Duringthe next five or six years, the United States Army will be telling many thousands of fully trained officers and noncommissioned officers with solid performance records that they will have to look for another line of work. Similar pink-slip exercises will be underway in the other services.

These dedicated volunteers and their families will suffer abrupt financial difficulties, relocation dilemmas and cloudy employment prospects. Many will feel strongly that Uncle Sam is reneging on promises made to them when they enlisted or accepted commissions.

The reality is that the United States is moving toward a smaller military establishment. One challenge this poses for Congress and the executive branch is to provide fair treatment for members of the armed forces who, completing an initial term of service, signed on for one or more additional tours and made a career choice.

Starting in the next fiscal year, the Army can expect to lose an annual average of more than 5,000 noncommissioned officers with from seven to 18 years' service. By one estimate some 1,600 commissioned officers will be separated from the Army in the first year, and nearly 10,000 over six years. The actual totals could be much higher.

Recall that the All Volunteer Force -- the concept under which the services have operated since the draft authority was allowed to lapse in 1973 -- encountered early difficulties. The term "hollow Army" was used to describe recruiting troubles, and there were shortfalls in the other services. By the 1980s, more than half of Army enlistees were in the lowest category eligible for recruitment, and fewer than half were high school graduates.

The Reagan defense buildup caused a surge of congressional support for modernization, improved pay and other benefits. These, together with innovations in recruiting, enabled the Army to improve recruit quality dramatically. By the 1990s, high school graduates were holding above 90 percent, and those in the lowest category accepted for enlistment were less than 10 percent.

Operation Just Cause in Panama demonstrated the professionalism and morale of our military. With force strengths now to be reduced, it becomes important to maintain these qualities.

The place to begin is by honoring promises made to the volunteers now serving, particularly to those who have added value to their service by renewing their initial obligations to serve -- the likely careerists. Here are some of the options:

Active Reserve and National Guard Duty. Reductions in the Active Force will produce heavier reliance on Reserve and Guard units. In peacetime, only a small fraction of these personnel are on full-time duty. A significant increase in this fraction would yield great dividends in readiness and provide opportunities for full-time soldiers who otherwise would be separated to continue earning retirement credit.

Another possibility is to fill out or augment active divisions and other components with Guard and Reserve units. This could increase opportunities for noncommissioned officers and lower and middle grade officers to continue their military careers and would keep available a professional cadre.

The drug war. In this effort, the Army and National Guard already participate. Various nonmilitary agencies could use military personnel slated for separation who have police, investigative, intelligence and communications experience. Their military service could be credited to federal civilian retirement.

Helping with financial problems. Under present law, officers separated involuntarily may receive cash payments. There is no comparable provision for NCOs and other enlisted personnel. This should be corrected. Because the loss of health care benefits is a major problem in loss of employment, access to military medical facilities could be extended during transition to civilian work. Commissary and PX privileges could also be extended.

Employment assistance. Noncommissioned officers, for example, are both leaders and managers of people. Many have been trained in new technologies. They know mechanics and computerization. They can take instructions, and they can instruct. They are the kind of employees that American industry and commerce needs, but it will require aid to match their capabilities to private sector opportunities.

Congress must recognize that it is dealing not simply with thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, but with thousands of families stretched across the nation -- a substantial and articulate constituency. The dimensions of force reduction may revive debate about the concept and costs of the All Volunteer Force. Meanwhile, the human dimension of a major forced exit of trained military personnel must be kept in clear focus.

The writer, a former Democratic representative from Virginia, was secretary of the Army from 1981 to 1989.