THIS WEEK'S report by a presidential task force is a timely reminder that the president's plans for a rapid military buildup will be absorbing an increasing share of the nation's resources, including its human resources. Just as the rapid accumulation of hardware may strain industrial capacity and bid up prices for scarce physical resources, so will planned increases in military strength increase competition for technical and skilled workers.
The task force concluded that the armed forces should be able to meet their recruitment goals-- which call for almost a 10 percent manpower increase over the next five years--without resort to a draft. It noted, however, that success will depend on the military's ability to keep pace with civilian wages, particularly in the skilled occupations that the armed forces increasingly need. That can mean a substantial rise in defense personnel costs, which already claim about $100 billion a year of the Pentagon's budget.
The modern armed forces are no longer, if they ever were, a dumping ground. Electronic warfare requires well-trained, highly skilled people. Especially is this so in the Air Force and Navy, which are scheduled for the most rapid buildup. Since 1980, thanks to large boosts in military pay, better recruitment and retention policies and, of course, the weak state of the civilian economy, the services have substantially improved the quality and morale of their personnel.
Retaining these gains should be a high priority. If there is one lesson to be drawn from the recent Middle East and South Atlantic conflicts, it is that highly motivated, well-trained forces are essential to military readiness. Nor can manpower requirements be set apart from hardware decisions. Most of the planned buildup is necessary simply to man and maintain the 600-ship Navy and other new weapons systems called for in the administration's defense plans. If buying this hardware makes sense -- and that is for Congress to decide -- then the manpower to support it must also be provided.
The armed services, however, are likely to face difficulty in maintaining the quality of their personnel even at existing force levels. Over the next few years, the expected economic recovery will increase competition for skilled people at the same time that the number of young people entering the labor force will drop substantially. All of the questions raised about the rapid pace of the president's defense buildup are sharpened by the recognition of this additional source of pressure on the nation's resources.