The president wants to save $400 billion in the defense budget over the next 10 years. This need not mean dropping big-ticket weapons systems or downsizing forces -- that's a phony choice. There's a way to achieve one-quarter of that amount while improving national security.

There would be huge savings and increased effectiveness if there were: (1) increased mandatory attrition of officers at about 10 years of service; (2) a matching reduction in numbers of mid-career officers; (3) a lengthening of up-or-out discharge points in a 40-year career, (4) short-term attendance (without displacing families) instead of year-long professional schools; and (5) denial of voluntary retirement within three years after accepting orders.

In 1861, Winfield Scott, commanding general of the Army and once leader of America's Mexican War expedition, had grown so fat and frail that he had to be mechanically hoisted onto his horse. He wasn't the only overage general or colonel, so there had to be massive replacement before the Civil War could be successfully prosecuted.

Similarly ruthless trimming had to be done during World War I, from which George Marshall, who served under Gen. John Pershing in France, drew a lesson that he executed aggressively upon becoming Army chief of staff on the brink of World War II. After the war, he devised an "up or out" promotion system (standardized by the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Act), along with "career management" that favored multiple experiences to enhance individual adaptability for wartime expansions.

Using the Army as an example, a "successful" officer must do three things during each level from captain though colonel -- serve on a staff, hold a command and attend a year-long school. Each requires a change-of-station with costly uprooting of family. This push-churning is worsened by the pull-churn of the up-or-out system, whereby majors must retire at 22 years of service (at, say, age 44), lieutenant colonels at 48, and full colonels and brigadier generals at around 52. This transitoriness is worsened by rotation to and from combat theaters.

The causes of this wasteful system include:

* The belief that varied assignments hone flexibility, "homesteading" being for the "non-competitive.

* An axiom that "soldiering is a young person's game" (Mikhail Kutuzov was 67 when fighting Napoleon and George MacArthur was 71 when battling the Chinese in Korea, but such cases are deemed "exceptions that prove the rule"), with horrendous taxpayer expense for middle-age-on pensions with lifetime health care.

* An addiction by generals and admirals to having lots of mid-grade officers working for them. This leads to excess staffing to ensure institutional memory, because officers change jobs so often. Comparable German military headquarters have half as many officers.

* A recognition that performance at one level cannot predict performance at the next (the "Peter Principle"), so the up-or-out system provides a painless way to clear the decks.

* An apprehension that stretched-out promotions will discourage retention.

* A fear that subordinates might cover for a worn-out boss, until combat disaster reveals the awful truth.

* The threat of officers' being up-or-outed in financially vulnerable middle age, which tempts exploitation of in-service connections for post-service employment in the defense industry.

In sum, I hold that a system conceived 60 years ago to develop officers like David Petraeus is ill-designed for thousands of Joe Excellent-but-not-Brilliants. We should not be surprised if, when America's long involvement in Afghanistan is combined with a drawn-out withdrawal from Iraq, professional scandals emerge like those in the last years of the Vietnam War. When you add to this our country's massive debt, it is absurd that our armed services' officer-career system is so loaded with counterproductive waste.

Col. William L. Hauser, U.S. Army, retired, is the author of "America's Army in Crisis" (1973) and numerous more recent works on military professionalism and civil-military relations.