On US military strategy, candidates seem to think alike

While the presidential candidates huff and puff about who's for a strong America and who's more committed to lasting peace, there appears to be relatively little difference between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan on overall US military strategy.

The Democratic challenger would cut some big strategic programs, such as the MX missile and B-1 bomber. But he favors others, including the Trident submarine , a single-warhead nuclear missile (the mobile ''midgetman''), and continued research on ballistic missile defenses. Mr. Mondale has called for a ''coherent strategy,'' and promises to spend relatively more on conventional forces and less on nuclear arms while cutting defense spending $25 billion by 1989.

But on the broader questions of posture, disposition, and use of American forces around the world, Mondale has yet to outline his differences with the incumbent.

''We really haven't refined defense thinking to that point,'' said David Aaron, Mondale's chief defense and foreign-affairs adviser and a member of the White House national-security staff under Jimmy Carter.

There appear to be at least three reasons for this lack of focus by the Mondale camp on fundamental military strategy issues: Concern among Democrats that they will be painted as ''soft on defense'' (former President Carter was criticized for wanting to pull US troops out of South Korea); the current style of presidential campaigning, which makes it easier to respond to public concerns about nuclear war and snipe at weapons of mass destruction; and a subtle change in Reagan administration rhetoric as well as his use of US forces.

Earlier in Reagan's administration, there was talk of ''horizontal escalation'' and preparing to ''meet the demands of a worldwide war.'' Navy Secretary John Lehman was especially aggressive in suggesting that - should superpower conflict start - US battle groups might attack Soviet naval forces in port.

Mondale defense advisers use such assertions as a prime reason for their candidate's opposition to two new aircraft carrier battle groups. ''That mission is unnecessary, probably suicidal, and terribly wasteful of resources,'' says Barry Carter, a former member of the National Security Council staff now working with the Mondale campaign.

But Reagan administration defense officials have toned down their rhetorical saber-rattling, and the actual use of US troops in potentially hostile situations has not matched the tough talk.

''Whenever adversaries seemed to want to test our will and power,'' wrote Harvard government professor Stanley Hoffman in the New York Times recently, ''the administration showed extreme restraint in the use of armed forces because of continuing domestic opposition to new involvements in dubious, protracted, and inconclusive wars. ... In Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, even in Central America , the contradiction between brave words and limited deeds has been striking.''

In the one case where US troops waged a brief war - Grenada - Mondale says he , too, would have used American forces to rescue US citizens.

Most military experts agree that it is localized conventional conflicts which the United States is most likely to face, not an all-out nuclear holocaust or a massive Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. American commitments abroad have continued to grow, most recently with the ''Carter doctrine'' of protecting US interests in Southwest Asia with force if necessary.

Leading defense intellectuals also have been urging the US to lay out a rational and coherent military strategy that matches these expanding commitments with finite resources. And top military officers themselves have warned of a mismatch between strategy and forces.

In a new book titled ''Revising US Military Strategy,'' Jeffrey Record, senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, warns that ''even the Reagan administration's military program ... may fall short of meeting the force requirements of the administration's announced strategy.''

''Mondale accepts as a given our basic commitments abroad,'' said Dr. Record, adding that on questions of military strategy ''it's more or less a wash'' between the two candidates. ''I hate to say that, because I've been very critical of the Reagan administration,'' added Record, who used to work for Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a leading defense expert.

For now, however, Walter Mondale appears to be leaving fundamental questions of military strategy until after his hoped-for election.

''What we would like to do ... is get some of the regional military commanders more in the planning process through reform of the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) system so that those kinds of issues could be addressed more effectively,'' says adviser David Aaron. Such an approach is not unlike the kind of decentralization on military planning advocated by the Defense Department under Ronald Reagan.

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