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PLANS for withdrawal of large numbers of United States forces from Europe and for an overall reduction of the US Army to about 500,000, less than two-thirds its present size, are bringing to the fore a long-smoldering debate over the future design of the Army. At the heart of the debate is an issue of fighting vehicles: Should the Army continue to be centered on the tank or should organization and doctrine be based on the armed (attack) helicopter?

At stake are much larger questions of strategy and cost.

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From the organization of NATO in 1949 to the present the tank has ruled the roost. Despite the fact that the only wars it fought during this period were in Asia, the Army's strategic and doctrinal gaze remained fixed on Central Europe and the huge totals of Soviet tanks and supporting armored vehicles deemed to be poised for a dash to the English Channel.

Tanks to fight tanks was central to that viewpoint, a fixation reinforced by successive tank-centered Arab-Israeli wars.

All along, however, a group of Army aviators has had a different vision, expressed as far back as the early 1960s as a ``war fought one foot above the ground.''

What bothered the aviators was the relative immobility of the tank and all other heavily armored vehicles, in particular, in strategic terms. To shift the tank-heavy American Army from Europe to any other place in the world where American interests might be more severely threatened requires an enormous logistic effort and many months - as we are now seeing in the Saudi Arabia deployment.

The problem of how to reinforce that Army with similar heavily armored units has never been solved. Even with the almost unlimited resources made available during the first Reagan administration, the US was unable to meet its pledge of additional ready divisions in the early weeks of a NATO-Warsaw Pact war.

What the American aviators were seeking was an aerial fighting vehicle that, in their terms, ``would get the Army out of the mud,'' and thereby provide an advantage of tactical and strategic mobility even more dramatic than the World War II Panzer divisions achieved over the World War I infantry armies.

As expressed by Maj. Virgil L. Packette II, in a study done at the US Army Command and General Staff College, ``The next battlefield will be ... governed by speed.... There will be no continuity of battle lines and all activity will be ... at the tempo of the helicopter.''

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Major Packette writes that, when unopposed, today's tank-led Army ``moves at approximately 25 km per hour. The air mechanized [helicopter] force will move at speeds above 200 km per hour.''

Despite formidable opposition from the tank and parachute-jumping Army, the aviators managed to create at least a core of air mechanized units.

It was left to two senior West European officers to achieve the conceptual breakthrough. This came in the 1980s with proposals by German Gen. F.M. von Senger und Etterlin, then commanding NATO's Central Army Group, and British Brigadier Richard E. Simpkin.

General von Senger und Etterlin proposed nothing less than the reorganization of the entire NATO land force on the model of one of the units the American aviators had been able to create, the Sixth Air Cavalry Brigade (Air Combat). Brigadier Simpkin extended the concept to a worldwide strategic level, pointing out that such units as the Air Cavalry Brigade could be deployed ``in one or at most two large aircraft carriers'' to any part of the globe in a fraction of the time it would take to begin deploying heavily armored formations.

For the US the moment of truth has arrived, driven by the budgetary crisis.

Any substantial residue of heavily armored US forces in Europe will absorb all of the personnel and material resources of an Army greatly reduced in size and fiscal resources. Plans are already being made to spend a large part of those resources in developing a new ``family'' of American armored vehicles.

Do we continue with such a force, or do we seek to develop a force along the lines proposed by Brigadier Simpkin, capable of rapid movement worldwide?

To date the Bush administration has avoided all such quandaries, preferring to reduce all parts of the military by slices, keeping at least the skeleton of the cold-war military establishment intact. Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, citing advice from former Army Chief of Staff Edward Meyer and former NATO ambassador David Abshire, has proposed retaining a Europe-oriented strategy centered on the existing armored forces.

With the Soviet and German armies moving rapidly toward adoption of the von Senger und Etterlin and Simpkin concepts, that might leave the US, in the view of its aviator ``rebels,'' with an Army more fitted to a museum than to a modern battlefield.

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