THERE'S a new paperback out that's a best seller at the Pentagon. It talks of weapons, threats, and large sums of money - but it has little action, and nobody wins in the end. The book is the Defense Department's annual report to Congress. Issued each year around budget time, it's the Bible and World Almanac of the US armed forces rolled into one.
On the level of theology, the report attempts to explain why the US government acts as it does in weapons procurement, strategic planning, and nuclear arms control. On the level of statistics, it contains more information about the US military than is available in any other single unclassified volume.
For instance, did you know that the United States has 1,073 generals and admirals (down from 1,118 in 1980)? That the Defense Department has cut its number of accounting systems from 154 to 85? That a US carrier air wing has traditionally contained 24 F-14s?
Journalists, think-tank analysts, and private contractors all over Washington have well-thumbed piles of Pentagon annual reports. Spies probably do, too. When it's released, these government-watchers eagerly scan the report for what it discloses about policy changes. The volume's main points are seldom big news, but reading between its lines is a popular defense-correspondent sport.
For one thing, the book indicates what criticism is irking Pentagon officials. This year, it takes pains to rebut claims that the American century is waning, a thesis put forth in the recent Paul Kennedy best seller, ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.''
``America's national power is significantly greater than it was eight years ago,'' the report asserts.
It also touches on the resentment in the Pentagon about allies who complain of US military bases on their soil. There is a growing feeling among some officials that certain US bases, such as those in the Philippines, may just not be worth the hassle. ``No base ... is irreplaceable,'' according to the report.
For another thing, the book's data can disclose things that military officials don't otherwise like to talk about. This year's volume admits that the 600-ship navy, a primary goal of the defense buildup of the Reagan years, won't be reached until after the turn of the century, if then.
Its statistics show that the Pentagon is dealing with reduced funding the way it always has - cutting readiness accounts and slowing down weapons production, instead of canceling major weapons systems altogether. According to the annual report, cuts in the ammunition budget may cause the Army to close four ammunition plants, and tap war-reserve stocks of shells for training.
The Air Force did not put any money into war-reserve spare parts in either 1988 or '89, the report says. Fiscal constraints are listed as the reason for slowing annual F-16 production to 150 planes next year, down from 180 this year.
During the reign of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, the annual report was always good for an inflammatory statement or two about Congress meanly concluding that national security wasn't worth the cost.
Under the just-ended rule of Frank Carlucci III, the Defense Department's report language was toned down. It still urges continued defense budget increases, but in light of better relations with the Soviet Union the book's summary also strikes an optimistic note. ``We are now seeing encouraging signs that critical goals of US and allied security policies are being achieved,'' it says.