Responding to criticism that it has not adapted to the post-Cold War era, the Army will unveil a new battle plan next week that emphasizes lighter fighting units and the rapid development of a new generation of armored vehicles, according to the service's top civilian official.

The new units will be mobile enough to deploy rapidly for peacekeeping missions but still pack sufficient punch to fight all-out battles, said Army Secretary Louis Caldera. Initially, special brigades equipped with existing weapons will experiment with the concept, but eventually the whole Army will be redesigned, and new equipment--particularly a medium-weight tank--will become standard issue, Caldera said in an interview yesterday.

In addition, the Army is contemplating a change in qualifications for new recruits. Instead of focusing on a high school diploma as the key standard, Caldera said the Army will look at work experience and a willingness to take courses to pass a high school equivalency test, the GED, as measures of worthiness.

The new recruitment strategy is a response to the Army's recent difficulties in competing with a tight civilian labor market. The fighting structure proposals, however, emerge from a debate that began in the waning days of the Cold War. Army leaders have repeatedly discussed how a force that was designed to fight large, set-piece land battles should adapt to a world in which many of its missions now involve peacekeeping and other noncombat actions. The Army, however, has changed less quickly than the challenges it faces.

Army forces in Kosovo, for example, discovered this summer that their M-1 Abrams tanks are too big to roll through narrow village lanes. The 70-ton behemoths, designed to fend off a Soviet invasion of West Germany, now often sit parked beside rural crossroads, serving essentially as static guard posts. Tank crews, meanwhile, conduct patrols in Humvees.

Those kinds of discrepancies have produced an identity crisis for the nation's largest uniformed service. The Army sat on the sidelines during the successful 78-day air campaign over Yugoslavia, never sending a single unit into combat. On the home front, recruitment fell 8 percent short of its goal during the past year, and the Army only met its manpower requirements because of higher-than-expected reenlistments.

Determined to prove the Army's relevance, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki ordered an in-depth review of the service's future requirements shortly after becoming chief of staff last June, just two weeks after the end of the Yugoslavia campaign. He will expound his "vision statement" at the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army here next week. Senior officers have billed the speech as a landmark, but it is not clear how quickly the Army's leaders intend to move, whether they will challenge traditional assumptions, whether Congress will appropriate the money for new weapons, and how much the reforms will cost.

A key issue is the Army's structure. It is based on 10 divisions, which are designated either "heavy," because they have a lot of armored vehicles and artillery, or "light," because they are easily transported. Caldera said the new proposal is "to bring the two much closer together, if not to eliminate the distinction altogether." The goal, he said, is "to create units that can perform the full spectrum of missions from war-fighting to peacekeeping."

In sketching out the new battle plan, Caldera signaled how several long-standing points of contention have been resolved. He said, for example, that the Army had rejected the idea of creating separate units specialized in contingency operations, such as peacekeeping or intervention in small-scale conflicts. Also, he depicted a gradual evolution of force structures, beginning with experimentation at the brigade level rather than with an immediate redesign of full divisions.

The plan's success will depend substantially on how quickly the Army can develop an alternative to the M-1 Abrams, the only tank in extensive use. "With investments in science and technology, we aim to bring 70 tons down to 20 tons and have the same survivability," Caldera said. But, like the debate over how to structure the post-Cold War Army, the quest for a lighter tank has produced considerable discussion but little decision-making over the past decade.

To provide personnel for the new force, Caldera said, the Army needs to look beyond its traditional target: high school graduates who are not immediately attending college. That is a shrinking pool of potential recruits as higher education becomes more accessible and the civilian labor market provides stiff competition for those who remain available.

"We have to get past the idea that a high school diploma represents some kind of essential standard," Caldera said. There are numerous young people, he added, who are intelligent and highly motivated but leave school to work because they must help support their families. The Army would offer such recruits money to pay for high school equivalency courses so they could pass the GED before entering boot camp.

"We are kidding ourselves if our position is, we will only take the best prepared because we don't want to work hard at training and bringing in a broader cross-section of America," Caldera said.

Amid general concern about the pace at which all the military branches are adapting to post-Cold War threats, the Pentagon yesterday also announced several changes in the structure of its major combat commands.

It gave responsibility for conducting computer warfare--both defensively to protect U.S. military electronic networks from attack, and offensively to disrupt information systems abroad--to the four-star general who heads the U.S. Space Command, headquartered in Colorado.

It also restyled the four-star command in Norfolk that oversees U.S. military operations in the Atlantic, focusing its mission more on fostering joint experimentation among the services and developing new weapons and tactics. To reflect this shift, the name was changed from Atlantic Command to Joint Forces Command.

"We cannot defeat tomorrow's enemies with yesterday's weapons; we cannot win tomorrow's wars with yesterday's ideas," declared Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who along with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen presided over a renaming ceremony yesterday.

Additionally, the Pentagon set up a permanent task force, which will be led by a two-star general and report to the Joint Forces Command, to coordinate military support to civilian agencies in the event of an attack on U.S. territory with biological or chemical weapons.

That drew a sharp complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it was troubled by the prospect of military forces encroaching on areas traditionally left to civilian agencies. But defense officials portrayed the move as a modest effort, involving about three dozen military and civilian personnel, aimed at preparing the armed forces to render assistance in the case of such an attack.