It's the unlikeliest of scenarios -- the dollar-dependent Pentagon telling pro-military Republicans in Congress it does not need all the money they want to give it. With the GOP bent on adding funds to the Clinton administration's defense budget, Defense Secretary William J. Perry and his top brass are asserting loudly and publicly: Enough is enough.
In a sign of the times, the GOP-controlled House last week approved a supplement of $3.2 billion to the fiscal 1995 budget to pay for overseas peacekeeping missions and combat readiness costs. It was $600 million more than the administration requested.
Having reduced the Army's strength, trimmed the Navy's sails and clipped the Air Force's wings, Pentagon leaders believe they can get by in this post-Cold War era with a "tight, but manageable" budget of nearly $258 billion for fiscal 1996. That is an inflation-adjusted decrease of 5.3 percent below the current year's spending level.
Under the administration's plan, the defense budget would drop another 4.1 percent in fiscal 1997, then hold steady for a couple of years, before increasing -- by a meager 1.1 percent -- in fiscal 2000. Over the next six years the administration plans to spend $1.6 trillion on defense.
Republicans, who blame a decade of budget cuts for already seriously depleting the nation's military power, don't want to see what they perceive as a bad situation getting any worse. They want to spend more -- now.
"The hemorrhaging must be stopped earlier than the next century," said Rep. Floyd D. Spence, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the House National Security Committee.
These pro-defense Republicans want at least to freeze defense spending next year at this year's level. With inflation factored in, this would actually cost between $12 billion and $15 billion more than the administration's proposal.
But the GOP is far from united over this. Its "Contract with America" calls not only for strengthened defense but a balanced budget and lower taxes. These conflicting priorities will inevitably have defense "hawks" vying with deficit "hawks" for the limited available funds as the budget makes its way through Congress.
The central question, of course, is how much is enough for defense when the major threat of superpower conflict has receded, if not vanished; when the United States is paying $400 million a year to help dismantle the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal; and when the most immediate threat appears to be from distant, Third World countries.
As Mr. Perry told the Senate Budget Committee: "There is plenty of room for debate and controversy about how much money it takes to do a program as big and as complex as this."
That debate has gained particular resonance this year because the Republicans now control Congress, and they want to reorder the Pentagon's priorities.
According to the Center for Defense Information, the United States and its close allies spend far more than the rest of the world combined, more than three times as much as Russia, and 17 times as much as the six rogue countries most often identified as possible threats: North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Cuba.
Administration officials caution that such comparisons may overstate reality because U.S. defense spending includes many items, ranging from environmental clean-up to retirement pensions, which do not figure in the defense budgets of other countries.
But, however inaccurate the comparisons, the gap between us and them is striking enough to lend support to the administration contention that Pentagon spending is currently sufficient to protect the nation's security against such outspent, outarmed potential adversaries.
To give some basis for defense planning and spending, the Clinton administration has settled on a strategy that requires the armed forces to be able to fight not The Big One against the Communists any more, but two major regional conflicts -- say, against North Korea and Iraq -- almost simultaneously.
Notionally, this enables Pentagon planners to decide how many troops, how much weaponry, and what airlift and sealift capacity are needed. Their answer: 10 active Army divisions, down from 18 at the end of the Cold War in 1990; 346 Navy ships, down from 546; 13 active fighter wings, down from 24; and 1.45 million active duty troops, down from 2 million.
Republican critics argue that these new force levels are TC insufficient for the strategy they are required to fulfill. The critics also say the Pentagon is simply under-funded. Since the end of the Cold War defense spending has dropped by 25 per cent, or $85 billion in 1995 dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Add to all this the gnawing fear that defense planners routinely under-estimate the inflation rate, military pay raises, and the cost-creep in developing and buying weapons, and you have predictions of a major, long-term budget shortfall.