While most of the public and official interest in rebuilding our military strength seems focused on acquiring new and better weaponry for the future, little concern is being expressed over the more urgent problem of ensuring sufficient trained manpower for the forces we have today. Even when the question is raised, government officials steadfastly refuse to admit the obvious -- that a major problem exists, arising from the failure of the all-volunteer system to produce the manpower required for truly combat-ready forces.

The Army is the service most affected by this shortage, since it requires the most people to fill its ranks in peace and by the nature of its ground combat mission, suffers the heaviest losses in war. Its increasing difficulty in raising adequate numbers of qualified recruits is a well-publicized fact as is the high attrition rate of recruits during training. Still another subject of frequent comment is the disproportionate number of poor, uneducated and blacks among them, a condition that exposes the nation to the charge of turning over its defense to the most disadvantaged elements of society while relieving the middle and upper classes from participation in the dangerous and highly unplesant business of fighting our wars.

Such weaknesses attributable to the all-volunteer system are enough in themselves to justify a thorough review of its adequacy. But it remained for the London Economist in a recent article to go to the heart of the matter by raising the basic question: Is the volunteer Army fit to fight if war comes? Its qualified answer is "fit to fight but not for long." I am obliged to agree.

Apart from doubts as to the quality of the individual recruits, the all-volunteer system has failed the Army in two major respects: 1) It has not maintained the strength of the reserve units that must be ready to accompany the regular divisions into combat overseas and 2) it has failed to maintain in the United States an adequate reserve of trained individual soldiers needed to replace the losses that will occur once battle is joined anywhere in the world.

Since the "One Army" concept was approved following World War II as a basis for mobilization planning, the regular army has been dependent on the National Guard and the Army Reserve for units not contained within the regular divisions but essential for their task readiness before and during combat. There are usually battalion-size units of such things as artillery, engineers, signal, transportation and medical, with numbers and kinds adjusted to the nature of the enemy and of the scene of operations. Today, most of them are seriously understrength and some underequipped; hence, the regular divisions they support, no matter how ready themselves, are not in fact ready to perform their combat missions.

But even if this obstacle were removed, for want of an adequate reserve of loss replacements, the regular divisions would still be unready for sustained combat. In anticipation of this problem, after World War II the Army established the Individual Ready Reserve, which, during the draft, had strength hovering around 900,000. Under the volunteer system, by 1980 it had declined to about 200,000, a number totally inadequate to support the divisions we presently have in Europe and Korea. It makes a dangerous nonsense to talk about sending the Ready Deployment Force any time soon on a combat mission into the Middle East in fulfillment of the commitment contained in the Carter doctrine.

At this point the question naturally arises: Why not raise volunteer pay and benefits to a level that will attract enough recruits to build up these reserves and achieve the combat readiness we thought existed all along? That may be possible at considerable cost, but the social and political objections to class imbalance in the ranks would remain and the readiness achieved in peace would not last much longer than the first casualty list from the battlefield. It is this ineluctable fact that is the mortal weakness of the all-volunteer system -- casualties have an immediate chilling effect on all volunteering, particularly for the infantry and other notoriously casualty-prone branches of the military service. The said fact is that we have been maintaining a costly volunteer system in time of peace that will not provide military forces capable of entering combat promptly and staying there for long.

The Economist closed its article by concluding that the Army has serious weaknesses, including a core that is "soft and spongy," which "must be cured soon if it is to face the challenges of the 1980s." If we want an Army truly fit to fight, any such cure must include a rapid return to some form of conscription, decided now in relatively cold blood, while we are not yet face-to-face with disaster.