IN proposing a fiscal 1997 defense budget that continues the post-cold-war military ''build down'' in the US, President Clinton may be giving new campaign ammunition to the Republican Party.
The $242.6 billion Pentagon spending plan unveiled yesterday by the Clinton administration is $9.2 billion, or 6 percent, lower than the current defense budget and continues a trend that began in 1990. The proposal does not contain some $11 billion for defense-related programs, including nuclear-arms production, administered by the Energy Department.
Under the plan, the biggest cut in Pentagon spending would come from funds for purchases of new weapons systems, which would drop from $42.3 billion to $38.9 billion. Defense Secretary William Perry has defended reductions in recent years in new weapons procurement funds as a trade-off for boosting the readiness of the US armed forces through higher spending on training, operation, and maintenance and quality of life programs.
Mr. Perry says spending on new weapons systems, such as the F-22 fighter, will begin increasing in fiscal 1998. By fiscal 2001, the amount will reach $60 billion a year, or about 40 percent more than proposed for fiscal 1997. ''The ultimate goal of the modernization plan will be to ensure a ready, flexible, and technologically superior force for a changing security environment,'' he says.
Senior military officers have been expressing concern about the level of spending for modernization, warning that the armed forces need to begin replacing inventories of everything from new boots and trucks to combat aircraft. Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said the Pentagon must start spending a minimum of $60 billion annually.
The administration's defense budget is likely to draw sharp criticism from Republicans as the '96 campaign heats up. GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill have accused Clinton of jeopardizing US military superiority by cutting back on modernization funds. They charge that the reductions are also undermining the country's defense industrial base because armsmakers are having to let go specialized workers as they move into nondefense products.
Other lawmakers and independent experts, however, question whether the US will have enough money for planned purchases of new weapons at the same time it is funding a military force capable of fighting two near-simultaneous regional wars, as specified by current strategy, and balancing the federal budget.
They say a new overall review of US global military strategy will have to be undertaken with an eye to further reductions and restructuring of the armed forces. ''Real funding for defense is decreasing at the same time we are talking about increasing money for procurement,'' notes Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based research group.
Other provisions of the proposed fiscal 1997 defense budget call for a 3 percent pay hike for civilian and military employees and $1.1 billion for ''contingency'' operations, such as the 18,000-strong US contingent in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Defense officials say that reductions in uniformed personnel have almost ''bottomed out'' at the 1.4 million level specified by current strategy. That compares with a cold war high of more than 2 million. But further cuts in the civilian work force will have to be made, they say.