The distribution of power within the United States military will soon change in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. President Reagan's endorsement has now been added to the single-mindedness of influential Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, virtually assuring that some sort of sweeping Pentagon reorganization bill will become law this year.
In general, this reorganization effort aims to:
Meld the often-fractious Army, Navy, and Air Force into a more unified defense team through historic changes in lines of military authority.
Make purchase of weapons more efficient, by centralizing procurement responsibility.
The President's blue-ribbon Commission on Defense Management, headed by industrialist David R. Packard, is one of several major reform factions. By again explicitly endorsing the Packard panel's interim report on Wednesday, President Reagan made it clear he is in the camp of those who want big change.
Though the President appointed the commission and said, ``I will act promptly and firmly'' on its recommendations when he received a copy of its interim report in February, his repeated declaration this week of firm support for the panel's proposals was by no means a foregone conclusion. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said when the panel was formed that he didn't think reform was necessary, and top military officials have privately criticized reform proposals.
Another factor making it more likely that the Pentagon is about to be shaken is the tenacity with which reform groups in Congress have proceeded.
The House began passing bits and pieces of defense reform legislation last year. But reformers have made perhaps their most important gains in the Republican-led Senate. Mr. Goldwater, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an undeviating hawk, has apparently decided that military reorganization is to be the crowning achievement of his career, which will end when he retires this year.
In pushing for sweeping reorganization, Goldwater has suffered critics not at all. ``Our committee has had to fight elements of the Pentagon every inch of the way on this bill,'' he said March 6, the day his panel voted 19-0 to approve comprehensive reform legislation.
The proposals of the House, Senate, and Packard Commission vary in their details. And, as an aide to a senator interested in reform points out, ``this is an area where the details matter a lot.''
Still, the broad points pushed by these three loci of political pressure are similar. All would lessen the current corporate nature of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by writing in law that the JCS chairman is the president's principal military adviser. The other chiefs, who are the heads of their respective services, would in essence be elbowed a little further away from the ear of their commander-in-chief.
Reform would also likely strengthen the hands of the ``CINCs'' -- the top US commanders-in-chief of US forces in the field. These generals and admirals nominally direct units from all services, but often find themselves at the mercy of the top brass in Washington.
Under current reform proposals the CINCs would get more operational command, with more control over what sort of forces they get, and how those forces are trained and supplied.
Procurement reform proposals are many and varied. Perhaps the main theme among them is more centralization -- specifically, that the Pentagon should establish an undersecretary of defense for procurement.
Whether such an appointment would make weapons buying more efficient depends crucially on who got the job, say industry sources, and on what sort of authority he or she would be able to win and wield within the vast Pentagon bureaucracy.