RICHARD GODWIN has resigned as Pentagon weapons czar, saying he wasn't given the backing he needed to bring sweet reason to the acquisition process, the job for which he was hired a year ago. The depressing likelihood is that too much will be made out of the resignation on all sides. Those who continue to think the answers to the Pentagon's procurement problems lie in its table of organization will say, with reason, that his throat was cut by the very networks his job was created to supplant. The opposing school will say, perhaps also rightly, that the main fault lay not with the system but with him -- that the former Bechtel Group executive, too used to having his own way, lacked the finesse this job required.

The real problem lay in relying on a reorganization plan to achieve a substantive result. We never learn. The vast and complex weapons acquisition process will never be efficient; we put too many conflicting demands on it. Its shifting foundation is the Threat, which continually chang/es with perceptions. Huge theological disputes develop about which threats are the most serious, what weapons should be built to meet them, how many different roles should be grafted onto each weapon.

These half metaphysical, half earthy inter- and intra-service debates are complicated by the lack of any fully realistic way to test most of the doctrines and weapons. Most of them are built precisely so that they will never have to be used. The system is riddled with both conflicts of interest and adversarial relationships; careers and profits both depend on it. Atop all these are what might be called managerial questions. In developing a weapon -- always in part a reach into the unknown -- do you try to move as fast as you can, or as cautiously? Where do you come out in the daily trade-offs between sophistication and simplicity? Would you rather run a few production lines at optimum rates or a lot of lines at once but inefficiently?

The alluring idea of reorganization is that if only you could centralize this welter of decisions, you could achieve greater order. But that is an illusion. First, there is no agreement on what greater order consists of; if there were, the disorder would likely not exist. Some critics define reform as stripping weapons of gold plate, but others see it as hauling the auditors out of the defense plants and stripping the process of red tape.

Second, and more important, these decisions are in a sense already centralized -- in the defense secretary. They are policy decisions, perhaps the most important the secretary is called upon to make. He cannot delegate them. The secretary has no shortage of subordinates now -- the deputy secretary, the service secretaries. He can tell them what to do, just as readily as he can tell an undersecretary for acquisition to tell them what to do. Reorganization is always among the answers when a problem arises in government. But reorganization cannot paper over substantive differences; nor is it a substitute for will.