The Military's Dollar Race

President Clinton, ever aware of his need to appear hawkish on defense, has proposed a $267 billion Pentagon budget that reverses a 15-year downward trend in military spending. But his plan is nowhere near enough to please Capitol Hill's real hawks.

Calls for funding far in excess of Mr. Clinton's figures are mounting. They call for skepticism. As alarms about "readiness" and "hollow forces" are sounded, the effect, too often, is to obscure an issue of great importance to all Americans.

A strong national defense should be among the most bipartisan of issues. Differences arise (1) over how much spending is enough, and (2) over just what the threat is and how to prepare for it. The first point of contention is less important than the second - though it gets by far the most ink and sound bites.

One such bite is that America's military spending far exceeds that of all potential foes combined. But there are reasons for this. Significant threats, and responsibilities, exist. A quick look at some of these clarifies point 2 above:

*Regional crises that call for quick, and often extended, responses. Billions are being spent each year on peacekeeping tasks in Bosnia, and Kosovo looms as a second commitment in the Balkans. Other commitments keep US troops in the Persian Gulf and in Korea. Such undertakings are integral to America's role as a guarantor of peace in the world. They often demand quick movement of forces, a need that should guide the Pentagon's choice of new equipment.

*Terrorist threats. Many analysts feel these pose greater danger than conventional military threats, including missile attack. How can US military forces counter potential chemical, biological, or even cyber-attacks by terrorists? Strategic thinking has to embrace this question, altering the way defense dollars are spent.

*Deteriorating readiness. This constitutes a threat from within. Equipment is deteriorating, spare parts are scarce, and morale and recruitment are suffering. The pay and benefits increases in the Clinton budget address the personnel facet of readiness; also, nearly $104 billion goes to operations and maintenance, covering the hardware needs.

But attending to readiness also requires wiser use of current funds. Millions, rather than billions, could go a long way toward shoring up key facilities from barracks to base infrastructure to food services - all important elements of morale. Trimming off pork-barrel projects - including such big-ticket items as unneeded purchases of more C-130 air transports and upgrades of the already vastly expensive B-2 bomber - would help fund readiness. Closing excess bases is another must that goes against the political grain.

The administration's proposals are ample to maintain a robust defense. More important than absolute numbers of dollars is the ongoing effort to mold a military that's strategically in tune with the post-cold-war world. The money should not get ahead of the strategic thinking.

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