WASHINGTON -- When Sen. John McCain chaired a Senate panel the other day on military readiness in the 21st century, the Arizona Republican confronted the chiefs of today's armed services with three bright red charts.
The charts illustrated sharp declines in purchases of tanks, planes and ships under the Clinton administration. The service chiefs nodded in affirmation.
"I would like to modernize a lot faster," said Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff, expressing what appeared to be a common wish among his comrades in arms.
Senator McCain's charts also signaled one of the arguments Republicans will make against President Clinton: that he has underfunded defense modernization, risking the long-term readiness of the armed services.
Mr. McCain is a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and one of his party's most authoritative pro-defense spokesmen on Capitol Hill. As defense adviser to Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee, he will help Mr. Dole shape the coming defense debate.
With only a 1 percent difference between administration and Republican budget blueprints for defense spending from 1997 through 2001 -- according to Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank here -- that debate is likely to be less about how much to spend than about what to spend it on.
Mr. McCain questions whether the nation can afford a strategy of being ready to fight two almost simultaneous conflicts.
To save money, he also calls for different levels of readiness for various units and suggests another painful round of base closings.
"We have a strategy we can't afford, an infrastructure we can't maintain and a congressional process which is full of pork barrel," the senator said in an interview in his office.
Of Mr. Dole's defense priorities, Mr. McCain said: "What he would focus on is a readily deployable, very effective military force that can be moved to different places in the world on short notice."
He said there was a multibillion-dollar shortfall in funding for the administration's defense strategy over the next five years.
"Senator Dole's view is that we are going to have to come up with some innovative ways of addressing this funding shortfall," he said. "We might have to not only rearrange our priorities but also look at the two-[conflict] strategy."
Mr. McCain proposed the creation of three tiers of readiness among the armed forces, keeping only forward-deployed and crisis-response troops at full combat readiness -- the most expensive posture.
Maintaining troops at different readiness levels, he conceded, could be initially risky. But in the long run, the senator asserted, it would produce a more capable and more affordable force.
"The McCain proposal makes a great deal of sense," said Loren B. Thompson, defense analyst with the Alexis De Tocqueville Institution, a moderate-to-conservative think tank in Virginia.
"During a period of greatly diminished threats to national security, there is no obvious reason why all of our forces need to be maintained at a uniformly high level of readiness."
The Republicans also charge that Mr. Clinton is leaving the nation vulnerable to a nuclear, chemical or biological missile attack because he has resisted developing and deploying a national missile defense system.
The Republican leadership in Congress introduced legislation to build and deploy by 2003 a system to defend the 50 states from a "limited, accidental or unauthorized" missile attack. Mr. Clinton vetoed similar legislation this year.
"Right now, the United States has no defense, and I repeat, no defense, against ballistic missiles," Mr. Dole said. "And if it's left up to the Clinton administration, it will stay that way."
But according to Defense Secretary William J. Perry, the threat of missile attack against the mainland United States is at least a decade away. Mr. Perry supports developing the technology for a missile defense system but opposes funding deployment until the threat is more real.
Overall, the administration's defense policy has been to ensure the readiness and well-being of today's force at the expense of the modernization of tomorrow's military. But, like the service chiefs, Mr. Perry has been voicing increasing concern over the Pentagon's ability to finance the now-delayed purchase of new weapons.
The brass at the Pentagon would like to spend around $60 billion a year on arms purchases, but the administration's fiscal 1997 budget earmarks only $39 billion.
The administration defends its two-conflict strategy as realistic in an era of post-Cold War instability, where rogue nations such as North Korea and Iraq are constant potential threats to U.S. interests. But, even inside the Pentagon, officials question its cost.
Defense did not surface as an issue in the Republican primaries because there was little dispute among the Republican presidential hopefuls over the need for a stronger America.
"The Republicans are in between a rock and a hard spot," said Mr. Krepinevich, the defense analyst. "If you are a party that is going to be serious about balancing the budget, that doesn't give you a lot of wiggle room.
"You are in a ticklish situation because it implies you are going to take money from other programs to put it into national defense."
Another question is how to address the job fears of workers at the shipyards at Groton, Conn., and Newport News, Va., competing for future submarine orders.
And around the country, defense workers are haunted by the prospect of another round of base closings. Although neither party appears to have the political stomach for more closures, both acknowledge that there is still a surplus of bases.
Military manpower has shrunk 33 percent during the past decade, but only 25 percent of bases have been closed, inviting further cuts.
"I think what you are going to see next January is either Dole or Clinton coming and saying we are going to have another base closing," Senator McCain said.
"Neither will say so at this time -- and understandably so -- but the realities are, we are going to have to close more bases."
Pub Date: 3/31/96