Everyone agrees: AWACS is a modern military marvel, a wonder of a flying machine.

American presidents use it as an instrument of diplomacy. American military commanders think it will be a "force multiplier" in any future war, guiding fighter planes to sure kills in the sky. The Saudis want AWACS to patrol their desert airspace; it can "see" every speck in the sky for 250 miles around.

There is only one problem. The Air Force is finding it easier to produce these most complicated of all airplanes than to keep in the service the men who have mastered and can operate them.

This makes AWACS--for Airborne Warning and Control System--symbolic of the larger problem confronting all the military services. They are opening up a skill gap by turning to sophisticated weapons to offset the Soviet Union's edge in quantity.

The military, in doing this, has placed itself in direct competition with a civilian industry that is also counting increasingly on technology to give it the jump on the competition. It is an unfair fight, since military officers in all the services, not just the Air Force, are responding to a changed value system in American society. Some Army colonels are turning down the prize of command to keep from moving to new towns where their wives might have trouble getting jobs; nuclear submarine officers quit rather than stay down in the depths year after year running the Navy's wonder weapon.

AWACS officers acknowledge that their specialty, like the others, is in a new quarter of the moon. This is the day of the technocrat, they say, whether or not the hot-shot pilots care to admit it.

Yet, calling on wonder machines like AWACS to make a point for presidents without firing bullets is plainly irresistible to leaders around the world, practically guaranteeing that the Air Force skill gap will continue to widen in this decade.

"Ten years ago," said Capt. James R. Bratina, 31, of Ladysmith, Wis., "the president would have sent in the Marines. Today, it's AWACS."

The last two presidents--the first to have AWACS at their disposal --have deployed the planes like latter-day gunboats to show the world American power, interest and commitment.

To Saudi Arabia in March, 1979, when neighboring North and South Yemen were shooting at each other and Iran was in turmoil.

To South Korea in October, 1979, after South Korean President Park Chung Hee was assassinated.

To Egypt in September, 1981, after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was murdered by his soldiers.

To other distant trouble spots--on secret missions.

The officers and airmen in the cockpit flying the $130 million AWACS aircraft and those in the back working the gadgetry are understandably proud of their new role as international peacekeepers.

But the flying machines also exact a heavy price from the humans inside--too high for some of them. AWACS men are away from wives and children almost half the year, pulling aerial guard duty in skies thousands of miles from home. Many quit for higher paying civilian jobs that enable them to get home for dinner.

Only four years after the first AWACS reported for duty here, the Air Force is short of experienced officers who know how to get the most out of its black boxes and green scopes. Specifically, the AWACS fleet needs 379 captains, majors and lieutenant colonels to oversee the intense work in the back of the planes. The Air Force has only 288, a shortage of 24 percent.

And the Air Force predicts that this problem will become more acute because the need for experienced AWACS officers is projected to double between now and 1985. There is no quick fix. AWACS seats will have to be filled with under-experienced officers, according to AWACS officials here.

The AWACS personnel problem, though perhaps the most dramatic, given the crucial role the plane has won for itself, is far from the only one confronting the Air Force in 1982 and jeopardizing the national policy decision to combat Soviet quantity with American quality in weaponry.

Unless the Air Force finds a way to recruit and hold more technical people in the years ahead, said Gen. Robert T. Marsh, commander of the Air Force Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., which serves as the midwife for advanced research and development of weapons, "we may become severely limited in our ability to maintain technological superiority in weapons."

Gen. Lew Allen Jr., Air Force chief of staff, acknowledged that his service has worrisome shortages of experienced officers, ranging from pilots to engineers to scientists to AWACS "backenders."

The shortages are forcing the Air Force to put green officers in charge of supervising defense contracts worth millions of dollars. "It makes the jobs of the lieutenants very exciting," Allen said, "because they're given responsibility very quickly. But the taxpayer should be a little nervous about that."

Although he sees no relief for three or four years, Allen said he is optimistic for the longer term because of recent pay raises and the sense of appreciation military people are feeling these days.

But there is no guarantee that money and appreciation will cure the ills of the officers corps in these days of changing cultural values that help pull military people out of uniform.

