The next president of the United States will inherit a twofold military franchise: He will not only control the world's most powerful military force but will have an opportunity to reshape it at a key time in its history.
With the cold war past, US forces are expected to change their visage from heavy armor to lighter, faster rapid-reaction forces, and that involves a lot of presidential decisions. Among them:
Do you go along with plans for mammoth weapons systems already in the early stages, including the $67.2 billion F-22 fighter-jet program?
With a budget that now spends only 16 percent for the military, compared with 50 percent in the early 1960s, how do you come up with the money to boost pay enough to keep armed forces talent away from a hungry commercial job market?
Key issue is change
Whatever the choices made, the next president will leave an indelible mark on the shape, size, and capability of America's fighting force.
"The key issue will become, do you want business as usual or dramatic changes," says Lawrence Korb, former undersecretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
The leading presidential candidates bring a mix of postures on the issue:
*On the Democratic side, former Sen. Bill Bradley favors reducing big-ticket weapons programs, instead funneling the money into payroll.
*Vice President Al Gore would spend billions more on a military that experts believe would resemble the fighting force that exists today.
*Republican front-runner George W. Bush would spend billions on high-tech research and development to improve the smart weapons in the US arsenal.
*Former naval aviator John McCain would target pork and pet congressional projects with an insider's expertise, while boosting readiness and payroll.
*Steve Forbes favors beefing up the military, and would spend billions on a Reaganesque build-up that would include a missile-defense system.
Military experts say that, so far, Mr. Bradley and Senator McCain have the most detailed vision of configuration of a future fighting force.
"Bradley is being specific and courageous in rethinking these big weapons plans," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here.
While in the Senate, he voted against the costly B-2 stealth bomber, as well as the Strategic Defense Initiative.
He has also expressed more willingness to work within international organizations in hot spots such as the Balkans.
But Bradley, a group of former military officials suggests, might not have the standing to fight military and congressional opposition to change successfully.
These military experts see Mr. Gore, in many ways, as a continuation of the Clinton policy in both foreign affair[ and military strategy.
He has been vague about the specifics but would likely spend more than $120 billion over the next 10 years boosting pay and readiness.
"Gore is far more interventionist [than Bradley] and has called for increased defense spending," says Ivan Eland, defense-policy studies director at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.
His past would be an asset since "he's a veteran and he knows [military] spending from being on the Senate Armed Services Committee," Mr. Korb says.
Specifics are missing
But Gore, as well as Governor Bush, has been criticized for lack of specifics in how he would shape the armed forces.
"If you want a strong national defense at a reasonable cost, neither Bush nor Gore is your candidate," says Ralph DeGennaro of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.
"Both would throw money at the Pentagon, and neither promises real reform," Mr. DeGennaro says.
Bush wants an increase in research and development spending by nearly $20 billion over five years for new high-tech weapons, significantly higher than his opponents' proposals.
Some believe it will be impossible for Bush to serve up the rest of his compassionate conservatism platform while spending nearly another $ 1billion a year to boost military salaries, and pay for programs like the F-22, which he supports, and a national missile defense.
Mr. Forbes has advocated a larger military, insisting on giving the military the necessary funding.
"... Annual procurement of ships has dropped 80 percent since the 1980s. The result? The 600-ship navy envisaged by Ronald Reagan ... will soon slip toward the 250-ship level because of lack of planning and procurement," Forbes laments on his campaign Web site.
Of all the Republican candidates, McCain, a former prisoner of war serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has offered the most specific plans.
Moreover, he has "the bona fides," according to retired Navy Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, to wage war with Congress and the Pentagon on budget issues.
"McCain has made an issue of pork in the military...." says Admiral Carroll.
McCain has already said he would save $4 billion in base closings and would spend just over that amount on military pay.
"I would think if you really want to ensure the military is responsive to national will and the military transforms from a cold-war force to a 21st century force, McCain would be the best bet," asserts Korb.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society