WASHINGTON - One issue crystallizes the likely difference between a Pentagon led by President Bush and one overseen by Sen. John Kerry - nuclear weapons, those with the potential for coming in to the United States and those intended for potential use elsewhere.
Bush has seized on missile defense as a key part of his defense strategy, deploying the first phase of a multi-billion dollar national missile defense system at Fort Greely, Alaska, to shoot down long-range missiles from North Korea or another country. Also, he is studying the creation of a new generation of small nuclear weapons that could penetrate underground bunkers to destroy weapons, arguing there is no current capability for that difficult job.
"We'll be implementing a missile defense system relatively quickly," Bush declared at the first presidential debate last month. "My opponent is opposed to missile defense."
Kerry has pledged to move ahead on missile defense but says that the $10 billion the Bush administration plans to spend on anti-missile programs next year is too much. He sides with critics who say the Fort Greely system, which will have five interceptor missiles this year, is not "fully tested."
"Yes, we must build missile defense and invest in missile defense, but not at the cost of other pressing priorities," the Democratic presidential nominee has said. "We cannot afford to spend billions to deploy rapidly an unproven missile defense system."
Kerry also has vowed to eliminate the Bush administration's research-and-development plan to develop "low-yield" nuclear weapons to penetrate bunkers. "I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation," Kerry said at that first presidential debate at the University of Miami last month.
With more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and a continuing "war on terror," national security has emerged as one of the key issues of this presidential campaign, the first since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As a result, both candidates have offered some detail on their vision for the nation's military defense.
Leaner, faster force
Although there is a wide gulf between the candidates on the question of offensive and defensive nuclear weapons, Bush and Kerry agree that the military must transform itself into a leaner, faster and more rapidly deployable force to handle the crises of the 21st century, harnessing the latest in technology.
But with the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan draining billions of dollars each month, defense analysts say that whoever wins on Nov. 2 will be faced with tough choices in deciding what path to take in modernizing the military - where to spend and what to cut. "It's remarkable how little each candidate has said," said Andrew F. Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
The Bush administration, for now, is supporting three major aircraft fighter programs in the Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's F/A-22 Stealth fighter and the Navy's F/A-18/F Super Hornet, which the Pentagon spent nearly $11 billion on this year. They are three of the Pentagon's top spending priorities.
The administration has also set aside nearly $9 billion more this year for new shipbuilding programs, from a next-generation aircraft carrier and destroyer to another submarine.
Kerry has been relatively silent about how much he would spend on these new weapons or precisely how he would harness technology for the military. Instead, he has said he would "streamline" the various large weapons programs, though his advisers have indicated that cuts in "redundant and unneeded capability should be considered."
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, summed up the two candidates through their party affiliation. "A Democratic defense posture is likely to have more people," he said. "A Republican defense posture is likely to have more weapons."
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, agreed, saying, "That's the key issue right there: More troops versus missile defense."
Indeed, Kerry is focusing more of his attention on boosting the size of the Army and the elite special operations forces while calling on the National Guard to play a greater role in homeland security.
Kerry would increase the 480,000-soldier Army by 40,000 troops, saying that they are spread too thin on their current missions and that the Pentagon must increasingly rely on the National Guard and Reserve, which supply about 40 percent of the troops in Iraq.
"My first order of business as commander in chief will be to expand America's active-duty forces," Kerry said at a campaign stop. "Not to increase the number of soldiers in Iraq, but to add 40,000 new soldiers to prevent and prepare for other possible conflicts."