THE new $258 billion United States defense budget is like a hologram: What you see depends on your point of view. From the right, the budget marks the 11th straight year of steady decline, to a level lower than at any time since before Pearl Harbor. Military procurement is at its lowest level since 1950. We are slated to buy only 7 ships, 106 aircraft, and 100 tanks. Despite recent boosts for pay and readiness, the Clinton administration's requests will still fall short of its announced modernization plans by $18 billion to $53 billion over the next five years.
From the left, the budget appears to be excessive. In buying power, it is still two-thirds of what we were spending at the height of the Vietnam War and the peak of the Reagan buildup -- before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. US military spending equals that of the next six major powers combined and is more than triple that of the runner-up, Russia. Of every federal dollar subject to annual review and appropriation, 48 cents will go to the Pentagon.
Size alone is a misleading measure of the defense budget. More important than how much we spend is what we buy and whether we get our money's worth. Here, too, the assessments vary with one's perspective.
Some people say we should focus on the short term, making sure our people and equipment are ready for action in places like North Korea and the Persian Gulf. Others urge emphasis on developing futuristic weapons, so that we can lead in technology and not be blindsided by the anticipated revolution in military affairs.
Rather than embracing either alternative, the new budget takes a bride's approach: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. The old items are those ongoing everyday expenditures for people, equipment, and operations. New-weapons research increases slightly, but without any plan for radical changes in the 21st century. Borrowed is nearly $27 billion previously slated for planned weapons procurement and now shifted into pay and readiness accounts. The blue-helmet peacekeeping operations require extra money, and the Pentagon is asking for authority to transfer funds to maintain readiness when contingencies arise, such as those in Haiti or Rwanda.
The most notable aspect of the new budget is its emphasis on people and readiness. The Clinton administration has added money for pay hikes and quality-of-life improvements for military personnel, even though that causes deferrals of spending for new weaponry. Despite the smaller total force, manpower costs still take about 40 percent of the budget.
Readiness is an elastic term that can be bent and stretched to cover or expose problems in military capabilities. To the military, it means having both operable equipment and forces with a certain level of training. Units can become unready by doing too little -- not completing required hours of training -- or too much, thus needing time to recuperate and catch up on maintenance. Money can fix only some of these problems.
Nevertheless, both the administration and Congress are pledged to avoid ''hollow forces'' by funding continued high operating tempos and other aspects of readiness.
Congress and the administration are likely to clash over some controversial programs, such as the $1.7 billion requested for the third Seawolf submarine and congressional pressure to resume buying B-2 bombers at $800 million or so per copy.
Since Congress is not likely to be able to increase overall defense spending and make progress on cutting the deficit and balancing the budget, Republicans already have mounted an effort to pay for their defense boosts by eliminating other items in the defense budget.
Some of the items are the usual pork in appropriations bills, added by members of Congress to be spent in their districts. Others are for nontraditional military activities, such as $714 million for drug interdiction. Over half the amount -- $5.6 billion -- goes to clean up toxic materials at bases slated for closure and to make remaining bases environmentally safer. Some $400 million is being spent this year to pay for the dismantling of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. Another $2.1 billion program already on the chopping block would develop ''dual use'' technologies for military and civilian products.
How much is enough for defense? That depends on what wars you think the US might be involved in, when they will occur, and whether US forces will be adequate to deal with them. Given those uncertainties, the issue facing Congress over the next few months is whether the several billion dollars in dispute should best go for defense or elsewhere, such as cutting the deficit.