THE major shift in Pentagon spending expected this year hasn't really happened, thanks to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But even with heightened concerns about the havoc caused by dictators with big armies, Congress has taken some needed steps toward a leaner military. House and Senate negotiators hammered out a bill that reduces the Pentagon's 1991 allowance about 9 percent from last year's authorization. That's still $288.3 billion, and some $5 billion can probably be attributed to items rescued or bolstered by the Gulf crisis. But the bill also includes elements that hint at shifting post-cold-war priorities.
Troops levels would be cut by 100,000, with plans to reduce the size of the armed forces by one-quarter over five years. These cuts reflect the vanished need for huge contingents in Europe. Also, brakes were applied to the development of some costly strategic weapons, such as the MX missile rail garrison system and the B-2 Stealth bomber.
Restraints on authorized spending, however, don't mean that all such weapons are out of the picture. Money for the B-2 was cut way back from what the administration wanted, but the radar-eluding bomber ended up with $4.1 billion, enough to keep the 15 planes already in production moving toward completion.
It's just as hard now as it was before the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion to make a case for the B-2, given changing strategic needs and a tab that could reach $1 billion per plane. Next time around, the brakes should be applied with more force.
The Reagan era's defense centerpiece, the Strategic Defense Initiative or ``star wars,'' eked through with a low level of continued spending. SDI, too, should be slowed to a halt - despite shrieks from some hawks that we'll wish we had it once regional bad guys like Saddam Hussein start shooting off missiles.
Strong US armed forces are still needed. But they should be crafted according to changing world conditions, and this remodeling should result in significant savings that can be applied to domestic needs. The work of arriving at this new guns-butter balance has only begun, as the 1991 Pentagon budget demonstrates.