MOST Americans - and the remaining presidential contenders - recognize a fundamental fact about national security: A nation's strength is to be found not just in sophisticated weapons or large armies or complex military alliances. Rather, it is to be found in the best use of the resources at hand, ensuring - to put the issue in military terms - a balanced and comprehensive defense strategy.
Much of the creative thinking about defense strategy is coming more from within the Pentagon than from the presidential candidates out on the stump. The candidates, as of now, have been somewhat circumspect in speaking out on purely military matters, although they have gone into such larger issues as arms control and East-West relations in general.
From new Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci III down through the Pentagon ranks, a serious reexamination of United States military objectives is under way. Such a course is to be welcomed. The Pentagon knows that the unrestrained arms budgets of recent years are over. Defense budgets will still be high - probably up to $300 billion. But no longer will Congress rubber-stamp any new procurement plan.
The next president, and Congress, will face a set of circumstances entirely different from what President Reagan faced in 1981. Then the issue was of a perceived US national ``weakness'' following the nation's pullout from Vietnam. The Reagan arms buildup, which will ultimately cost American taxpayers between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion, was intended to overcome that weakness. A defense buildup had begun in the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter. But in 1981 Mr. Reagan undertook a massive expansion of the Navy, proceeded with the B-1 bomber and MX missile, and pushed the ``star wars'' antiballistic defense system.
The underlying issue facing the next president is not one of American military weakness. It is, rather, the need for selectivity - ensuring the right mix of defense options at the best price. It comes against the backdrop of possible deep reductions in nuclear forces now being worked out between the US and the Soviet Union, as well as increasing calls from abroad that the US trim back its overseas commitments.
We would prefer that the next president take a very cautious approach toward defense spending:
Cut back on unnecessary big-ticket items. Most of the Democratic candidates agree that funding for certain programs, notably the Midgetman missile and star wars, should be reduced sharply. The Midgetman program is a logical candidate for termination - or substantial reduction; star wars should be cut back to funding just for limited research, rather than eventual deployment.
Completing existing programs, where appropriate - and ensuring readiness, rather than developing new weapons - is the primary need. Congress should, for example, be wary of proposed increases for a whole new generation of advanced-technology aircraft sought by the Navy and Air Force. Why should there not be a commonly funded advanced aircraft? The same consideration should apply to options for various versions of the Stealth bomber. The burden of proof should be on the Pentagon to prove that multiple versions of a new aircraft make sense - or that a new weapons system is essential.
Trim back some, but certainly not all, of America's overseas commitments. This is not to take a ``Fortress America''position. It is to recognize the changing nature of the world. Why should the US still maintain huge troop commitments in South Korea more than 40 years after World War II and 30 years after the Korean war when South Korea is now a major industrial power competing with the US? That could also be asked of Europe, although, we would concede, keeping a sizable US force in Europe is a reasonable deterrent to a Soviet invasion. But surely Europe, and South Korea and Japan, can be doing far more to defend themselves. The recent cooperative defense alliance between France and West Germany is the type of regional military alliance that makes good sense - and eases pressure on the United States.
The case for bases in such nations as Turkey and the Philippines is more readily made, but it still warrants reexamination. Merely moving forces back to the US would not necessarily save dollars, since costs for forward bases are often less than for relocating the units at home - and having to fly them abroad when needed.
Trim back on defense installations in the US. This idea is not advanced just by more liberal Democrats. Republican Pierre du Pont, a conservative, has proposed, for example, closing about 100 bases or installations in the US.
Upgrade conventional forces. The Reagan administration's main focus has been strategic - star wars, for example - and developing big-ticket items, such as the buildup in Navy carrier forces. That emphasis has come at the expense of conventional forces. The next president should ensure that conventional forces are at maximum performance. That might mean keeping the production lines open for existing military helicopter programs. It might mean putting more money into attack submarines rather than in costly new aircraft carriers.
The crucial relationship. Some rethinking about the American military and its relationship with the American people is in order. One drawback in moving from a draft (conscription) military to a professional (volunteer) force, as the US has done since the 1970s, is that many people tend to view the military with perhaps more detachment than is warranted.
We would hope that the next president and Congress can find a way to involve the citizenry more in the debate about the military's true needs - and what real strength means to a democratic society.
A better balance must be struck between a regard for defense and the proper use of force when required; in other words, what actions constitute justification for the engagement of US forces? National security is everyone's business in a democracy - an objective, as defined by the US Constitution, ultimately left to the American people themselves, acting through their elected representatives.
The next editorial in this series will appear Feb. 22.