HAS THE UNITED STATES Military Academy outlived its usefulness?

Comparing its cost to other sources for Army officers, and recent career trends for West Point graduates against officers commissioned elsewhere, someone needs to ask that question.

The leaders West Point produces are the most expensive ones in all of our military services. Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr. said in an interview last May that it now costs the nation $209 million a year to run West Point. Since West Point has been graduating about 925 Army second lieutenants annually, that works out to a four-year cost of over $225,000 per graduate.

How many parents would pay $225,000 to send a son or daughter through college? Why should the American taxpayer do it to get Army officers they can commission at far less cost from the Reserve Officer Training Corps or Officer Candidate School?

The General Accounting Office figures the numbers differently and thinks it costs West Point only about $175,000 to produce an officer.

Whatever the real number regarding the cost of an education, West Point has become far and away the most expensive way for the taxpayers to acquire Army leadership -- about 10 times more than commissioning a second lieutenant from OCS and about six times more than commissioning one from the ROTC program in America's civilian colleges. (West Pointers also cost 30 percent more than Annapolis graduates, and 13 percent more than Air Force Academy officers.)

West Pointers no longer seem to be worth it. The Army is a hierarchical organization and we have to assume that in some rough fashion, the best officers get promoted, and those with lesser talents do not -- indeed the Army's principal measure of a successful officer is whether he gets promoted. If West Point officers cost so much more than officers coming out of other systems, then they should occupy the highest ranks in far greater percentages than their number in the officer corps. But they do not.

And if ROTC and OCS are producing high proportions of our best leaders at a fraction of the price, we should think about letting them do the job -- and perhaps even shut West Point down.

The United States Army commissions about 6,800 new second lieutenants a year, about 15 percent of them from West Point, 74 percent from ROTC, and 11 percent from OCS. (Doctors, lawyers, and chaplains, who enter the Army at higher ranks than second lieutenant, can obtain direct commissions through special programs, but about the only other way to become an Army officer is by battlefield commission, and in Vietnam there were only a handful.)

These new second lieutenants cost the Army about $325 million a year, and over half of that investment is for the 15 percent from West Point.

West Point used to be virtually the only way to provide the Army's top leadership.

Some 60 years after West Point opened, its graduates commanded on both sides in 55 of the Civil War's 60 major battles, and in the other five battles, a West Pointer commanded one side. At World War I's end, 34 of 38 American corps and division commanders in France were West Pointers.

In contrast, of the 41 senior officers who comprised the nation's top military command structure late this summer, only five were West Pointers (out of the 10 Army generals in those billets); 11 were Annapolis graduates (out of the remaining 31 Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force officers).

Those 41 billets include the five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commanders- in-chief and principal component commanders of the seven unified commands, like the U.S. European Command (and within it, U.S. Army Europe, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and U.S. Air Forces Europe) and the U.S. Central Command; the commanders-in-chief of the four specified commands, like the Strategic Air Command and Military Airlift Command; and the deputy commander-in- chief and chief of staff of each unified or specified command.

While it is hard to compare today's command structure with World War II's, virtually every senior Army leadership position then was held by a West Pointer. Gen. George C. Marshall, a Virginia Military Institute graduate, was the most notable exception. While about 37 percent of the active Army's 412 general officers are West Point graduates, their ranks dwindle each year. Of the 64 officers selected to become brigadier generals last year, for instance, less than a quarter were West Point graduates.

This year, only 12 of the 63 officers selected in July for general officer rank were West Pointers -- less than a fifth. What is startling about that 19 percent is that better than a third of the selection board was made up of West Pointers.

It used to be said that the "West Point Protective Association" promoted a disproportionate number of its charges. Today, one might conclude the WPPA finds far fewer of them deserving of promotion than was the case when they made general.

And last year's brigadier-general promotion list is not an isolated example of West Point's declining contribution to the Army's senior leadership. Consider that in 1965, 100 percent of the Army's four-star generals were West Pointers.

In 1975, 64 percent were USMA grads. This year, West Pointers comprised 53.8 percent of these officers; the rest came from vastly last expensive commissioning programs. Similar 20-year trends hold true for two-star generals (74 percent were West Pointers in 1965, 50 percent in 1975, and 36 percent this year) and one-star rank (roughly 50 percent West Pointers in 1965, 40 percent in 1975, and 32 percent this year). While West Pointers made gains in the three-star billets, rising from some 38 percent in 1975 to 57 percent this year, that is still a far cry from the nearly 93 percent who were West Point three-stars in 1965.

In contrast, graduates from the other academies still provide very high percentages of the officers picked for promotion to general or flag rank. All of the Coast Guard's new commodores last year were Coast Guard Academy graduates, even though that institution (where an education costs about four-fifths as much as West Point's) commissions only 45 percent of the Coast Guard's officers, while this year, four out of its five new flag officers are USCGA graduates; 28 percent of the Air Force's latest brigadier generals are Air Force Academy graduates, although they make up only 13 percent of Air Force officer strength.

The Naval Academy commissions officers into the Marine Corps and Navy: 27 percent of the Marines recently selected for brigadier general are Annapolis graduates, although the Naval Academy provides only 8.7 percent of all Marine officers; and 21 percent of the Navy captains selected last year for commodore are Naval Academy graduates, who account for 15.7 percent of Navy officer strength.

While the Naval Academy may seem to be producing marginally fewer admirals than West Point produces generals, it is doing so at three-fourths the cost and provides over twice as many of the nation's most senior military leaders.

While West Point graduates now account for marginally more generals than they represent in total officer strength -- 13 percent of all Army officers, 19 percent of its new generals -- graduates of the other service academies are achieving general or flag rank up to twice as often as West Pointers and up to three times more often than their contemporaries commissioned from ROTC or OCS.

