SOME of Adm. James D. Watkins's most memorable days occurred underwater in the 1960s and involve things he is not allowed to talk about. As a young submarine captain, he played strategic nuclear tag with his Soviet counterparts, shadowing them on patrol. He admits only to fondly recalling ``sensitive operations in close proximity to our Soviet friends.'' Then he smiles, with the faraway, sea-remembering smile of all desk admirals.
Today Admiral Watkins's operations are still sensitive, but they revolve around budgets. He is chief of naval operations, the Navy's ranking officer. And by all accounts he is unusual.
For one thing, he is the first nuclear submariner to rise to his service's top job. And he has spoken often of morality and military service, an unusual topic for a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
With his June 30 retirement drawing closer, Watkins seems fascinated, not by a vision of new aircraft carriers stretching to the horizon, but by the Navy's place in United States society.
Today's young Navy leader ``is a role model that could be given to the nation, providing we put our minds to it,'' he says.
Carrier air strikes against Libya have refurbished the Navy's reputation for military efficiency. A new movie about carrier pilots, ``Top Gun,'' apparently makes the life look so glamorous that officials are already calculating its effect on recruiting. Still, the role model Watkins feels the Navy can provide is not all one of the warrior.
In recent years the US Naval Academy has become a college sports power, with its basketball and football stars ranking among the best in the nation. The Navy chief feels such recruit-athletes could be the Jack Armstrongs of the 1980s, showing underprivileged youth that there are great tailbacks who don't use drugs and who pass math tests on their own.
``In this country the percentage of youth that are not qualified mentally or physically for military service is growing,'' Watkins says. ``That's a scandal, and it need not be.''
Having been inspired by such efforts as Washington's own Banneker High School, an elite school for inner-city youth, Watkins says he wants more Navy bases to provide instructors for remedial school courses and allow local youth to use usually extensive base sports facilities, among other outreach programs.
In the time he can grab between the day-to-day business of running the Navy, Watkins has been organizing support for this Commitment to Excellence project among other military leaders and Reagan Cabinet members.
The Navy's interest in this affair is one of self-preservation, he says. With the passing of the baby-boom generation, the number of teen-agers who are potential Navy recruits is dropping sharply each year. Outreach programs would be good advertising and help the nation as a whole by increasing the education and fitness level of US youth. ``I'm trying to make the all-volunteer force survive,'' Watkins says.
The idea of the military taking an active role in US society would have been hooted down a decade ago. In a country dedicated to civil control of generals and admirals, such outreach could still, in practice, cause problems.
Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who specializes in the military, says the programs that Watkins suggests might be good ones. But ``they would have to be done delicately, for constitutional and pragmatic reasons,'' he adds.
Some analysts and old salts go further and say that Navy leaders should spend more time thinking about saving the fleet from the jaws of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law and less time musing about the public-relations potential of Navy football star Napoleon McCallum.
One civilian contractor who does business with the Navy says that when Watkins talks about education to in-house crowds, it causes grumbling in the audience. ``After all, he's paid to improve the combat readiness of ships,'' the contractor says.
So why is the top US admiral, in today's turbulent times, paying so much attention to youth education? One clue can perhaps be found in the days he spent as a junior submarine officer and later as skipper of the attack sub USS Snook.
All the senior submarine personnel in today's Navy have passed through the fire of Adm. Hyman Rickover's personality. Admiral Rickover, autocrat of the US sub corps until his retirement in 1981, personally interviewed all nuclear officer candidates, grilling them on their education without mercy. His take-no-prisoners style shattered more than one person. Those who survived entered a world where development of personal capabilities was stressed to an unusual degree. The young Watkins did more than survive. He ended up on Rickover's staff, helping choose candidates from the pile of sub-school applications. ``It was a turning point in my life,'' he says.
The Rickover experience was all the more crucial for the fact that Watkins had not been exactly sea struck when he first entered the Navy in 1945. A diffident student at Annapolis, he stayed in the service only at the urging of family friend Earl Jorgenson, a wealthy California businessman who is also a longtime associate of one Ronald Reagan. Mr. Jorgenson said there would always be a job for Watkins in his company -- with seniority dating from the year that promise was made. ``That gave me such motivational drive, that insurance ticket in my back pocket,'' Watkins says.
Appointed chief of naval operations (CNO) in 1982, this native Californian has presided over the Navy during the flush times of the Reagan military buildup. Of all the services, the Navy is the only one to have grown much larger as a result of the trillion dollars spent on defense in recent years, as it works toward a goal of a 600-warship force.
Within the Navy the office of CNO is resonant with its own mythology. The ceremonies are thus something to see. After the ``line-of-death'' strikes against Libya this winter, Watkins made a quick trip to the venerable USS Saratoga, one of the aircraft carriers involved in the operation. It was, he says, one of his most memorable days in the Navy. Blinking, he walked onto the flight deck, the crew arrayed before him in dress blues. ``It was an emotional experience for me.'' he says. ``It was incredible.''