Though the nomination is finally his after an embarrassingly long wait, Secretary of Defense-designate John Tower still faces a difficult future.

Still ahead are confirmation hearings that could get into disturbing rumors about the former Texas senator's private life as well as criticism that he is weak on managerial skills, too closely associated with defense contractors, and not a strong enough supporter of Star Wars.Then, after that ordeal is over and Tower is on the job, he can expect to be quickly confronted by a series of tough challenges, such as:

- No-growth or even shrinking defense budgets entailing hard choices among nuclear and conventional weapons systems already planned or being built.

- The possibility that some U.S. forces will be brought home from abroad, perhaps provoking confrontations with NATO allies over who will fill the resulting gaps.

- The closure of some military bases within the U.S., a move that's bound to provoke resistance even though many such facilities are obsolete and should have been shut down long ago.

To a considerable extent, the problems can be surmounted.

To begin with, criticism of Tower's managerial skills can be cushioned by backing him with a strong team of cost-cutting managers in the second echelon at the Pentagon.

Though conservatives are split on whether or not Tower is firmly committed to Star Wars, he has satisfied President-elect Bush on this score. And Bush's own commitment to this program appears to be beyond question.

While the FBI looked into rumors of Tower's drinking and womanizing and Bush said the investigation gave him a "clean bill of health," questions at the confirmation hearings about Tower's personal character still could embarrass the new administration.

Even so, Tower's long service in the Senate from 1961 to 1984 should assure his confirmation. So should his national stature, firm grasp of Washington politics, and military expertise. Tower, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee for 19 years, has been a life-long anti-Communist, a strong proponent of military power, and has negotiated with the Russians on arms control.

Yet Tower still seems potentially vulnerable on a couple of points, aside from his personal life. One is his reputation for never having met a new weapons system he didn't like regardless of how costly and technically flawed it might be. The other point of vulnerability is his record as a paid consultant for six major defense contractors and the questions this raises about his objectivity regarding their projects.

By picking Tower as the next Secretary of Defense, President-elect Bush displayed loyalty to an old friend. The jury is still out on Bush's judgment in this particular case.