Secretary of Defense Les Aspin was correct to overrule Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton, who had recommended that Chief of Naval Operations Frank B. Kelso II be fired for allowing the Tailhook scandal to occur. Secretary Dalton invoked an old and honorable Navy tradition in saying that the senior officer present is responsible for wrongful acts. Admiral Kelso was at Las Vegas in 1991 when the Tailhook debauchery and violence occurred, though he was not personally involved even as a witness. The admiral offered to resign in 1992, adhering to the same tradition Secretary Dalton cited. But his civilian superiors overruled him. Admiral Kelso thereafter launched impressive reform efforts regarding harassment of women. Last weekend's 1993 Tailhook convention was a decorous affair. Recent Navy polling of servicewomen showed a marked decrease in the number who observe sexual harassment in their own units. Women have been given more career opportunities, including the right to fly combat aircraft. Even more important from a national security standpoint, Admiral Kelso began reforms in the Navy's top-level organization and in mission planning. Given all that, he deserves -- and it is in the Navy's best interest -- to serve out his tour as CNO, which ends next July. There is another reason why Secretary Aspin was correct to overrule Secretary Dalton. This administration has an unusual problem with the military. The commander in chief was a critic of the military and avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Now many of the officers who began their careers in that war are reaching senior status. In the national interest, the rough edges in the relationship between military and civil leadership need to be smoothed. The gays in the military dispute did not smooth anything. Following that up by firing a popular service chief long after a previous administration cleared him would have looked to many like scapegoating -- and surely would have made the relationship's edges even rougher. Secretary Dalton is a Naval Academy graduate. He acted in what he took to be the best interest of the service. He is no doubt embarrassed by being overruled, but there is no need for him or anyone else to dwell on what happened. Everybody makes mistakes. Replacing Admiral Kelso next summer with a naval officer as competent, as respected and as dedicated to reforming and modernizing the Navy as he is should have a very high priority with this administration. Secretary Dalton has shown he has high standards. That, combined with judgment made wiser by this experience, should make his role in the president's choice of the next CNO a central one.