AS SO OFTEN happens in Washington, side issues have dominated the debate over President Carter's proposal to resume Selective Service registration. Opponents of the proposal have focused on whether women should be registered (a remote possibility, since this would require legislation which the House and its Armed Services Committee are unlikely to approve), and on whether the draft is needed to defend the Persian Gulf (a hypothetical question, since the president has not proposed any return to the draft, or even classification of those required to register.)

The basic and only issue, then, is whether to reinstitute peacetime registration of males.

In his Outlook article of Feb. 3, Martin Anderson was partly correct in suggesting that our best option was to bring the reserve components up to full strength from the standpoint of manpower and equipment. But he was incorrect in suggesting that "making lists . . . is sending Moscow the wrong message."

Those inducted through registration and the draft would be young and inexperienced, Anderson argued, implying they would be unable to engage in combat successfully. But he neglected to mention that these inductees would receive the same basic training that has been given reservists and that the vast majority of reservists are also "inexperienced" in combat.

Anderson also appears to base his argument on the premise that our nation would become involved in a military confrontation of only short duration, such as a few months. Under such conditions, I would agree that America's military role could be handled by strengthened active duty and reserve forces.

However, America's national defense strategy must be based on the premise that a military confrontation would be measured in years, not months. Under this premise we would have to resort to a draft as a backup to the reserve forces that are a backup to the active duty forces. In my opinion, not having registration to facilitate a nationwide mobilization would be sending Moscow the wrong signal of "America will fight for only a few months, after which the battle will be yours to default."

But Anderson was absolutely correct in suggesting a buildup in the strength levels of the Individual Ready Reserve. The IRR, because of its importance in combat, is the weakest link in our national defense chain. oWithout a full-strength IRR, we are incapable of bringing our active duty and reserve units up to full combat strength, nor are we capable of providing the replacements that would be needed for battlefield casualties during the first few weeks of combat.

For this reason, I would take President Carter's proposal for peacetime registration one step further by establishing a limited draft of up to 200,000 men each year for service in the Individual Ready Reserve. Selection would be on a lottery basis and there would be no student deferments allowed.

Inductees into the IRR would have a total obligation of six years. The first four to six months would be spent in basic training to learn a military occupational specialty. For the remainder of the time, the inductees could return to their local communities in a civilian capacity, but would be subject to call in case of an emergency and would have to attend two weeks of training each year.

Another important aspect of registration that has been overlooked is the impact it would have on a Selective Service System that now is only a skeleton operation in Washington and six regional offices around the country. In an emergency situation, it would take months to gear up for registration, classification and induction; by then it could be too late for our nation to take decisive action. By reinstituting registration, we would cause a revitalization of the Selective Service System itself, including local boards, appeals boards and state headquarters.

Revitalizing our nation's ability for rapid mobilization of manpower also defines what policy we will follow in case of a military conflict. We do not have a vast array of theater nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear weapons to protect our vital interests. But no one wants to comtemplate the use of such weapons because of the holocaust it would bring throughout the world. Thus any military response we might be forced to make must be based on conventional warefare, which itself is based on having an adequate number of men in uniform to fire the rifles, drive the tanks and fly the airplanes and the ability for rapid mobilization of additional needed manpower. a

The question of peacetime registration and a revitalized Selective Service System, and even a limited draft for the Individual Ready Reserve, involves the much larger question of America's ability to deal from a position of strength in world affairs.

The perception other nations have of our ability or lack of ability to respond to military aggression on their part will in large measure influence their decision to take aggressive action. By maintaining necessary strength levels in our armed forces and reserve components and ensuring our ability for rapid mobilization through the Selective Service System, we can signal an Amemrican strength and resolve that hopefully will never have to be tested on the field of battle.

Are we willing to put our words of defending peace and freedom here and abroad into action in a time of emergency? I think the vast majority of Americans are and will agree that a return to peacetime registration is needed and is a proper message to the Soviet Union.