Ready for What?

A BASIC question about the House Republicans' National Security Revitalization Act is whether the nation's defenses have lost their vitality. According to their rhetoric, taken at face value, the United States faces imminent military disaster.

No such disaster looms. A few countries -- like Iraq, Iran, or North Korea -- could draw the US into conflict. But the level of military spending, around $260 billion annually, should be ample to prepare for anything those or other trouble spots may brew. And Russia, once a mighty adversary, is struggling to remake itself -- even as the sad state of its military is displayed in Chechnya.

What about the reported low readiness of some US units? It's well to remember that the military has been slimming down since the end of the cold war. That means retired units and lots of decommissioned equipment placed in maintenance, which to some may suggest lower readiness. Readiness should always be monitored, but experts note that such indicators as miles of tank training and hours of flight training haven't sagged.

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And President Clinton's ''underfunding'' of defense? Recent studies have indicated a gap of $50 billion to $150 billion over the next five years between the administration's defense plans and what it is projected actually to spend. But the gap is likely to total only about 10 percent of the money spent on defense over that period. And such gaps are not unusual. They existed under past administrations too.

This doesn't mean all is necessarily well with current defense planning. The key question concerning this president, or whoever succeeds him, will be whether he thought hard enough about the threats posed by today's world and the mix of forces required to meet them.

A presidential commission on roles and missions is at work on that task, as are high-level groups within the Department of Defense. The Republicans' bill, too, recognizes the need to examine the issue. Reports should soon be out that will direct attention back to this bedrock concern: How much military does the US need today, and of what kind? The answers, of course, could spread all over the lot, as the reviving debate over ''star wars'' hints. But it will at least be the right debate, instead of the current overwrought suggestion that the country is sliding toward military inferiority.

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