WASHINGTON - Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, the new commander of the Navy's air forces in the Pacific, finally reached the end of his rope.
He had seen too many aging aircraft trying to keep up with the increased demands of overseas missions. Too many hangars without spare parts. Too much decrepit housing for sailors. So in his change-of-command speech aboard the carrier USS Constellation two weeks ago, he let loose.
"We have reached such a low level of funding it will soon be impossible to meet the expectations of this nation," he told hundreds of sailors, Marines and their guests in San Diego. "Isn't it right that the pilots and aircrews we send daily into harm's way have modern and capable aircraft? It is obvious the Naval service is undervalued."
Nathman's comments, unusually blunt for an active-duty officer, reflect what many military officers are saying privately, or less forcefully: Their services are overextended and underfunded. Their aircraft, ships and vehicles are too old to keep up with the increased demands of overseas missions.
Each of the services has its complaints. The average age of Navy aircraft is 17 years, while the typical Air Force plane is 20 - both historic highs. Forty percent of the Army's helicopters cannot perform their missions or are at high risk. The Marine Corps' amphibious assault vehicle is 28 years old, but was supposed to last just 20 years.
America's combat forces are still able to carry out the national military strategy - fighting two nearly simultaneous wars - but there are troubling trends, according to Pentagon reports and defense analysts.
"There are problems in the military that need attention, cracks and strains in people and equipment," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Equipment is aging."
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, has attacked the Clinton administration for sending troops on too many overseas missions and not spending enough money to maintain an able fighting force.
"Our troops are not ready," Bush declared yesterday during a speech in Michigan, sharing the stage with Persian Gulf war Gens. Colin L. Powell and H. Norman Schwartzkopf, and former Marine Corps Commandant Charles C. Krulak. "A leader does not ignore troubling signs."
Bush's Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, sought last week to counter Bush's repeated criticisms of the administration's defense policy, saying, "Our military is the strongest and best in the entire world."
Defense budgets began declining in the final years of George Bush's administration - when GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney was secretary of defense - and continued a steady decline during the first seven years of the Clinton administration, which devoted more money to the daily operations of the military at the expense of purchasing new weapons.
Defense analysts note that Congress, controlled by Republicans since 1995, generally went along with that trend, adding about 2 percent each year to the Pentagon's budget.
"The decision to cut the defense budget, and to do so relatively deeply, was very much a bipartisan decision," according to a report by Steven M. Kosiak and Elizabeth E. Heeter of the Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy institute in Washington.
"A strong case can be made that these cuts were an appropriate response to the end of the Cold War and attempts to bring the federal deficit under control," they said.
Spurred by the dire warnings of top military leaders, Clinton over the past two years began increasing the Pentagon's overall annual budget - which now stands at about $295 billion - and specified that more money be set aside for weapons purchases.
Earlier this year, Clinton and congressional leaders agreed to spend an additional $112 billion for defense over the next six years, the largest increase since the 1980s. Pentagon leaders, however, said at the time that $148 billion was needed to ease the strains on the military.
Now both Bush and Gore, making use of whopping budget surpluses, are calling for increases in defense spending beyond the $112 billion Clinton proposed.
Gore said this week that he would add another $100 billion to defense over the next 10 years, and Bush pledged $45 billion over the same period, while promising a top-to-bottom review to make sure the Pentagon is spending the money in the right areas.
The Gore campaign also charged that Bush "talks tough" about national defense and the "hollowness of the military" but devotes more of the budget surplus to a tax cut for the wealthy.
"Al Gore will put the national interest ahead of politics and make real investments to keep our military the strongest in the world," the Gore campaign said in a statement.
At the heart of both candidates' proposals are differing views about the role of America's military.
Gore plans to spend money on "modernizing" military equipment and investing in "tomorrow's advanced weaponry" to make sure the military can be employed in a policy of "forward engagement," according to his budget blueprint released this week. U.S. troops must be able to deal with overseas problems "early in their development before they become crises, addressing them as close to the source as possible."
Gore's policy reflects one of Bush's main criticisms of the Clinton administration, that it is too quick to send U.S. troops on so-called peacekeeping missions, from Haiti to the Balkans.
Bush said yesterday that American troops must be trained and equipped to fight and win the nation's wars, not to serve as an international police force. "We can't be all things to all people," he said.
While Gore has proposed spending more money on defense than the governor, he has not devoted as much time to the issue as Bush has, or been as specific on where the money would go.
Bush said he would devote $20 billion to research and development on new weapons systems, complaining that such funding has declined about 30 percent over the past six years. "We can use technologies to make our military harder to find, easier to move, more lethal in its capacities," he said.
The governor has said he would scale back Cold War weapons systems, such as the massive, 70-ton Abrams tanks, to fund research on new arms. Moreover, Bush said that some 20 percent of the $60 billion now earmarked for weapons purchases would be set aside for next-generation weapons.
Bush and Gore agree on the need to improve pay and the quality of life for the men and women in uniform. While Clinton last year backed a 4.4 percent pay increase for the military - a figure Congress raised to 4.8 percent - both candidates called for additional raises.
Bush has said he would spend $1 billion for more pay, with additional targeted raises for hard-to-retain military specialties. Gore has not specified how much he would spend on pay raises.
Both candidates would also devote more money to military housing, which military leaders say is vital to recruiting and retaining troops. "Quality of life issues play heavily," Gen. Terrence R. Dake, the retiring assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told reporters last week. "You recruit an individual, but retain a family."
The Pentagon estimates that about 60 percent of the existing 300,000 housing units nationally are substandard, including some used by enlisted Marines at their base in Quantico, Va. Those living quarters are so decrepit they are referred to as "crack houses."
Still, even the increases in defense spending called for by Bush and Gore will hardly make a dent in the need to modernize or replace aging equipment, said defense analysts and retired military officers. They estimate that an additional $25 billion to $30 billion must be spent on weapons purchases each year for the foreseeable future to ease the problems cited by Nathman and other officers.
O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said that as much as $30 billion must be added each year "indefinitely" to the current $60 billion weapons-buying budget. That budget is used to pay for the replacement of aging weapons such as the Abrams tank and to buy the new aircraft sought by the Pentagon, including the Air Force's F-22 fighter.
But under a Bush administration, some 20 percent of that budget would be diverted to fund new military technologies. "We intend to force new thinking and hard choices," Cheney said yesterday in Portland, Maine.
And although Gore has called for greater increases in defense spending, his budget indicates that he, too, would have to make hard choices between replacing aging weapons and building new ones for the future.
Michele Flournoy, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington and a former Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, said the issue of readiness and promises of more spending only raise more questions.
"What are you ready for?" she asked. "Are we managing [the defense budget] adequately? Are we managing our forces adequately?"