navy to deploy an additional 150 ships; the Army to field two new combat divisions; and the Air Force to add to its tactical aircraft squadrons.
The Pentagon official who briefed reporters about the new panel last week expressed the hope that Congress would support the 14.4 percent pay increase that President Reagan has proposed to swell the ranks of the all-volunteer force. The increases would become effective Oct. 1. Last year the armed forces received an 11.7 increase in pay.
Backing up the task force, which will meet for the first time this week, is Lawrence J. Korb, assistant defense secretary for manpower, another opponent of the draft. The panel's executive officer is the President's nominee for director of the Selective Service System -- Maj. Gen. Thomas Turnage -- who would operate a conscription program, should one be launched. Observers here point out that should the panel opt for a draft, the President would find it relatively easy to switch his position favoring an all-volunteer military, simply by referring critics to the opinion of his distinguish ing advisers.