The All-Volunteer Force is foundering on the rocks of compromise: quantity versus quality. The Defense Department is encouraging recruiters to capitalize on the rising unemployment rate as a means of encouraging jobless volunteers to sign up. At the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee is threatening to cut the size of the Army by 25,000 in fiscal year 1981 because the Army is not able to enlist enough high school graduates to maintain a quality force.

These separate initiatives, taken together, underscore the tremendous dilemma facing the services. Neither action provides the services real help with the manpower problem and may actually make the situation worse.

Consider the increased effort to recruit jobless youths. While it is true that there are more of them looking for work nowadays, it is by no means certain that these individuals are highly suitable for military service. There is a tremendous and growing demand in this country for skilled or trainable labor. Computer programmers, techincians and high school graduates with the drive to learn have little trouble getting work. It is the ones without alternatives who are knocking on the recruiter's door; with little education and few skills, they come to the armed forces as the choice of last resort -- hardly a choice at all. The notion of volunteerism is based on the premise of choice. Many of those entering the All-Volunteer Force today are free-will refugees: they aren't really "volunteers" because they have no alternative.

The services happily enlist those who can't find work elsewhere. At least 42 percent of them will enter this year without a high school diploma. Their classification test scores will generally fall below those of their high school buddies who graduated. The result? The high school dropouts, the ones most in need (and hopeful) of technical skill training to get jobs following enlistment, do not meet the prerequisites for such training. They wind up sedimenting into the "soft" jobs at the bottom of the skill hierarchy: dead-end jobs, such as the infantry, that offer no hope for employment following service. Thus, the frustrated jobless youth who joined the service as a way out of the ghetto finds himself four months later in a squad bay full of the wise-guy malcontents of his earlier days spent killing time on the street corner.

The realization comes hard; what had been advertised as an opportunity to learn a skill turns out to be a sham. The same barriers to meaningful civilian employment also apply in the military. There is a tremendous sense of disillusion. The frustrated recourse to drugs, barracks violence and desertion should come as no surprise.

The drive for numbers over quality creates a vicious circle. The least qualified are concentrated in the greatest numbers in the lowest skills. They happen to be the very skills that are the cutting edge of a modern army: infantry, armor, artillery. The individuals least capable of the "high-order thinking" required for success on the modern battlefield are the very ones most likely to be first thrown into the fray.

The highly visible front-line units are now the least representative of society, presenting an ethnic, educational and sociological mix hardly reflective of the country at large. Surely, if America is worth drfending, the burden of fighting and dying should not be unduly borne by the undereducated, the minorities, the poor and the disadvantaged.

The concentration of the least adaptable people in the manpower-intensive combat units creates a veritable turbulence nightmare. Their average enlistment length of three years creates a faster turnover than in the four-year populations more concentrated in the technical skills. Moreover, their lack of adaptability to military service is reflected in a disproportionately high dropout rate. In recent years over 42 percent of those entering the service have left before their first three-year term is up.

This creates a tremendous burden on the recruiters to provide replacements, and it increases the burden on the already taxed training establishments to qualify new enlistees. This is why the annual accession quotas have averaged about 400,000 a year, and not the 265,000 per year envisioned by the Gates Commission. In the desperate search for these thousands of enlistees, the Defense Department has opted for quantity. The cycle of high enlistment quotas, personnel turbulence, attrition and dashed hopes perpetuates itself.

Enter the Senate Armed Services Committee, decreeing a 25,000-man cut until the quality improves. The Army is placed in an untenable position. Where to make the cuts? Enter units? Shaving the manning levels? Or slicing out individual billets? If it makes cuts in the combat arms, it loses fighting power, the tooth-to-tail ratio goes down, and the Army faces criticism for not being "Lean" enough. If cuts are made in technical and support skills, the Army loses the expertise to keep its high-technology gear working, and it loses its ability to sustain a drawn-out fight.

These cuts may not be in the national interest.

The Army's missions won't change -- it will just be expected to do more with fewer people. Further, the higher quality goals place the Army more directly in competition with the other services for the decreasing numbers of qualified high school graduates. They, too, have worsening quality problems. The Marine Corps' requirement for high school graduates, for example, is expected in increase by 25 percent in the next 10 years as new, more complex systems become operational. There is little prospect that the Army can successfully compete for the ever-decreasing numbers of high school graduates.

The root problem lies in the notion of a volunteer force. It has reduced patriotism to the level of self-interest.

The rational volunteer's terminal value must be a satisfactory answer to the question, "What's in it for me?" For the high school graduate hungry for advacement, the checklist includes decent pay, challenging training, some adventure and the chance to serve with like-minded people. For the dropouts, the checklist is in the form of an escape route: job training, a search for self-esteem and the chance to make it in a civilian world.

The military may not be the institution best suited to answer these needs. We have not faced up to the implications of the defense manpower issue. The great number of complex weapons needed to fight a sophisticated war requires large numbers of high-quality people. It is a problem of quantity and quality. It's going to take a much more realistic force will "cost." Until that reality is transformed into defense budgets, the All-Volunteer Force continue to slide into the gutter of failure.