The recent deaths of four paratroopers and injuries to 24 in an 82nd Airborne Division jump at Ft. Irwin, Calif., raise a question beyond maneuver safety. Why are we maintaining an expensive Airborne division when experience indicates there is virtually no practical use for it?

An enormous amount of money has been spent on parachute organizations since the first U.S. Airborne units came into being in World War II. Airborne units played a spectacular role in the Normandy invasion. They caught the public's--and the Army's--imagination as had nothing else in the land forces picture since the demise of the horse cavalry.

And in all the years since World War II the Airborne has played exactly the same role for the Army that the horse cavalry played in the 1920s and '30s. Just as the Wednesday afternoon polo match was the one bit of excitement in dull, routine pre-World War II garrison life, so the Airborne became in the '50s and in peacetime years since the one thing that seemed to distinguish Army life from the workaday world of business and industry.

Attainment of "jump" status and the winning of a parachutist's badge became the combination confirmation and bar mitzvah of the new Army officer and to some extent remains so to this day. Service in the 82nd became virtually the sine qua non for attainment of the office of Army chief of staff.

No one seemed to notice while all this was going on that it seemed less and less likely that the Airborne, at least in division strength, ever would be used again in war.

What the Army's closet Airborne critics long had suspected seemed to be confirmed in May 1964, during what is still the largest U.S. maneuver since World War II-- Joint Exercise "Desert Strike," in the same Mojave Desert region as the recent tragic jump. The 101st Airborne Division was to turn the tide in favor of the "NATO" forces by a mass parachute jump. What happened was a public relations disaster for the Airborne. The Armor "linkup" forces got to the drop zone ahead of the 101st, attracting large opposing "Warsaw Pact" forces. Had the opposing armored units not been backed off for reasons of maneuver safety, the 101st would have parachuted into a raging battle of tanks and armored personnel carriers and never would have been heard of again.

There may be a residual use for the parachute in military operations, but not above the battalion level and only against undefended or very lightly defended objectives.

The 101st long since has been shifted from parachutes to helicopters. Even in that role it may soon be eclipsed by the more mobile and compact Air Cavalry Combat Brigade now emerging. Whether in fond hopes of an operational parachute drop, at long last, or less satisfactory delivery by climbing off transports on the ground as it did in the Dominican Republic, the 82nd has been standing at the ready all these years. The cost of keeping it that way is entirely out of proportion to the prospects for effective use. "Jump pay," the parachutes for men and equipment, and all sorts of elaborate training, testing and operational gear usable only in this one division are expensive ways to maintain a self-image that now must be seen as irrelevant as those of the latter horse cavalry days.

In no small part, the 82nd is the embodiment of the Army's hope that its Light Infantry would be seen as a fire brigade to be sent hither and yon around the Third World keeping all in good order. The experience in El Salvador to date indicates a much different prospect. So long as we are able to control the seas, we will be able to cope with our problems in the Third World mainly by political and economic means.

Sad though it may be for all those for whom "Airborne!" has been the zest of life, the time has come either to deactivate the 82nd, save perhaps for one brigade to carry out certain special missions, or at least return it to a standard light infantry role.

The writer is a military journalist.