IN THE INTERESTS of truth-in-packaging, we will tell you right now that we don't yet have a yes or no response on the issue of registration for a reinstituted draft. Just a couple of months ago, Congress, with the support of the administration, heartily and handily rejected a bill that would have authorized registration of draft-age males. Now there is a sudden enthusiasm for registrtation around, thanks to the world's most famous ayatollah and Leonid Brezhnev, et al., and any number of recent opponents have signed up. But neither the altered conditions around the Persian Gulf and in South Asia nor the arguments that have been put forward have sufficiently made the pro-registration, pro-draft case. That is what now needs to be done -- if it can be.

The problem to date has been largely one of mismatches -- answers that don't go with the questions they're put next to. For example, going back to pre-hostage, pre-afghanistan days -- and no less now -- it is indisputable that the Volunteer Army is a mess. We say that it is indisputable even though this perception is regularly disputed by administratin and Pentagon leaders, most recently by the president himself, whose Friday statement on the draft included an unreassuring assurance that the volunteer force "is performing its mission well." It isn't performing its mission well. It can't. Recruitment has fallen off disastrously in terms of both quality and quantity of personnel, and so has reenlistment, and there have been massive losses of NCOs who had acquired essential skills that cannot be quickly replaced. Moreover, the all-important reserve forces are dangerously undersized.

That, the currently degraded condition of the volunteer force, is the question -- to which registration for a reimposed draft is manifestly not the answer. You can argue that, over the long haul, given population trends (a coming competition for young people on the job market) only a conscription system will ultimately do. And you can argue also that the expense of the volunteer force now -- and later with heightened competition from the market -- means that eventually the country will have to turn to the draft. But in terms of right now and of the middle-range future, the draft just does not cure or even much bear on the ailments of the volunteer force. Maybe money -- lots of it -- does. The point is that registration cannot be persuasively supported on grounds that it addresses our immediate military shortfalls and needs.

In fairness, President Carter does not argue that it does. He rests the case for registration on a necessity to increase American "preparedness" and make clear our "resolve" to the Russians ("Our objective is plain: to deter Soviet aggression"). But again, much more explanation is necessary as to just how this move can lead to 1) a better state of military preparedness and 2) a well-grounded apprehension on the part of the Soviets that we are ready and able and willing to make aggression a bad bet for thm. Just how would registration and, in time, a reimposed draft do either of these things?Might the registration not in fact divert attention and funds from the truly urgent and essential job of trying to improve our exisiting (volunteer) military force? And if this reconsideration of the draft is to be argued for, even in part, on symbolism grounds -- i.e., demonstrating our resolve to the Russians -- could it not equally be argued on symbolic grounds that the inevitable political fight over the draft and the hell-no-we-won't-go turmoil will send precisely the wrong signal?

Demonstrating the rightness of registration, and possibly of the draft itself, to our current military situation is only part of it. The prospect of a reinstituted draft raises other questions for the longer term. There is, for example, military suitability: can a peacetime conscription provide an effective professional peacetime army? How? And then there is the question of fairness: even if you do away with the class-advantage deferments, how many young people will be drafted? One in 50? One in 100? Lottery or no, is that fair? We cite the concept of fairness here not as an academic argument or a debating point, but rather as an ingredient that the society will demand of any conscription system it approves.

That brings us to women. You can make a strong social-equity, fair-is-fair argument for the registration and drafting of women. You can't make such a compelling one on either military or economic grounds, and the uncomfortable fact is that both the military and economic considerations also go, ultimately, to questions of fairness. How much increased cost, to be borne by the taxpayer, is acceptable for this universal system? How much decreased efficiency -- any? The distinction between combat and support, which is being so widely invoked in this connection with a view to showing that women could fill most military functions, is highly oversimplified and overstated. Service doesn't break down as neatly as that. And, like the universal service proposal that is sometimes introduced to get around the built-in inequities of a draft, the inclusion of women involves a profound cultural transformation in our society that people have just been sliding by in argument.

The questions and the answers, the dangers and the solutions have to be made to match. The argument has to start at the beginning with the kind of military we think we need to protect American values and interests. From there, it must move to the best way to achieve such a force -- in terms of its efficiency, its costs and its public support. That is the case Congress needs to work out. What -- precisely -- is the question to which registration for the draft is the answer?