Congress and the Carter administration should act now to drastically increase the pay and benefits of U.S. military personnel.

This action -- more than any being proposed by the president to upgrade our defense posture -- is necessary to restore the services to the effective forces that this nation demands and deserves. The All-Volunteer Force is beset with severe and growing problems of both quality and quantity. And these problems are directly attributable to our failure to keep military compensating comperable with the civilian sector.

In January 1973, one of my last acts as secretary of defense was to end draft calls. With that step, the United Steps embarked on one of the more important ventures in its recent history: we would endeavor to become the first nation in modern times to maintain a large standing military on an all-volunteer basis. It would make up about 2.5 percent of the labor force and rely completely on the equitable considerations of the competitive marketplace.

My confidence that this would succeed was based on the expectation that the president, Congress and the American people would honor a commitment to provide a meaningful standard of living and quality of life for men and women who volunteered, and for their families. We have reneged on this commitment.

Since 1972, the Consumer Price Index has risen 75 percent, while military compensation has risen only 51 percent. This means a decline of over 14 percent in purchasing power for all military personnel, and a decline approaching 25 percent for some enlistees in the lower grades. The average compensation for an elisted person, including pay and benefits, currently is $9,900. That is 17 percent below the "lower standard of living for a family of four as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At least 100,000 and possibly 275,000 military families qualify for welfare payments. (Many who qualify are too proud to apply; they leave the service instead.) Military commissaries take in over $10 million a year in food stamps.

A few concrete examples are even more shocking. An E4 plane handler on the nuclear carrier Nimitz, deployed to the Indian Ocean during the Iranian crisis, normally works 16 hours a day, or about 100 hours per week. He handles the F14 aircraft, which costs $25 million, and helps operate a $2 billion ship. Yet he makes less per hour than a cashier at McDonalds, lives below the poverty level, is eligible for food stamps and probably has not seen his wife and child for six months. A chief petty officer on that same ship with 17 years' service makes the same salary as a janitor on union scale and puts in twice as many hours.

It is little wonder, then, that the services last year fell short of their recruiting goals by 25,000 people. They have experienced qualitative as well as quantitive shortfalls. Nearly 50 percent of all male volunteers tested mentally in the lower half of the U.S. population. Five years ago that figure was 32 percent.

Yet recruiting is only half of the military's personnel dilemma. Retaining qualified people after their first, second or third enlistments is an acute problem and will get worse unless remedial action is taken. The services have been losing over 75 percent of those completing their first enlistment since 1976. About 30 percent of males enlisting do not even complete the first term.

To restore our defense readiness and meet our commitment to the All-Volunteer Force concept, I propose the following specific actions:

An across-the-board 17 percent pay increase for all military grades to make up for the loss in purchasing power since 1972.

Legislation indexing increases in military pay to increases in the Consumer Price Index.

A mandate that pay levels be applied to all forms of compensation -- basic pay, housing allowance and subsistence (food). Presently, a portion of an increase may be applied to housing or subsistence, and basic pay does not increase by the full amount.

Separation, or decoupling, of the computation of military pay from that of federal civil service workers. The demand for jobs in the federal civil service far outweighs the supply, and civil service workers generally are not subject to long hours of unpaid overtime, frequent moves and family separation.

A variable housing allowance keyed to actual housing costs in the local area, and a crash program to build more military housing. Government housing is available to only 20 percent of the enlisted force; it should be available to 50 percent.

Reimbursement to military families for the full cost of their moves. The present entitlement is 10 cents per mile; the actual cost is about 21 cents per mile.

Special skill pay to enlisted and officer ratings where shortfalls are expected -- narrowing the gap, for example, between what an enlistee receives and what he or she could earn on the outside in areas such as computer programming.

Improved medical benefits and coverage, which have been reduced for dependents.

An increased bonus to $5,000 (now $2,500) for joining the combat arms, and indexing future increases to the CPI.

A cost-of-living allowance for all personnel stationed overseas, even if they live in military barracks.

These initiatives will be expensive -- several billion dollars per year. But the amount will be offset to some degree through decreased costs of recruiting and training. More important, we will have taken some necessary steps toward restoring and maintaining our required military capability.

The United States must provide these individuals and their families with a quality of life commensurate with the sacrifices we demand from them. The primary ingredient in providing that quality is competitive pay and benefits.