Russell A. Rourke, 71, a Defense Department official who played an important role in the Reagan administration's defense buildup policy of the early 1980s and then spent five months as the Air Force's top civilian, died Jan. 19 at Anne Arundel Medical Center, near his home in Annapolis. He had malignant melanoma.

Mr. Rourke held aide and liaison positions on Capitol Hill and in the White House before joining the Defense Department in 1981 as assistant secretary for legislative affairs. He was principal adviser to Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger on defense legislation being debated in Congress. He worked with Weinberger on such delicate tasks as congressional relations.

Mr. Rourke became secretary of the Air Force in December 1985 and resigned in April 1986 for what he said were personal reasons.

The New York native and longtime Marine Corps reservist was known for a jocular but effective demeanor. Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) once named him an honorary citizen of Texas for restraining an unruly man disrupting a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Tower thought I'd make a great Alamo man," he told the New York Times.

John O. Marsh Jr., Mr. Rourke's boss during President Gerald R. Ford's administration and secretary of the Army during the 1980s, said Mr. Rourke played a major role in persuading members of Congress to support deploying the Pershing II missile to Europe at a time of strong opposition here and abroad.

The missile, which carried a nuclear warhead, was considered a huge step forward in modernized tactical nuclear weapons. Mr. Rourke helped sell it as a deterrent against the Soviets.

"Many people looked on that as a key step, progress in winning the Cold War," Marsh said.

Russell Arthur Rourke was a 1953 political science graduate of the University of Maryland and a 1959 graduate of Georgetown University's law school.

He spent the mid-1950s on active duty in the Marine Corps and retired from the Reserve in 1985 as a colonel. His military decorations included the Legion of Merit.

He also was a recipient of the Defense Department's Distinguished Public Service Medal.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, he was an administrative assistant to Reps. John R. Pillion (R-N.Y.) and Henry P. Smith III (R-N.Y.).

When Smith retired in 1974, Mr. Rourke made an unsuccessful run as a Republican-Conservative for that Niagara Falls district.

He then went to work at the Ford White House as deputy to presidential counselor Marsh. Mr. Rourke helped Marsh oversee the Cabinet-rank office, which helped handle legislative liaison work between the White House and Congress.

He worked on the White House transition team in 1977 and was an administrative assistant to Rep. Harold S. Sawyer (R-Mich.) from 1977 to 1981.

After leaving government service, Mr. Rourke became president of Orion Group Ltd., an Arlington-based aerospace consulting business started by a former Defense colleague. He retired in the early 1990s.

He was co-founder with his wife in the late 1960s of Epp Co. of Annapolis, a real estate development firm. At his death, he held the position of president.

He spent the last decade involved in owning and racing thoroughbred horses in the mid-Atlantic region.

A son, Francis Rourke, died in infancy in 1970.

Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Judith Muller Rourke of Annapolis; three daughters, Patricia Ogden of Williamsburg and Elizabeth Cody and Mary Frances Johnston, both of Seattle; two sisters; and four grandchildren.