How ready is ready enough?

MOANS are rising from the Pentagon. Military budgets are being squeezed after an era of expansion, and some see readiness draining away. The Air Force has served notice that it won't be able to give its pilots the flying time needed to keep them at peak readiness. It is asking Congress to OK a shift of funds in the '88 budget to buy more training time. Spare parts inventories are another worry.

People interested in their country's security, having read and heard lots about the huge military buildup of the Reagan years, are left asking, ``Just how concerned should I be?''

First, in case you're wondering, the anguish over readiness represents more than poor-mouthing by the top brass as the budget-cutters advance. When the call goes out for quick savings, the first items axed are likely to be those most easily reached. In the realm of defense spending, these items include yearly allotments for fuel, training, ammunition, and maintenance - the elements usually lumped together as ``readiness.'' At a time of reduced spending, it's important that these basic needs be protected.

Big-ticket items like new bombers or space-based defense projects have both longer-term funding and political constituencies to shield them from quick slashes.

Second, and more important, the citizens' question can really be answered only in the context of another question: What should the United States be ready for?

The size and shape of the armed forces should fit the nation's military and strategic commitments. Those commitments haven't been thoroughly rethought since the early '70s; they are due for reconsideration.

Should Europe remain the keystone of our strategic interests? Should attention shift to the Pacific? Should planning be directed toward conflict in the third world?

A changing world - more-self-sufficient allies, an evolving Soviet Union - is altering superpower relationships and begging answers to these questions. Presidential candidates should help frame a national debate over strategic interests - a debate the next administration will have to resolve.

It will also have to resolve the issue of what is affordable. The days of rapid modernization and 600-ship navies are probably behind us, no matter who's elected next fall. Maintaining the modern weaponry already purchased will require more budget expansion than is likely to materialize. So the process of deciding which systems are crucial and which are expendable will grow even more intense.

The latest flare-up in the Gulf has shown that US forces can be ready when needed. How many needs should the nation be anticipating? The readiness debate must ultimately go beyond numbers of bullets and hours of training to consider this question.

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