Washington's current defense debate is not whether President Clinton's $267 billion military-spending request will pass, but how much Congress will increase it. That raises two questions: How much defense spending is enough, and can Congress and the White House stick to the budget discipline of the last few years?
Already there are ominous signs that the projected surplus could prompt a spending spree that quickly fritters it away. Last week, for example, the Senate passed a bill to hike military pay 4.8 percent and repeal Reagan-era military-pension reforms.
The pay raise is needed to help recruit and retain personnel, but the pension changes are a serious mistake - they create tremendous unfunded liability and more, not fewer, retirement incentives.
But the debate over how much to give the Pentagon to address some undeniable problems must begin with the most basic questions: What is the threat to America's security, and how big a military is needed to counter it?
United States defense strategy is currently premised on the ability to fight two major wars simultaneously. That's a bigger mission than the Pentagon had at the height of the cold war. Then, the military prepared to fight a major war (against the Soviet Union) and a regional conflict simultaneously.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, argues this is at least half a war too much. It not only exaggerates the threat, but it interferes with real needs like peacekeeping and fighting terrorism. Mr. Korb, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says the US should return to the one-war-plus policy. Such a strategic shift, he says, would allow savings of almost $50 billion a year over fiscal 1999 spending by enabling:
*Manpower reductions from 2.3 million to 2 million, with no need to keep every unit on high alert.
*Cuts in US forces in Europe from 100,000 to 50,000, Marine withdrawal from Okinawa, and nine aircraft carriers instead of 12.
*Smarter modernization through slower development of new weapons and buying more existing models of planes and tanks, which are cheaper and still better than any adversary's.
*Slashing nuclear warheads from 7,500 to 1,000, while inviting bankrupt Russia to do the same.
*Caps on missile-defense spending at $3 billion a year. More money won't speed development.
The issues aren't theoretical: New budget rules eliminate the "fire wall" between defense and domestic non-entitlement spending. Defense hikes will squeeze education, highways - and possible tax cuts. Beating some swords into plowshares is a must.
A responsible Congress will review the military from the bottom up and spend wisely in line with today's global realities.