Having long and openly lamented the absence of a rational military policy, I am occasionally asked what such a policy would be like and what it might be expected to accomplish. The purpose of this article is to answer these questions.

The dominant characteristic of the policy I have in mind is task-orientation--that is, it would specify the strategic tasks that the Armed Forces should be able to perform and cause these forces to be designed accordingly. Expanded into a definition, a task-oriented policy is one that generates and maintains forces adequate to carry out the strategic tasks made necessary by urgent threats to important national interests.

To be urgent, such a threat must have a high probability of occurrence and a high damage potential if it occurs. A national interest in this context may be an asset, goal, advantage or source of power for the attainment or protection of which the government is willing to expand substantial resources and risk the consequences of failure.

Obviously, the formulation of such a policy would entail extremely difficult judgments and decisions on the part of the responsible officials. The most demanding would include the identification of the interests requiring military protection, the threats that might endanger these interests, the tasks that would fall to the Armed Forces, and the size, organization, equipment and readiness of forces requisite for the tasks.

Even if the right decisions were taken on these points and a task-oriented policy formulated, there would remain the problem of convincing Congress of its merits. In the case of the defense budget, Pentagon spokesmen would need to explain the rationale behind its formulation and show how the big-money items and programs would contribute to the success of one or more of the strategic tasks assigned to the Armed Forces. They must also make clear how the new weapons systems all passed the test of essentiality--that is, they not only contributed substantially to a strategic task but did so at a tolerable cost and excelled in quality all competitive weapon systems.

What advantages would such a rational, task-oriented policy offer? For the first time in history, we would have a military policy designed specifically to satisfy the military needs of approved foreign policy. The policy designers would have taken into account many more threats than those attributable to the Soviet Union and possible theaters of operations beyond the familiar ones in Western Europe.

Such an expanded survey, reinforced by the lessons afforded by our current experience in Central America, should lead to a better appreciation of our growing interests in Third World countries, particularly those that are or promise to become important trading partners needed to provide our economy with essential raw materials. It should also make for a better understanding of the malignant consequences of excessive population growth in these undeveloped countries, especially those that will double their population in two to three decades. The resultant chaotic conditions would not only interrupt our trade but would further roil the troubled waters, inviting Soviet fishermen to throw in their line.

Another way to appreciate the advantages of a task-oriented policy is to consider past governmental errors which, under the new policy, would probably be avoided. For example:

* There would be no further justification for an arms race with the Soviets, if one ever existed. In cases where Soviet armed forces, nuclear or conventional, threatened an important national interest, there would be one or more task forces maintained in readiness to counter the danger. Unless reinforced by strong allies, we would make no effort, I hope, to match Soviet military might in regions close to the Soviet periphery. Our national planners could hardly forget the price Khrushchev paid for his mistake in putting offensive missiles in Cuba on our very doorstep.

* By the same token, we would expect no repetition of the Carter Doctrine blunder, when, without discussion with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president proclaimed an intention to resist, by military means if necessary, any third-party intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf. Under our new policy, it is unlikely that there would be an official statement on the subject unless or until we had a task force in being that would at least symbolize impressively our intention to preserve our access to Middle East oil. But the region would remain too far away to permit a major commitment on our part.

* The MX issue would never have taken its present form. The weapon system could not have passed the essentiality test because (a) the "window of vulnerability" has not been proved an urgent threat; (b) the missile would add little if anything to the survivability or deterrent effectiveness of our strategic forces; and (c) there are competitive alternatives, notably submarine-launched and cruise missiles, that justify further consideration.

* Many costly service programs would probably come a cropper. The Air Force would have difficulty in proving the continued relevance of the "triad" dogma. The Navy would have difficulty demonstrating that there are essential tasks that require two additional supercarriers to fulfill. The Army and Marines would have trouble defending the maintenance of ready divisions for which there is insufficient sea and air transport to convey them to an overseas theater of operations in time and no existent supply system to main tain them in action once there.

Even if the advantages to expect from a task-oriented policy are conceded, what chance is there of its adoption? Shortly after the end of the fighting in Korea, a prominent official asked Gen. George Marshall whether it would be naive to believe that the American people had learned a great deal from the war. Marshall's reply was immediate. "No, not naive--incredibly naive."

But one may hope without necessarily being naive. It is true that a proposal to adopt this kind of task-oriented military policy would encounter opposition from many sources--Pentagon bureaucrats, service interest partisans, congressional committees fearing for their turf and defense in dustries fearing for their contracts. But hard times are ahead when enormous federal deficits will force deep cuts in all federal budgets, military and civilian. If they are to be carried out with minimum damage to genuine national interests, such cuts must begin by eliminating the items with the least claim to essentiality.

In the case of the military budget, I know of no better way to forestall the lean years ahead than by adopting a task-oriented policy and budget. Furthermore, the change could be initiated without delay if the appropriate committees of Congress would henceforth greet all Pentagon officials arriving to defend their budget with a single question, "If funded, how will your project contribute to the strategic tasks that the Armed Forces must be ready and able to perform?"