Increasingly, the U.S. Marine Corps has the look of an idea whose time has come. Events in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia argue strongly for the creation of a military force capable of prompt intervention in remote areas of the world where U.S. ground forces are not already deployed. The need for such a force has long been recognized by many observers. Official -- albeit belated -- recognition is apparent in the administration's proposed rapid deployment from (RDF). The force is to be capable of swift intervention in areas other than Europe and Korea across the broad spectrum of contingencies ranging from the small-scale coup de main to a large-scale invasion.

The core of the RDF is to consist of selected airborne, amphibious assault and other existing light Army and Marine Corps infantry units whose inherent strategic mobility is to be further enchanced by 150 or so new intercontinental transport aircraft (known as the CX) and by the pre-positioning of a Marine division's equipment aboard 14 specially designed ships to be maintained on station in the Indian Ocean and other potential crisis areas. As envisaged by the administration, the largely airliftable and air-supportable RDF would form the cutting edge of any major U.S. military intervention in the Third World, to be followed by the commitment of Army tank and mechanized infantry forces, whose heavness compels their movement by sea.

However, in its zeal to increase the speed with which existing U.S. light ground forces could be brought to bear in the remote areas, the administration has failed to address two important issues: the size of the RDF and the character of its potential opponents. The United States currently maintains far more light-infantry formations than would be required or could be moved to likely future "RDF" contingencies in the Persian Gulf and along the littorals of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, precisely because they are light infantry -- foot-mobile units thin on tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery -- they are illsuited for combat against Soviet or Soviet -model client armies that characterize potential U.S. adversaries in the Middle East. Of what value is the timely arrival of the wrong kind of forces?

The United States today fields five active divisions (two Army and three Marine) and a variety of smaller units that are earmarked primarily for contingencies outside of Europe and Korea. These forces greatly surpass the capacity of present and planned strategic air- and sealift resources to move them overseas in a timely fashion. Additionally, because these forces have been designed to be compatible with strategic airlift and amphibious-assault shipping, they are light and hence best suited for low-intensity combat in terrain that precludes or severly constrains the effective use of armored fighting vehicles.

Yet in the Middle East and Southwest Asis, they would in all likelihood be facing numerically superior, highly mobile and heavily armored ground forces pssessing great firepower and tactical mobility in terrain often tailor-made for tank warefare. While tactical air-power enthusiasts hold that close air support can make good the deficiencies of light ground forces, the October War of 1973 refutes that contention. In that conflict, the Israeli Air Force was virtually neutralized by the dense and mobile tactical air defenses of the Soviet-model Egyptian and Syrian armies.

Thus it appears that the adminstration may be contemplating the assignment to the RDF of forces both excessive in size and improperly structured to deal with likely adversaries. For the contingencies envisioned, three properly configured and equipped divisions would provide a quick-reaction force capable of meeting initial intervention requirements. These forces should retain existing limited capabilities for forcible entry by either airborne or amphibious assault; the principal challenge, however, is to provide them the tactical mobility and firepower needed to defeat heavier opponents without imposing the kind of unacceptable penalties in stategic mobility that equipment-laden Army tank and mechanized infantry divisons have already paid.

The most logical approach would be to give the three-division Marine Corps the rapid development mission -- lock, stock and barrel. As a force in readiness, the corps has always been oriented primarily toward contingencies in the Third World. It is the sole repository of U.S. amphibious-assault capabilities and easily adaptable to both the airborne and air-assault mission.

As for the problem of staying on a Middle Eastern battlefield (versus getting to it on time), a solution appears at hand in the development of light-weight tanks and other armored fighting vehicles utilizing new advances in smalml-caliber antitank guns and ammunition. The Marine Corps has already constructed prototypes of a 14-ton mini-tank whose 75mm gun can destroy any known main battle tank. Some six or eight of the smaller tanks could be carried by a C5A, compared with only one of the Army's new, bulky 60-ton MX1 main battle tanks. Indeed, the lack of restraint in the Army's approach to the design of armored fighting vehicles has precluded the rapid deployment of the Army's heavy divisions, leading to growing doubts over the cost-effectiveness of the administration's proposed $6 billion program to build the CX, which, like the existing C5A, will be able to carry only one Army tank. Might not that $6 billion be better spent on the acquisition of smaller armored fighting vehicles much more compatible with existing U.S. strategic airlift capabilities?

A rapid deployment force shold be based on a restructured and reequipped Marine Corps.