Is the United States military becoming top-heavy with brass? There now are twice as many officers per enlisted man or enlisted woman as there were during World War II, six times as many colonels, three times as many generals. Critics say the armed forces are suffering from ''officer bloat'' that relates to the services' ''up-or-out'' retirement policy, as well as the growing emphasis on weapons procurement and program management.
The Pentagon responds that the ratio of senior officers to enlisted personnel is about the same as it has been between recent wars, and that it compares favorably with the NATO allies.
The military pyramid is designed to expand quickly from the bottom up if fighting threatens or breaks out, officials assert, while the officer corps must be ready to lead from the start. And they also argue that with the military becoming much more technologically advanced, more senior officers are needed to oversee the new complexities of weapons development and the electronic battlefield.
The debate - confined largely to editorialists and responding letters from the Pentagon - is not likely to result in congressional action or dramatic changes within the services. Institutional inertia and special interests in both instances preclude this. But the issue does illustrate some fundamental concerns over force structure and management that are key to the nation's defense.
The Project on Military Procurement, a private organization and frequent Pentagon gadfly, recently issued its latest findings on ''Officer Inflation: Its Cost to the Taxpayer and Military Effectiveness.''
Using statistics from the Defense Department and other government agencies, the group reported that ''since the end of World War II, our military services have become increasingly top-heavy.''
It noted that while there was one admiral for every 130 ships at the end of the war, there now are just two ships per admiral. The ratio of Air Force generals per aircraft has risen more than elevenfold, the project reported.
Pentagon defenders say this is because the trend in US military forces has been toward aircraft and ships that are fewer in number but more expensive and sophisticated.
For example, there were 10 times as many combat aircraft in 1945 as there are today, and the number of active-duty ships has dropped from more than 61,000 to less than 600. But these smaller numbers of combat equipment still need large numbers of people to operate and maintain them, it is argued, especially in time of war.
''Civilian companies never have to triple in size overnight,'' Air Force Assistant Secretary Tidal McCoy recently told Air Force Times. ''We intentionally are somewhat top-heavy in peacetime so we can be ready in an emergency.''
''When we mobilize for a conflict, the predominance of growth in the force is in the lower officer and enlisted ranks,'' Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb wrote in response to a recent critical editorial. ''As a result, the ratios look 'better' when we are mobilized and 'worse' when we are at peace.''
The Navy and Air Force in particular also have many new weapons programs these days (including ships, aircraft, and missiles) that need experienced high-level overseers.
''It would be penny wise and pound foolish to transfer control of a $2.5 billion contract from a $70,000-a-year general to a $40,000-a-year captain,'' Mr. McCoy told Air Force Times, adding that the Air Force in fact could use another 235 general officers.
McCoy also notes that there is more ''joint-agency overhead'' these days - Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and military alliance organizations - requiring larger numbers of officers.
However, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin has looked at the number of officers just below star status and concluded that ''the usual pattern in today's Pentagon is for staffers to outnumber fighters.''
''It is not as though these people are paid to be in charge,'' said Representative Aspin, who chairs the House armed services personnel subcommittee. ''They work for other colonels and lieutenant colonels who are in command.''
These points are related to those made by members of Congress and their intellectual kin now urging ''military reform.'' They say the services need a better force mix that includes less-sophisticated weapons acquired in larger numbers. These partisans also criticize the military for too much emphasis on ''management'' over ''leadership.''
''In a war, we need military men and warriors, not business executives and public-relations men,'' says Thomas Lawson, author of the Project on Military Procurement report. ''Reduction of the current officer corps will encourage the right type of officer to emerge and be promoted - those intent on fighting and winning realbattles, rather than bureaucratic, business, and political ones.''