WASHINGTON — THE early jockeying over the size of the United States military is apparently over. The White House has sent the Pentagon a dollar limit for its next budget. Reportedly, it is $292 billion, which would probably represent - after figuring for inflation - a 2 percent decrease in Pentagon purchasing power next year.
Real-dollar Pentagon purchasing power has declined about 2 percent a year since 1985, the peak of the Reagan arms buildup.
When the White House presents the figure to Congress next month as part of its budget, it will face pressures for far deeper cuts - pressures that have escalated in recent weeks.
Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, says that growing expectations of a budget windfall from a reversal of the arms race have become rampant in the public and in circles in Congress.
``The defense budget is in political freefall,'' he said at a Monitor breakfast for reporters Dec. 7.
Mr. Aspin, who was an ally of the Bush administration in forging the current defense budget, blames political bungling by the administration for jeopardizing the next one.
Some analysts outside the government believe the disintegration of communist power in East Europe would have sent expectations of defense savings soaring regardless of how the administration handled the budget numbers.
The opening gambit came from Defense Secretary Richard Cheney three weeks ago. He said he had asked the Pentagon to draft plans for cutting as much as $180 billion from its five-year plan.
The number sent a tremor through political Washington. Press leaks have continued of dramatic retrenchments under discussion at the Pentagon, and talk began in earnest of a peace dividend - a budget windfall from a declining defense budget.
``You've now got people pocketing these kinds of cuts in a very dangerous way,'' Mr. Aspin says.
But two things were apparent about the $180 billion number.
First, it was a cut, not from actual budgets, but from projections Pentagon planners were making of growing future budgets. It was also spread over three years, beginning in 1992. So the figure was not nearly as radical as it had appeared.
Second, it was a cut driven by the budget deficit, not by changes in Europe or strategic thinking. The easing of cold-war tensions made defense cuts politically possible, if not inevitable. But Cheney was arguing primarily with budget director Richard Darman.
Aspin contends that Cheney should have begun his public strategy not with numbers but with a spelling-out of what kind of defense the US needs in the new world environment. Arguing military strategy, he says, gives the administration something to rally congressional support around.
Last year, Aspin supported Cheney's effort to cancel 10 weapons systems entirely. The effort was defeated in Aspin's own committee, he says, partly because the administration had not justified the move as military strategy.
Some outside analysts, however, credit Mr. Cheney's current tactics with some political benefits. The $180 billion number, says Mitchell Daniels Jr., president of the Hudson Institute and a former political director to the Reagan White House, had ``shock value'' that put Cheney ahead of the momentum toward cuts.
Yet Cheney did not put any pressure on the defense budget he is now putting together.
It also helped Cheney in his battles within the administration, says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Showing a willingness to take a major retrenchment in Pentagon plans, he says, ``gave him a little more leverage inside the administration'' as the various Cabinet officers and agencies compete for next year's funds.
As actual defense cuts move through the budget process, adds Dr. Ornstein, ``you might well, within the next year or so, put Congress on the defensive.'' The defense programs that Democrats love to deride, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, will not provide large-scale savings even if they are terminated, he says.
Cheney's biggest victory, says Mr. Daniels, was avoiding automatic across-the-board cuts in the current year budget under the Gramm-Rudman law.