Official Washington's faith in what is called systems analysis has come to be the conventional framework for decision-making in the Defense Department and in much of the rest of government as well. The catechism is familiar: objectives, criteria, options, costs, benefits, quantify as much as possible, focus on changes at the margin.

It has made some contributions in Defense. In 1961, Robert McNamara had inherited a military establishment long on force structure and short on fighting capability -- e.g., paper divisions with neither the material to sustain combat nor the airlift and sealift to get there. Systems analysis has laid bare and helped correct some of these problems over the years. Certain types of comparsions of competing weapons systems have also been usefully handled this way.

But the process permits the keepers of the analytical flame -- in theory the neutral technicians, the guardians of the procedure -- to jigger a whole range of outcomes without seeming to. This happens, with different biases, almost whereever such analysis is done -- throughout the executive and legislative branches. If, for example, you have decided for whatever reason -- honest judgment, post-Vietnam syndrome, hydrophobia or whatever -- that the United States should divert resources from its maritime forces and use the money for something else, you need not ever make-that clear. fDo you not want to invest in air defense for ships in the Indian Ocean? Easy. Assume that Soviet Backfire bombers won't be flying there. Do you not want to have to buy a new vertical-short-take-off-and-landing aircraft for the Marines, needed because airfields are becoming more vulnerable? Simple. Assume that airfields are not becoming more vulnerable. Facts don't affect such assumptions. Allegiance to them within some bureaucracies is so timeless it is almost touching. Articles, really, of faith.

Used in this way, analysis works backward: from not having enough money for a certain mission, to a subtle change in mission, to a change in assumption about how to carry it out,to a reshuffling of facts. The result is a recommendation or study that is an insidious form of the lawyer's brief -- an unacknowledged argument in neutral analytical clothing.

Focusing on the margin -- a key tenet of the analytical doctrine -- merely means ignoring sunk costs. Now this is the first rule of most successful businessmen and of all successful poker players, and as such it is unexceptionable. But something about this focus keeps many analysts from doing much except fiddling around every year with buying a few fewer of these or a few more of those. People who only ask how much is enough, or how few can we barely get by with, tend to develop an instinct for the capillaries.

That is not the instinct it is wisest to cultivate if you want to win real -- not bureaucratic -- battles. There are more important questions: How can I destroy the enemy's strategy? How can I make his investment worthless? How can I modernize more quickly than he? How can I keep him on the defensive? Analytical offices, staffed with economists and the like, are not especially good at answering, or asking, these sorts of questions any more than they are at suggesting how to improve the quality of military manpower. (They tend to suggest cutting the days devoted to basic training.) These sorts of issues don't model well, you see. And it is only a short step from not modeling well to "Not, of Interest to My Office" to -- an even shorter one -- "Not of Interest."

There is plenty of blame to go around for the current state of our military needs. Post-Vietnam muddle-headedness, individual leaders' choices, congressional micro-management, executive-branch confusion, military conservatism, party politics, excessively expensive weapon systems -- all have had a role.

But our military services have not so much been dealt body blows by anyone in the years since Vietnam: it is more that they have been nibbled nearly to exhaustion by a flock of ducks. No one bite has been devastating, but the nibblee spends all his time fending the damn things off and losing a bit of skin here and there. After a while, it gets you down. o

The analysts have not helped prevent this. Generally they have just sat by and coached and cheered on the ducks. It's a diverting and intellectually stimulating life. But the result has been that the Toledo housewives who answer the Gallup polls have understood what the Soviets are doing before most of the defense intellectuals.

It's too late for all that now. Lenoid Brezhnev's armored divisions, chemical warfare and village massacres have called a halt to the old games. But as we get down to business, we have to remember that we've lost some time, some valuable time. We might have saved some of it, if the faith in systems analysis had not been misplaced. Holmes once wrote that "time has upset many fighting faiths." It's time to give time a hand.