WASHINGTON -- There's one point on which the four major presidential candidates agree: America must have the most technologically advanced, best paid and best equipped military in the world, able to respond to current crises and new threats emerging in the 21st century.
And three of them say more money is needed to pay for it.
Only Democratic contender Bill Bradley opposes increasing the Pentagon's proposed $277 billion budget for next year, while his rival, Vice President Al Gore, says tens of billions in added defense spending will be needed in the coming years. Gore's view is echoed by Republican candidates Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
With Bradley's campaign struggling, it appears increasingly likely that the next president will be managing an expansion in military spending not seen since the early days of the Reagan administration two decades ago.
"What you've got here reminds me very much of what happened at the end of the Carter era," said Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointing to the Reagan defense buildup. "With the notable exception of Bradley, there's a rough consensus on some things."
Driving the need for higher Pentagon budgets, say Gore, McCain and Bush, are the Reagan-era weapons -- from armored vehicles to planes and ships -- whose life span will end during the next decade. They also point to a threefold increase in missions for a U.S. military force reduced about 40 percent since the end of the Cold War, a pace that is wearing down equipment and personnel.
They all agree -- Bradley included -- that higher military pay, better health care benefits and more generous retirement packages are necessary to recruit and retain the best of America's youth.
And there is the steep price tag for the next generation of weapons, the fast, radar-evading stealth weaponry employing the latest technology -- or awaiting the next generation of high-tech wizardry. The three new types of fighter aircraft, for example, are expected to cost more than $350 billion.
McCain and Bush have placed rebuilding America's military at the forefront of their campaigns, chiding the Clinton administration for what they say have been inadequate Pentagon budgets and too many open-ended commitments abroad.
Both men have said, using the identical phrase, that the next president must restore the "bond of trust" with members of the armed forces. That trust has been broken by questionable overseas missions, they say.
"We must never ask troops to risk their lives for purposes not directly related to our vital national interests and values," McCain said in December in his first major defense speech. "We must not send them on missions for which we have no measure of success nor into conflicts we are not prepared to win."
But McCain has not identified which missions he would curtail. U.S. troops are deployed in more than 80 countries, with missions ranging from anti-narcotics training in Colombia to peacekeeping duties in the Balkans and Egypt's Sinai peninsula to humanitarian efforts in Haiti.
Bush has said only that as president he would push for an "orderly and timely withdrawal from places like Kosovo and Bosnia," where about 10,000 U.S. troops are taking part in peacekeeping duties as part of international forces.
The future of America's military has not been a top campaign theme for either Gore or Bradley. After years of charges from Republicans that defense budgets are insufficient, the Clinton administration proposed last year a $112 billion increase in defense spending over the next five years.
"We are now fighting for the first long-term, sustained increase in defense spending in a decade," Gore said in a speech to the American Legion national convention in California last summer. "We must honor this simple principle: Let's never ask our servicemen and women to do what they have not been equipped to do."
Gore also noted that the administration was pressing for "the largest military pay raise since 1982," a 4.4 percent increase, though Congress boosted it to 4.8 percent.
Bradley has said that the current defense budget is sufficient, though "cost-saving changes" would be needed to ensure that U.S. troops are second to none. Bradley said he would phase out "unduly expensive" weapons systems, such as the B-2 bomber and the proposed F-22 fighter.
Savings would be used for "essential new weapons and equipment" as well as better pay and benefit packages for service members and their families, Bradley said.
Gore and Bradley are undecided on whether the United States should create a national missile defense system to guard against missiles fired from North Korea and other rogue nations.