The "rapid deployment" force President Carter talked about in his televised speech Monday night is a paper army that could not rush to a real war because of a shortage of transport planes and ships.
This is far from a military secret.
Gen. E. C. Meyer, at his first news conference last month as Army chief of staff, said not even the headquarters planning unit for the outfit, let alone the whole force, has been organized.
At the same time, Meyer complained about the lack of airlift, saying: "You know, it doesn't do any good to rust out at Fort Carson. To go somewhere and do something, we have to be taken there."
Air Force leaders agree that they do not have enough planes for long distance delivery of troops and equipment, especially when there are few friendly places to land en route to such areas as the Persian Gulf.
The only available Air Force planes for a big load of tanks and artillery going straight to the Persian Gulf, with refueling in midair, are 76 Lockheed C5 transports. And their wings are so fragile that the Air Force is spending millions of dollars to strengthen them.
The other long distance transports planes, the Lockheed C130 and C141, cannot be refueled in midair and thus would have to land before reaching the Mideast. The Air Force is stretching the C141 and adding refueling capacity as part of its effort to provide more airlift.
Pentagon civilian leaders, many of whom feel the Air Force was burned on the C5 contract, are trying to persuade civilian airlines to buy widebodied transports that have been modified so they could carry tanks in a crisis and passengers the rest of the time.
But this effort is hung up on the question of how much subsidy, if any, the Defense Department should pay the airlines to compensate them for the extra fuel the modified planes would consume because of the weight added to make the floors stronger and the doors bigger.
Like Meyer, Marine Corps Commandant Robert Barrow warned at his first news conference this year that the Marines were ready to go but did not have enough "lift."
For years Marine leaders have been trying to get the Navy to buy more amphibious ships -- vessels that could carry Marines, tanks and planes across the ocean, where they could land as a cohesive force on a foreign shore. But they have been losing this little-noted budget battle.
Right now, Marine leaders said, they only have enough amphibious lift ships available to land one Marine force of about 40,000 either in the Atlantic or Pacific, but not both.
Specifically, the Marines want to see $1.2 billion added to the Pentagon's current five-year plan for buying amphibious ships. Otherwise, Marine leaders say, an already bad situation will get worse.
Navy leaders, too, have been decrying the shortage of cargo ships to transport and support troops who might be flown to distant places where, unlike Europe, there is no storehouse of weapons and food.
"The U.S. merchant marine is, by any measure, stagnating, and the commercial shipbuilding outlook is highly pessimistic," said former Navy secretary W. Graham Claytor Jr. in reporting to Congress earlier this year on the state of the Navy. He is now deputy secretary of defense.
"The sealift capability essential to crisis action and mobilization is in serious and growing jeopardy," Claytor continued. "There is absolutely no doubt that that continued erosion of our merchant fleet, and its supporting shipbuilding industry and labor force is going to weaken our national defense."
At the same time U.S. sealift is declining, Navy leaders said, the Soviet ability to project its military power is on the rise. To make that point, the Navy has drawn up a chart showing the new trends.
In 1969, according the Navy chart, the United States had 153 amphibious ships and the Soviet Union 103. In 1979, the United States had 65 and the Soviet Union 100. $5Over the same 10-year period, the figures show the Navy's fleet of cargo ships and tankers falling from 112 to 61 and the Soviets' increasing from 56 to 147.
Part of the problem is that more glamorous weapons, like cruise missiles and nuclear-powered submarines, have been elbowing out airlift and sealift in the fights over dividing up the defense dollar.
Military leaders said yesterday that if Carter is serious about being able to deliver the quick reaction force, once it gets beyond the paper stage and becomes a collection of designated units like the 82nd Airborne, budget priorities will have to change.