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The Pentagon's Reprieve

IF the public's desires are taken into account, the Pentagon's budget is AWOL from the current fiscal deliberations in Washington.

Polls indicate a majority of Americans feel military spending could take a further trim. Waste and bloated budget requests are suspected, and there's some recognition that the post-cold-war era, with its growing list of multilateral peacekeeping operations, requires a thorough review of spending patterns.

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The politicians in Congress and the White House wouldn't necessarily disagree with those public perceptions. But they've agreed to exempt the Pentagon from budget chopping because of other perceptions: the value of a pro-defense stance to establish conservative bona fides, and the link between Pentagon contracts and jobs.

Those considerations, however, are not likely to keep defense spending off the table much beyond the current political year. The reasons are many:

First, an ever-changing world demands a ''bottom up'' review of the country's defense needs. This has been talked about for years, but has never been implemented to the point of clearing out old cold-war assumptions. The administration's doctrine of a force capable of fighting two major regional conflicts needs review from both a strategic and fiscal perspective. Current readiness has to be balanced with the investments required for modernization and future readiness.

Second, in the minds of many experts military technology is undergoing a revolution comparable to the onset, in past years, of steel warships and air power. Computers and precision munitions lead the revolution. Old standbys like aircraft carriers may give way to smaller, less targetable, less expensive vessels that rely more on missiles and unmanned surveillance craft.

Third, the demands of budget balancing - now a firm plank in both parties' platforms - will inexorably move defense back into play. Some GOP deficit hawks, such as House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich, can hardly wait to attack Pentagon waste. And his party, with its long pro-Pentagon record, may be in the best position politically to wield the ax.

Despite its exemption in the current budget go-round, defense has not been spared in the deficit skirmishing of recent years. Pentagon spending has fallen 35 percent, in real dollars, since 1985. The question is how sharply that decline should be continued. To arrive at an answer that serves the country, political factors such as jobs tied to possibly unneeded weapons systems must retreat before clear-eyed strategic assessments and the public's common-sense conclusion that a 16 percent chunk of Washington's discretionary spending shouldn't be put off limits.

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