This suggests that West Point produces not exemplary or outstanding officers, but only above-average ones.

Many have argued that "making general" is not a valid criterion for success. Col. John P. Yeagly, West Point's public affairs officer, says, "There is nothing in West Point's mission statement that says West Point has a requirement to produce generals." I asked him for a better criterion, and he replied, "In my opinion, becoming a general is not a good index for success. My criterion is serving as a competent, professional officer and adhering to the values of duty, honor, country throughout service in the armed forces."

Yeagly's point is well taken: by the criterion I've used -- who makes general -- 99 percent of all officers might be judged "failures," one officer told me. So let's use Yeagly's criterion and ask -- if making general isn't a valid basis for judgment, why does the Army ask those competent, professional West Point colonels to leave the service 10 or more years before they retire their generals? The reason is that the Army's measure of an outstanding colonel is whether he gets promoted to general.

Times have changed. So has West Point. So, perhaps, has the need for it.

West Point has earned a hallowedplace in America's heart. Its graduates truly helped build this nation, and during those formative decades when the United States did not have a large standing Army, West Point's "Long Grey Line" provided the small, professional cadre of officers around which America used to mobilize. Today we have a large standing Army. Tomorrow's war, the Army tells us, will be the "come-as- you-are" war. Increasing percentages of the Army's top leaders are from America's rank and file, not West Point's.

Some West Point critics suggest that part of the problem stems from the fact that the number of academy graduates who stay in uniform for full careers declined precipitously in the last half-century -- from somewhere around 90 percent during the 1930s to 70 percent during the late 1940s, to 50 percent during the early 1960s.

But West Point retention rates have since improved to about 68 percent and may now be approaching 80 percent. Thus, it may be that today's West Point will produce, around the year 2000, the high proportion of senior leaders that it used to many decades ago.

But by the very fact of their leaving the Army, academy graduates in recent decades have demonstrated a lack of the dedication required for top leadership, a dedication West Point either had failed to instill or the Army failed to fulfill.

Others argue that the curriculum focus has led to West Point's decline. In the mid- 1950s, West Point said that its aim was to prepare each cadet for "a lifetime of military service to his country." Today, West Point says its mission is to prepare each cadet for "a career of exemplary service to the nation as an officer of the Regular Army." Those careers have become increasingly shorter and more expensive.

In adapting to change, West Point's curriculum now resembles that of other American colleges, from whose Reserve Officer Training Corps the Army gets three- fourths of its new officers. ROTC now provides 43 percent of Army generals on active duty and 68 percent of the officers most recently selected for brigadier general. It costs about $27,400 to commission an ROTC officer.

At the very time that ROTC military and academic standards have been tightened, West Point's have been relaxed.

It used to be an unspoken credo at West Point that "hardship builds character," but freshmen at some civilian colleges undergo as much character-building as today's West Point plebes. Plebes no longer sit at stiff attention in silence for meals. Just 30 years ago, they longed for plebe year to end so they could enjoy Christmas at home and two weekends of leave during their second year at West Point. Now plebes get two weeks of Christmas leave and four weekends of leave their first year.

A comparison of the curriculums shows that 30 years ago, West Point required intensive study and practical training in Military Psychology and Leadership, which was then a separate department. Today, there is no such course or department.

Under the new Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, cadets are required to take three credit hours of "General Psychology" and three in "Military Leadership." That's less than four percent of the 152 total credit hours now required to graduate. Cadets can now elect such leadership and psychology courses as "Marriage and Family," "Motivation and Performance in Organizations," or "Leadership Theory and Development."

Thirty years ago, West Point had a Department of Military Art and Engineering.

Today, under West Point's "dual track" elective system, a cadet can major either in "Humanities and Public Affairs" or in "Math, Science and Engineering." Today's military art courses are taught by the Department of English (a three-hour elective in "The Arts of War" and another in "Ethics of the Military Profession") and the Department of History. There, only six credit hours are required in "History of the Military Art" out of 152 total credit hours now required for a cadet to graduate.

There is an advanced elective called "Advanced History of the Military Art" and other three-hour electives such as: "Topics in Military History," "History of Military Technology," and "Muskets to Machine Guns: The modernization of war from Napoleon to World War I." The latter course hardly seems what the modern Army officer needs to know in today's era of high technology. Where is the course on the modernization of war from the machine gun to atomic weapons?

The Army calls 1985 its "Year of Leadership." The Army needs to rethink where that leadership really comes from today, and at what cost. According to West Point's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Willard W. Scott Jr., the U.S. Military Academy is "an institution that has as its fundamental objective the sole purpose of producing Army leadership." If that's the case, why isn't it?

Why should we pay over $40,000 a year for each of 4,417 cadets to study courses they could just as easily, almost as comfortably, and far more cheaply take in ROTC at Harvard or the University of Kentucky or Bowdoin College or Texas A&M?

The U.S. Army says it's not looking into these questions from the Pentagon level, and West Point says it's not either. Perhaps the Secretary of Defense or Congress should. America pays almost a billion dollars a year to produce new officers, and it may not be getting its money's worth from West Point.

Perhaps the whole issue begs a larger question the Pentagon and Congress should study: instead of abolishing West Point, why not do as the British have done with Sandhurst? There, instead of schooling some officers for their college years, Sandhurst schools all British Army officers to the same standards of leadership and military art for a concentrated period.

Instead of picking 4,000 people to attend West Point out of 27,000 wanting to become Army officers, why not require them to get their own college education (with appropriate scholarship help from the government) and train them all in military art, ethics and leadership for nine months at West Point before they are commissioned?

West Point's values of "duty, honor, country" are cherished by the Army. Let's instill them better in all officers.