WHEN American GIs jet off to foreign trouble spots, their last concern is how the Pentagon plans to foot the bill.
But recent deployments in Somalia, Haiti, and the Persian Gulf have come at a time when the Clinton administration is asking the military to do more with less. As the military machine starts to show signs of wear, some critics say US troops are paying too high a price to enforce peace abroad.
Combat readiness is suffering, they claim, as normal training and maintenance schedules are postponed and money is siphoned off to pay for emergency operations.
``Putting off costs in this way actually can cost more money over time, while readiness declines,'' concludes a recent report by Heritage Foundation military analyst John Luddy.
Rear Admiral Harold Gehman, Atlantic Fleet chief of staff, has said the Navy is footing its $140 million bill for operations in Cuba and Haiti by deferring maintenance on ships and aircraft, Mr. Luddy points out.
A presidential decision to deploy troops abroad should be accompanied by extra cash to pay for it, argues the Heritage report. ``Congress should fully fund all unprogrammed military expenditures with additional appropriations,'' Luddy writes.
Military officials would be delighted to get money for peacekeeping operations up front. But they say that so far, deployments in Haiti, Kuwait, and elsewhere haven't run down the troops to the point of no return.
A report issued this summer by a Defense Department task force on readiness notes ``pockets'' of difficulty that, if left unremedied, could bring the military back to the ``hollow'' status of the late 1970s.
Operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Straits of Florida cost $1.2 billion, according to Pentagon estimates for the last fiscal year. Congress appropriated about $400 million in October to pay for these missions, but left the Defense Department to eat the balance.
Speaking to reporters in mid-October, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch said he will ask Congress for $500 million to cover the peacekeeping mission in Haiti.
The cost of rushing troops to Kuwait, he said, will be ``in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.''
This sum may seem paltry in light of the Pentagon's $250 billion bankroll, but Defense Department sources say even in a budget this big, there isn't a lot of money left over.
In the president's defense, Deputy Secretary Deutch emphasized to reporters that the administration has made fostering combat readiness a priority, ``at the expense of new systems.''
The question, Deutch says, is not whether the troops are ready to fight now, but how effective they will be in 10 years when weapons need to be replaced.
Donald Snider of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, says that if crisis-spending continues at current levels, US forces will be hard pressed to maintain their technological superiority.
One of the problems, according to Dr. Snider, is the current system of reimbursement in which the Pentagon tallies up the cost of an operation after the fact, and submits it to Congress as a request for supplemental funds.
A far more efficient system, he says, would be to program emergency funds into the budget every year.
``As it stands, Congress will not give up the authority,'' Snider says.
Why won't Congress authorize funds in advance for crises like Haiti and Somalia?
According to Bill Kaufmann, a military expert for the Brookings Institution, the Pentagon already spends as much as $100 billion a year on ``preventative operations'' in places like Korea and the Persian Gulf.
Keeping troops in these combat-ready positions, Dr. Kaufmann says, is part of the Pentagon's security plan that calls for the military to be prepared to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously, and still have enough resources to squelch a third, smaller conflict.
As far as emergencies are concerned, he says, the steep costs of machines and manpower will be taken care of, whether the troops are in Haiti, Port-au-Prince, or home at Fort Drum.
If Congress sets aside emergency funds, Kaufmann says, this might set a limit on how many conflicts the military can handle in a year.
``The world is proving to be a very disorderly place,'' Kaufmann says. ``We're having more emergencies than we used to.''