THERE was a time, back in the Eisenhower years, for example, when the US military actually prided itself on being lean and mean. Using the latest technology was considered important. But the essential priority was ensuring that US forces - the nation's troops - were well trained, properly equipped, and ready to respond as quickly as possible to any genuine national emergency.
Obviously, US defense needs have changed much since then. Current federal spending for defense, reckoned as a percentage of gross national product, is far less than it was, for instance, back in 1960. National defense now requires a far larger and more varied mix of strategic weapons than had been anticipated several decades ago. And of course, today's military establishment is a volunteer military, rather than the draft military of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. But what seems equally clear is that the United States needs to strike a far better balance about its current and future defense needs than is contained in the proposed fiscal year 1985 budget.
The proposed defense budget - at $305 billion - is far too high. Adjusted for inflation, that represents an increase of 13 percent over the fiscal 1984 budget. Nor would that be all. Despite budget deficits now estimated to be in the range of $200 billion or more for the next several years, the administration is contemplating a 9.2 percent inflation-adjusted increase for fiscal year 1986.
Is it any wonder then that even pro-defense lawmakers such as Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia recognize that the defense budget will have to be trimmed back substantially? Indeed, the administration itself has known that the 13 percent request would not fly and that Congress will more likely go along with a more modest 4 percent to 5 percent increase.
What can be done to bring the costs down? A number of steps seem in order:
* Slow the rate of acquisition for the MX missile program.
* Trim the B-1B bomber program. Does the US really need the aircraft, when air-launched cruise missiles could be fired from existing B-52s?
* Reconsider the objective of a 600-ship Navy, with 15 aircraft carriers.
* Tighten the procurement process. Penalize firms that have a tendency to overcharge on contracts. Upgrade military auditing procedures.
By trimming the defense budget, the nation will be getting more - not less - defense for its taxpayer dollars. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the administration's five-year defense plan (running through fiscal year 1990) will actually cost $94 billion more than now projected.
Why? Because the Pentagon, says the CBO, has seriously underestimated what the inflation rate will most likely be during the next five years.
The United States needs a strong national defense. But that requires a program that is well thought out, devoid of nonessentials, and, yes, affordable.