THE PENTAGON, almost without realizing it, has launched a program in the Pacific that could work wonders throughout the developing world.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are quietly deploying elite 13-man units trained to operate in remote areas. The units are mobile, self-contained, versatile ...

Like the Special Forces, they are linked to the military's worldwide network of communication and supply.

But instead of M16s and grenade launchers, these units are equipped with arc welding tools, socket wrenches, concrete mixers and other light construction gear.

They are called CATs -- Civic Action Teams.

The leader of each team is an engineer. All team members are expert equipment operators and carpenters, in addition to their separate construction skills.

Working in Micronesia, CATs have built rural roads, water catchment basins, dispensaries, schools, bridges, wells -- just about everything in the way of physical infrastructure that a developing rural community needs.

Their military fatigues bother no one. Their work is nonmilitary and they accomplish it with an earthy enthusiasm that Micronesians find more appealing than the sophisticated earnestness of many civilian aid workers.

They are by far the most successful single American aid program in a region receiving more than $100 million a year in U.S. aid.

In fact, the CATs' continuing presence has been written into the independence compacts for the various Micronesian entities -- at the insistence of the Micronesians.

Think of it: A mobile rural construction and training unit designed for missions in developing countries -- packing more skills than any unit of its kind in the world -- proven effective, enormously popular.

Why, then, do we find the CATs consigned to a few scattered Pacific islands, at a time of renewed commitment to the Special Forces concept, and to bilateral aid?

Of course, an expanded role for CATs would involve an element of risk from terrorists. But where do our forces not run such risks nowadays? Even Paris and Heidelberg aren't safe. Risks might be reduced by limiting CAT activities to nations where we already have a foreign aid presence among a basically friendly population.

CATs once had a far more expansive role, only to lose it in a twist of irony.

The program was launched in 1961 under the impetus of a group of Navy civil engineers -- Seabees -- who thought their skills might help combat rural poverty in the Third World.

Seabee Teams, as they were called then, served with distinction in rural areas throughout Latin America and Africa. Then, in 1964, the program was ended. The Seabees were ordered to send teams only to Vietnam and Thailand. A program designed to fight the causes of war had become another weapon in a brushfire war that was fanning out of control.

And so, the Seabee Teams joined the ranks of dozens of "pacification" programs that faded from awareness when we left Indochina -- their prewar achievements and extraordinary potential forgotten.

Except by a group of stubborn-minded Navy civil engineers stationed in the Pacific territories. There the Seabee Teams were reborn as CATs. Army and Air Force units in Guam and Hawaii learned of the CATs' success and asked to join the program.

At present, four CATs are working in Micronesia -- two Navy, one Army, one Air Force.

The next step should be to restore the CATs to their former role elsewhere in the developing world.

CATs have proven their effectiveness on Pacific islands.

Why not Caribbean islands?

Not long ago, the Cubans took a crack at training Jamaicans at rural construction, employing special units called Brigadistas. The program was a failure.

Now they are building an airfield on Grenada. But they aren't doing well with that one either, we hear. That's not surprising. The Cubans are not the world's best builders.

We are.

CATs would be a triumph in the Caribbean.

Or consider Zimbabwe. Earlier this year, the United States joined 35 other nations in pledging $2 billion toward a three-year Zimbabwe reconstruction and resettlement program. A great deal is riding on that effort, which the Soviet Union is boycotting. Central to the program's success is the construction of a network of all-weather roads that will open tribal areas to commerce on a cash crop basis, thereby generating funds for improving the standard of living among an impoverished and restive rural majority. CATs could make a decisive contribution there, and elsewhere in Africa.

Ironically, rural construction constitutes the weakest element of the entire U.S. foreign aid effort, which is weighted toward human services such as health care and education.

Those services are needed. But also needed, more and more, are all-weather roads, wells, bridges, crop storage facilities, vehicle maintenance -- the nuts and bolts of economic development. Yet, although we rank second to none at the required skills, we ignore the opportunity.

One reason, I suspect, is that rural development aid is best carried out by military construction units on the CAT model -- tough, mobile, disciplined. But U.S. civilian and military agencies tend to compartmentalize their roles, so that, in this case, the military won't do it and civilians can't do it the way it needs to be done.

If the Pacific experience is any test, greater use of CATs would be a boon to military morale. CAT members are volunteers. And there is no shortage of them, although a CAT tour means eight months in the field.

It's not hard to see why. Blue collar skills are taken for granted in America. But rural communities in the Third World appreciate the brilliant advance in skill and efficiency a CAT represents. CAT members are treated with admiration and respect.

Moreover, a tour with a CAT offers training in field communications, logistics, small-unit operations, adaptability in rough terrain. As a Seabee officer put it:

"The main request we receive is for rural roads. And roads in rough terrain are what you train engineer units to build in wartime. So we are training ourselves even while we are training the local people."

At a time when we are seeking to correct the conditions that trigger brushfire wars, the CATs are too good an idea to pass up -- again.