A time-honored perk of military service -- cheap food and drinks at NCO and officers' clubs -- is about to be relegated to folklore. Congress has ordered that as of Oct. 1, clubs on military bases must operate in the black or shut down. The taxpayers will no longer be subsidizing the poor business sense of military brass dabbling in the restaurant business.

It's too bad Congress didn't act before Yokota Air Base in Japan spent $221,600 on an Italian restaurant that lasted only two years. The restaurant closed in March after losing more than $50,000 last year.

The loss of the clubs will be a blow to the morale of those in uniform who carefully count their perks as part of the reward for serving their country. When the pay is mediocre and Uncle Sam is a hard taskmaster, the benefits package is important.

Military sources told us that the Navy, Army and Marine Corps have accepted Congress's challenge and are using business sense to put their clubs on an even keel -- raising prices, charging higher club dues and marketing themselves.

But the Air Force may close many of its clubs rather than be the best it can be at running a business.

We have obtained an internal memo distributed to wing commanders in the Air Force's largest command -- the Strategic Air Command headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. The memo says, "The officer and NCO club system within the Strategic Air Command -- and the Air Force as a whole -- is about to fail."

Between last Oct. 1 and Jan. 31, 30 Air Force restaurants in Europe lost more than $1 million. The biggest bleeder was Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where the clubs lost $45,000 in those four months. Upper Heyford Air Base in England lost $41,000.

The SAC clubs alone are being subsidized to the tune of $5 million a year from the taxpayers. And in four months, that subsidy will be gone.

Can a military club survive without tax money and still offer personnel the reasonable prices they have come to expect? Not the way the system now operates with decentralized management that allows military commanders at each base to run the clubs like "mom and pop" stores.

The whim of the base commander -- perhaps a yen for Italian food -- is the basis on which decisions are made.

At SAC, it appears things aren't going to change. In a memo to wing commanders, SAC Vice Commander-in-Chief Lt. Gen. Donald O. Aldridge urges the bases to come up with programs unique to each base to save their clubs. Somebody should tell SAC that McDonald's didn't sell billions of hamburgers by letting each restaurant do its own thing.

One internal SAC memo we have obtained says that 27 of the 48 SAC clubs "need major financial change or face restructuring or even closure."

Air Force sources told us that the situation is just as bad outside of SAC, even at bases abroad where military personnel count on the clubs to give them a taste of home at a reasonable price.