The issue in this year's defense debate is whether the United States should prepare to clobber Iraq again, gird for nuclear battle with the Soviet Union or anticipate future conflicts whose circumstances can hardly be conceived.
On the surface, the debate in the House this week would seem to pit legislators obsessed by the gulf war against military officialdom still immersed in Cold War thinking. The House Armed Services Committee has voted to terminate further procurement of B-2 Stealth bombers and slash the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative -- both quintessential weapons systems for fighting a strategic nuclear war. It has, instead, shifted billions thus saved to purchase conventional tactical weapons systems that proved highly useful in a desert turkey shoot against a paralyzed Third World enemy.
Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has vowed a veto for the $290 billion defense authorization bill if it reaches President Bush's desk without adequate funds for the B-2 or SDI. But the situation is not as pat and simplistic as this week's debate in the House would suggest. The Senate Armed Services Committee, more in sympathy with the administration, will come up with a bill that tries to deal with both strategic and tactical contingencies. No conceptual or intellectual breakthroughs should be expected. Instead, the final bill will probably reflect the usual mix of pork-barrel, individual service ambition and pet schemes.