WASHINGTON - Though George W. Bush has charged repeatedly that the military is ill-prepared for combat, he proposes to increase defense spending by less than half of what Al Gore wants. And he's earmarked no funds to improve the readiness he says has diminished during the past eight years.
The Republican presidential candidate says he would spend $45 billion extra on the military over the next decade while the vice president would spend $100 billion more during the same period.
Bush "makes the statement that we need to put more resources in the military," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "There's not one dollar in the $45 billion for readiness, ... not one billion for modernization. The attacks are not backed by additional resources."
Yesterday, top military leaders appeared before Congress to underscore their need for more money, more personnel and more modern equipment to keep pace with the increased number of missions since the end of the Cold War.
The armed forces can carry out the nation's military strategy of being able to fight two major wars simultaneously, they said, but the current $290 billion Pentagon budget falls well short of their needs.
"We must find the necessary resources to modernize the force," said Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who called for a "significant" increase in Pentagon spending.
If elected, Bush said he would direct a top-to-bottom review of the Pentagon from its budget priorities to its missions, after which more money could be forthcoming.
Of Bush's $45 billion in proposed defense increases, some $5 billion is set aside for pay raises in the first five years and $20 billion is targeted toward research and development, which defense analysts and military officials say has been underfunded during the eight years of the Clinton presidency. Some of the remaining money could go toward modernization or readiness, Bush advisers said.
Gore's top military priorities are raising pay, modernizing weapons and improving the combat readiness of the forces, though he has not provided dollar amounts for any of those areas.
Bush advisers brush aside the Gore campaign's focus on its higher budget figure for the military.
"It's fine to put out a number," said Richard Armitage, a Bush campaign adviser and former senior Pentagon official. The Pentagon first needs a strategic plan that will chart it's future direction, he said during a debate on military spending at Georgetown University this week.
But Bush's lack of concrete proposals seems curious in light of the experience of his national security team, which is well-versed in strategy and weaponry, as well as the intricacies of the defense budget.
In addition to Armitage, the Bush team includes his running mate, Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense, as well as former Gen. Colin L. Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice - all of whom held senior national security posts in the Reagan and Bush administrations.
And, in contrast to Bush's generalized defense proposals, the governor has offered detailed plans on a number of other major issues, including education, taxes and prescription drugs.
One of Bush's top defense advisers, who asked not to be quoted by name, said it would be "irresponsible" to specify cuts or spending on specific weapons programs without a review of what is needed.
"You don't have access to all the information," he said. "What are you going to be doing in the world, and what do you need to do it?"
The Bush team, he said, would review current missions, such as those involving the Balkans and Iraq. The advisers would also offer recommendations on which weapons to keep and which to scrap.
"There are a lot of systems we're going to put under the microscope," he said. "You're going to have to make hard choices on procurement."
The adviser said the Bush campaign is offering more specifics than Gore on defense spending. He said, for example, that Bush wants 20 percent of the current $60 billion weapons-buying budget set aside for next-generation weapons.
Still, while Gore and his supporters are crowing that they would outspend Bush on defense, even that $100 billion is not nearly enough, Pentagon officials and defense analysts say, to modernize the nation's fighter aircraft, ships and other weaponry. And Gore's advisers are also silent about the hard choices that have to be made.
Yesterday, the military service chiefs offered Congress a laundry list of what they see as their most pressing needs.
"We need more people," said Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff. "The Army is too small for the missions it performs."
Army officials said privately that the current 480,000-soldier force needs to be increased by 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers.
Gen. Michael Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, said the service is only able to buy one-third of the needed aircraft.
"We've never dealt with a force this old," Ryan told lawmakers.
Most defense analysts agree that the current $290 billion Pentagon budget needs an infusion of $30 billion to $50 billion per year for the foreseeable future to pay for its proposed projects. Bush's proposed increase would amount to 1.6 percent a year, while Gore's plan would allow an annual 3.4 percent rise in spending.
"Neither [Bush nor Gore] is offering enough money to solve the problems," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"There's really not that much difference between the two," said defense analyst Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Kosiak said there has yet to be a debate about the size of the 1.4 million-member military and the fate of high-priced aircraft such as the Air Force's proposed F-22 fighter, the Navy's next-generation F-18 and the Joint Strike Fighter, which is to be used by all of the services.
Building the proposed 2,850 Joint Strike Fighters is expected to cost more than $200 billion.
There are "real tradeoffs" that are required, said Kosiak. "Hopefully, that's the debate we'll see after the campaign."