Officers here warned against counting on money alone, such as the $125 to $350 a month hazardous duty pay Congress voted last year for AWACS officers, to retain skilled personnel in today's all-volunteer military. The military services as institutions will have to change their value systems, officers argue, to attract and hold the technical people they are counting on so heavily to win the next war.

For the Air Force, several AWACS officers said, this means admitting that there are people as important as pilots, and then acting on that admission through pay, promotion and other expressions of appreciation.

Statistics show that the Air Force is predominantly technical, with its leaders anticipating it will get ever more so. There are almost as many officers in scientific, engineering and technical billets--17,140--as there are pilots--18,602. There are 223,884 enlisted people in technical jobs compared with 11,000 who fly in planes.

AWACS officers say they believe there is a certain breed who will put up with what the Air Force calls "remotes"--extended duty in barren places--for the thrill of working with the latest in military technology. But, they said, Air Force recruiters must level with the young men and women before signing them up.

Flying an AWACS plane over Saudi Arabia watching for enemy planes may sound exciting, but it is not, according to the men who have done it. It means flying 14 hours straight in a race-track pattern.

The four men in the cockpit flying the AWACS do little that is demanding except take off and land. The six officers and seven enlisted men in the back stare at the dots and streaks of green on their scopes hour after hour.

The crew does not practice the more exciting role of serving as an aerial command post: guiding friendly fighters to within killing distance of enemy planes in simulated dogfights.

After the mission, the men are taken back to their hotel in Riyad, where pleasures are not of the back-home variety. No beer, no women. Only imported television cassettes and movies. For AWACS crews, it is usually shower, dinner, television and bed. Off-duty days there may be some tennis and shopping in civilian clothes for, as one officer put it, "a Persian rug made in Belgium."

To find a way to overcome the routine of "remotes," Bratina, a senior director of "backenders," gave fellow officers here this message:

"Ten years ago, if there had been problems in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Korea, the Marines would have been sent in. And the Marines have their certain reputation. They're well known. There are certain people with certain wants and desires. They have known since they were in grade school that such an organization as the Marine Corps existed, and they could plan to be one.

"Well, currently, there's nobody who goes through grade school or high school who wants to be an AWACS weapons controller.Laughter from the officers. Everybody agrees with that.

"You don't get what you don't ask for. And part of solving the problem we've got is publicizing what kind of people we're looking for. The Marines say they're looking for a few good men. We're looking for a few good weapons controllers.

"The more people know about the sort of life we lead," said Bratina, "the more apt we are to get people in who wouldn't mind living that type of life. More laughter.

"Okay. Hey! Believe it or not, there are people who volunteer for the Marines and go to Diego Garcia for years and years. You don't want people who are attracted by the money but by the job. That's how the Air Force attracts fighter pilots. Who in their right mind would want to be a fighter pilot sitting out in a naked airplane playing quick-draw with somebody else?"

1st Lt. Thomas C. Blight, 24, of Oklahoma City, an Air Force Academy graduate and the junior AWACS officer at the table, pointed out that once the special breed of person is recruited he must be made to feel useful and appreciated.

"I don't enjoy all the time we're flying and I'm doing nothing," said Blight. "The worst thing about the job is that I'm not doing what I'm paid to do most the of the time"--guiding friendly fighters toward unfriendly ones in simulated combat.

He complained that, no matter how well he does as a weapons controller on AWACS, he will not be promoted as quickly as pilots and other officers with backgrounds and performance similar to his own. Other officers agreed, adding that the Air Force reserves commands of flying outfits for pilots and a few navigators--not officers who master technology.

While sharing the belief that pilots still regard, and sometimes treat, air controllers with disdain, if not contempt, Blight said the recent Maple Flag dogfighting exercises in Canada changed some minds.

"The first two weeks," Blight said, "the F15 guys had the philosophy that they didn't need AWACS, that they were all on their own, and that with their own radars they would win the war.

"They still survived, but they lost the war because all the strike packages and all the important threats weren't being destroyed.

"You can't a win a war unless you have some kind of command and control. The ground sites for controlling planes could do a lot of that, but they're probably going to be destroyed"--leaving the job to airborne controllers in planes like AWACS.

"The guy who gets the first radar lock on is going to shoot the other guy down," Blight said, whether or not he ever sees him.