THE size and shape of the United States military should be a central issue in the presidential campaign. It relates directly to the US role in a post-cold-war world. It has an immediate impact on the economic well-being of many Americans. And it is entwined in Washington's intensifying battle over budget priorities.
Sadly, the candidates are more likely to debate who has the greatest commitment to Americans in uniform, and hence the greater patriotism, than any of the above concerns. Alleged draft-dodging will figure prominently. Pledges to continue the manufacture of unneeded weaponry already abound.
But voters should demand that the military issue this year move well beyond platitudes and pork. They should ask for, and get, answers to questions like these:
* What kind of military force is best adapted to a world where the old confrontation between the free world and world communism is no more? President Bush and his planners have set in motion a 25 percent reduction in Pentagon spending by 1995. Is that enough? Before that question can adequately be answered, you have to examine today's world and decide what's needed. Conflicts are likely to be regional, and they're likely to require quick response. Dominant military themes in the years ahead should thus b e agility, readiness, and mobility.
* Given that, what can be done with the money at hand? This fiscal year's Pentagon budget is $291 billion. That magnitude of spending is history. The administration wants $281 billion for '93; the House says $270.5 billion, the Senate $274.5 billion. Some Democrats in Congress and in the Clinton campaign talk about much deeper cuts. A big factor is the demise next year of the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act. This could cause a free flow of dollars from the military ledger to the domestic. But again, before t hat happens the government's planners - and the two men competing to head the whole show - should be laying out for Americans a much clearer idea of what's needed and how much it will reasonably cost.
* Speaking of what's needed, what hardware - planes, boats, tanks - really makes sense? In every weapons category, purchase decisions should mesh with the analysis of force needs and world threats. Instead, this "fit" is already being skewed by politics. The administration has vowed to start up the M1A1 tank assembly line, garnering a few Midwestern votes but ignoring the advice of its own defense secretary. Months ago Gov. Clinton jumped aboard the Seawolf submarine, perhaps as expensive and outmoded a cold-war machine as you could find, in order to woo Connecticut voters. Congress is rife with lawmakers whose district depends on this airplane or that radar system. The Pentagon has generals and admirals with their own ideas of what's indispensable. It will take a tough president to referee this debate and carve out his own plan.
* How do you plan military cutbacks in a way that preserves an industrial base should military needs increase down the line? The present Bush policy is described by one expert as "industrial Darwinism," where less-competitive defense firms simply die out. But are there "must have" capabilities that would be hard to recover once lapsed?
This last point touches on the sensitive area of foreign military sales. Sales abroad are one way of sustaining our defense industry. But when do such sales serve clear US interests, and when do they fuel regional conflict and undercut the preeminent interest in building a peaceful world?
America's armed forces have been a prime means of engaging the rest of the world - whether in the old role of protecting Europe, fighting the Gulf war, or ferrying relief to Somalia. The world, however, is rapidly changing, and so must the armed forces. A decade from now an increasing number of US soldiers - and US military dollars - may be devoted to international peacekeeping, or peacemaking, forces under United Nations auspices.
Defense accounts for 71 percent of the 4,049,000 people employed by the executive branch of government. The evolving mission of this huge organization will affect the lives of nearly every American and countless millions abroad. The candidates for president should consider themselves under orders to propose a defense program that can be defended.