IT seems doubtful that even John Tower could envy newly confirmed Defense Secretary Richard Cheney's task of reconciling the nearly mindless defense buildup of the past eight years with the growing United States fiscal crisis. ``Reserve,'' said Mr. Tower, is the ``magic word.'' That is, Tower favored substitution of part-time citizen soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines for the usually more expensive active-service units. It is a safe bet that Mr. Cheney will also be attracted to the National Guard and Reserve as a substitute for much more difficult avenues of approach, such as cancellation of major weapons systems or withdrawal of US forces from Europe.
The idea of using the Guard and Reserve as a ``magic'' solution to all sorts of problems was born 16 years ago when the Nixon administration was forced to abandon the draft. Having made the decision to shift much of the defense burden to Guard and Reserve forces, then-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird ordered a study to find out how that could be made to work. The study, completed in 1972, concluded that it can't be made to work, at least not so long as US land combat forces are committed to the front lines in Europe.
That is, never in history has the citizen soldiery been able to reach the level of proficiency demanded by the present US NATO strategy except through long periods of training after mobilization - about 90 days for battalions, six months to a year for brigades and divisions. Furthermore, the Army has no objective readiness-reporting system capable of identifying which units, active or Reserve, are ready for combat and which are not.
Despite that, successive administrations, often egged on by Congress, have made the active forces more and more dependent upon the Guard and Reserve. Warnings, most recently by Army Maj. Gen. Robert Wagner, that the degree of risk is intolerable both for the country and the soldiers have been ignored or suppressed.
In short, the more we have come to depend on the Guard and Reserve in the first 90 days of NATO defense, the more dependent we have become on nuclear response - even though we have now lost, with the demise of the Pershing 2 intermediate-range missile under current disarmament agreements, the best European nuclear deterrent we had. On the other hand, a shift in emphasis in US deterrent strategy from Europe to the Pacific - being strongly advocated by elements of the US Pacific Command and highly placed individual officers in the Pentagon - would provide the needed time for post-mobilization Guard and Reserve training. The initial burdens would be borne mainly by the Navy and Marine Corps.
So if Cheney is to save money by depending even more on the civilian military components, he must first address much more fundamental questions of national strategy, themselves fraught with interservice rivalries.
Beyond the strategic issues there is a need to ask why the taxpayer should go on paying for three separate administrative and logistics systems for soldiers and airmen who wear the same uniform, ride around in the same trucks, tanks, and airplanes, and are paid from the same US Treasury. In that same 1972 Army study of the Guard and Reserve forces, Cheney will find a map of Texas showing how active Army, National Guard, and Reserve trucks and other equipment - all of them identical US Army types - are being hauled back and forth across the state literally past the doors of closer maintenance facilities of different Army components.
We are also training, at great expense, thousands of Reserve and National Guard officers each year, most of whom will be denied full military careers because the Army and Air National Guard and Reserve and their individual units are run as tight little geographic fiefdoms.
The waste of national resources, human and monetary, endemic to this system has been obvious to defense planners for decades. A solution proposed by the Johnson administration in 1964-66 came within a whisker of success, failing only because of the bitter animosities then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had created for himself in the Congress.
Cheney comes to his new job with the congressional experience and the congressional goodwill needed to steer a program of reform and consolidation to success. That will not be a ``magic'' solution to his larger problems, but it would be an important step toward making sense out of a crazy-quilt system of national defense that serves the bureaucratic interests of its individual parts far better than it serves the national interest.
Controversial? You bet. The slightest whiff of change sets in motion the well-organized, hometown political organizations of the competing Reserve and state National Guard systems. But the dangers and the waste inherent in continuing to shove these issues under the rug demand that the controversies be accepted.