Military reform in the United States is like the weather: Everyone talks about it, big commissions present reports, but neither presidential candidate is going beyond vague forecasts for the future. Talk about military reform has risen from a low grumble to a dull roar in Washington since a procurement scandal hit the US Defense Department in June. The Justice Department charges that Pentagon officers took payoffs from military contractors in exchange for inside information on government contracts. The scandal has spawned a rash of congressional reform plans.
But where do Vice-President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis stand on military reform?
The campaign's defense focus so far has been on hardware: the B-1 bomber, the MX missile, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars.'' The unglamorous problems of readiness, spare parts, training, and contingency plans have been ignored.
This is because such issues have little impact on the US public, notes retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a leading Republican spokesman on the military.
Instead, the campaign has heard accusations that equate military power with glamour weapons (such as the B-1) that Dukakis has opposed. On the right, Dukakis is accused of being a naive liberal who will give away the store. On the left, he faces Jesse Jacksonisms about how he should shift Pentagon funds to the inner city.
These extremes are irrelevant. They just won't happen - no matter who wins the election.
Massive military power - and spending - has been central to US security policy since the Korean war. The brief antimilitary backlash after Vietnam was an aberration.
Campaign oratory is obscuring the key question: What kind of policies accord with the dollar-short, manpower-lean conditions of the 1990s?
The answer that emerges from interviews with Democratic and Republican defense specialists and spokesmen is remarkably bipartisan and consensual.
Their conclusion is that there will be no drastic changes after the US inaugurates a new president. Instead, they expect to see some retrenchment and much continuity in overall policy.
No matter who wins, these defense specialists expect to see a de facto spending cap, far fewer big-ticket weapons systems, extreme caution about new Grenadas, and some attempt at military reform.
Constraint is the key word underlying the mainstream, centrist opinions expressed by all those interviewed: Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, Robert Murray of the Dukakis campaign; and Denis Ross and General Scowcroft in the Bush camp.
These experts argue that a number of factors demand a wiser management of US military resources. These factors include America's economic difficulties, its declining pool of young military manpower, the spread of very destructive high-tech weapons into the third world, and public disenchantment with the Pentagon's spending habits. How does this translate into policy?
The President must take the lead by establishing clear, consistent priorities and sticking with them.
``We no longer can have everything we want,'' says Scowcroft, ``as in the early '80s, when each service got a big slice of the pie.''
``Rather than the weapons you have shaping your policy,'' says Mr. Murray, ``your policy should determine what weapons you need.''
No increase is likely in conventional ground forces. These are labor-intensive, hence expensive. But the 600-ship US Navy may well be cut. Both Senator Nunn and Scowcroft said the Navy was overbuilt. They doubt US budget constraints will permit replacement of the two carriers now nearing retirement.
Armed force will be used in third-world countries far more prudently than before. Scowcroft, in particular, stressed that Mideast countries now have enough sophisticated hardware to lash back effectively. He argued against a knee-jerk reaction to any and all revolutionary situations. Only clear evidence of serious Soviet involvement, he felt, should lead Washington to even consider counter-action.
Both parties accept military reform as necessary. But when, where, how - and especially how much - is another matter.
Moderate Republicans such as Mr. Ross and Scowcroft sincerely want change. But right-wing Republicans fear that reform would spell the end of the flashy weapons - the MX missile, the B-1 bomber, and especially SDI - on which they rely to overawe Moscow and to satisfy a domestic constituency that sees high-tech weapons as the basis of military power. The hawks argue that Mikhail Gorbachev's willingness to make concessions proves the wisdom of the military buildup of the early 1980s, no matter its cost.
The Democrats have a clearer field - since the scattered sniping of their anti-Pentagon left is too visceral and unfocused to gain much support.
Amid reports of Pentagon waste and corruption, Nunn and Murray contend that broad and visible reform is vital if Americans are not to lose confidence in the military, as happened during the Vietnam war.
Nunn looks to the far-reaching Goldwater-Nichols Military Reform Act of 1986. He notes that the president has not chosen to implement this act, as he chose not to implement the Packard commission report on military reform.
Will either Bush or Dukakis sustain a reform program long enough to make it stick - for say three or four years?
The issue remains wide open in a campaign filled with unanswered questions.