It was six years ago when Benjamin Lambeth realized the US military had lost its unquestioned air superiority.
Mr. Lambeth, an American researcher for the Rand Corp., took the throttle of Russia's top-of-the-line fighter jet, the Su-27 Flanker, and felt the roar of what was, for the moment, king of the skies.
"It had tremendous power and agility," he recalls. "In the hands of a professional pilot, and with proper maintenance, it could match America's best."
Mr. Lambeth's unique experience, at the invitation of the Russian Army, helped stoke a debate that lies at the core of one of the most important national security issues the US faces going into a new millennium.
Pentagon officials argue that rival countries are close enough to the US militarily that they still present a major security threat. Independent military analysts, however, almost unanimously agree that the US is so far ahead of its potential enemies that it could cut its defense budget and still have the power to easily win simultaneous wars - the current strategic lodestar.
The Russian Su-27 is an argument for both sides. When armed with state-of-the-art, infrared-guided missiles, it may be the world's best fighter jet. Yet Russia is so poor that it can neither properly train pilots nor turn on the production lines to manufacture the plane in quantity.
The result is that, for the moment, there is no real challenge to the US-made F-15, which first flew in 1972. On the other hand, military officials are quick to say, a challenge could emerge if a third country paid the Russians to begin production.
With the end of the cold war and collapse of the Soviet Union, determining how much might the US really needs has in some ways become more difficult. How, for example, does the Pentagon justify spending nearly $300 billion this year when its enemies look so threadbare?
Although Russia is considered America's greatest security threat, it is a ghost of what it was during the cold war. Another potential combatant, Iraq, has only gotten weaker since operation Desert Storm. While North Korea, the consummate "rogue state," has an enigmatic military capable of inflicting great damage, it would probably lose a head-to-head confrontation with US ally South Korea.
According to Andrew Hoehn, the deputy secretary of defense for strategy, the rationale for today's spending lies in the Pentagon's twofold task of handling today's regional conflicts, like Kosovo, while preparing for tomorrow's possible enemies, who range from tiny rogue states to a colossal power like China.
Because of that, he says, the US needs to continue developing superweapons like the F-22 fighter jet, which is designed to trump the Su-27 and could be a deterrent to any country thinking about challenging the US in the sky. Simultaneously, the Pentagon must work on the more abstract challenges that lie beyond the cold war, Mr. Hoehn says, like preparing for chemical warfare and improving the recruiting and retention of soldiers.
"Yes, we need to transform the military," Hoehn adds. "But we also need forces to meet the challenges that are here and now."
Many analysts, however, do not see a serious threat now. They see a bloated Pentagon still fighting Soviet phantoms - and politicians who can't stop the spending for fear of being labeled "weak" on national security.
Difficulty of cutting spending
President Clinton, for example, is considered vulnerable on defense issues because of, among other reasons, his personal history. As a result, he is unable to challenge the Pentagon, especially in today's booming economy.
"The Department of Defense and the chiefs of staff know that the president is in a weak position," says Dale Bumpers, a former senator who works for the Center for Defense Information.
According to Mr. Bumpers, politicians become hostages when the Pentagon develops new weapons systems that, although questionable in application, look good to the public. One example: the national missile-defense system designed to pick off incoming rockets. Although it tested successfully a month ago, it remains to be seen if it can work against real attacks. Moreover, its development angers the Russians, who in response have threatened to deploy more missiles.
"It won't be worth building if it throws US-Russian relations out the window," says Michael O'Hanlon, a researcher at the Brookings Institution. Yet funding for a national missile-defense system - an estimated $128 billion over 30 years - is unlikely to be seriously challenged on the Hill. But the real danger, analysts say, comes when the Pentagon becomes so fixed on old-style weapons - such as a new line of attack submarines and the Comanche helicopter - that they ignore the changing scope of warfare.
"We are probably severely under-investing in preparations to meet emerging challenges," says Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that monitors defense spending.
Mr. Krepinevich says the Pentagon should focus more of its resources on new issues ranging from controlling satellite access in space to preparing for military intervention in urban settings.
Also, he says, the military needs to focus more on possible in-country security threats, which are increasingly likely to come through back-door channels. These days it would be easier for enemies to smuggle chemical weapons into America than it would be for them to launch a missile attack. And the chemical weapons could produce a bigger bang. "Even the Oklahoma City bombing showed what you can do with conventional weapons these days," Krepinevich says.
Also rapidly changing with the times - and throwing the military off balance - is the perceived nuclear threat against the US. While the Pentagon once raced to produce more atomic warheads than the Soviets, they now worry that Russia could fall into an internal crisis so severe that their nuclear arsenal could be raided and sold to a country like Iraq.
Yet, critics say, lawmakers are hesitant to fund programs in which the US and Russia would work together to safeguard Russia's nuclear stockpiles. Some analysts even say the threat of nuclear war is greater now than at the height of the cold war.
Finally, the debate on US security hinges on the strength of its allies - something military planners never take for granted. Countries in the European Union, including Britain, France and Germany, had a weak showing in Kosovo but are expected to improve their military prowess in coming years. And, says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense, many of those nations are bound by treaties to come to the US's defense should it be attacked.
Mr. Korb, an adviser to a group called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, says the US would still be increasing its military advantage over its rivals if it, for example, cut spending by 15 percent.
Look what they're spending
As it stands, the projected US defense budget for 2000 will be more than three times greater than the combined military spending of China, Russia, and the rogue states Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba, according to Chris Hellman of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. By 2002, he says, the US, although the lone superpower, is likely to match its own spending levels from the cold war.
But while it is spending that critics say they want to cut, it is also spending that distances the US from its enemies and creates a deterrent to potential aggressors, says Mr. Lambeth, who flew the Russian Su-27. "We don't have to worry so much about the Russians now," he says. "The Russian military will only flourish as their economy does."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society