President Bush's refusal to launch an immediate salvo of dollars in the general direction of the Pentagon has spread dismay in a defense establishment that may have read too much into his campaign pledges to restore the military. But the president is on the right track.
Beyond delivering on the pay raise and benefit improvements he promised members of the military, Bush has put major new defense funding on hold until an extensive review of the way the American military functions and what it truly needs to meet the changing threats of the 21st century.
That's sound strategy. Increased spending - by amounts from $10 billion to $100 billion a year, depending on which expert or policy think tank is weighing in - may help the armed forces meet today's goals. But it doesn't question whether today's goals are the right ones, and whether the system needs changing as much as strengthening.
That study is overdue. The current long-standing defensive policy calls for the military to be able to fight and win two major wars, simultaneously, in two different parts of the globe. But the ability to do that has eroded significantly as the armed forces also are taxed with smaller interventions that may, in fact, more correctly define military missions in a new era of nonsuperpower threats.
"If you want to execute the current defense program, you have to put more money into it. But that begs the question of whether we are investing in the right strategies," said Andrew F. Krepinevich of the private Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Seeing a Bush presidency as a chance to reverse years of "peace dividends" that diverted defense spending to help balance budgets and fund other programs, military and industry leaders had hoped for the kind of quick boost the Pentagon got from newly elected President Ronald Reagan.
Bush pledged only a $45 billion increase over 10 years in his election campaign. Former President Bill Clinton, in his last budget recommendation late last month, proposed $52 billion over six years. Bush will release his budget plan later this month, and has indicated he will hold to Clinton's $310 billion budget recommendation for the coming year.
Although the billion-dollar military pay and benefits hike seems safe, he has signaled a "lean" budget until an extensive review - separate from the current quadrennial congressional review - is completed in about eight months.
In tying major spending changes to that review, Bush can't neglect the current needs of the military. Equipment still needs replacing, and rising fuel costs are a major factor. Ongoing programs, of course, continue - a $3.8 billion contract was announced late last month for a tenth Nimitz-class aircraft carrier to be operational in 2008, for instance. But there also are a number of controversial defense programs in the works that could stand review.
Chief among them, and perhaps least likely to get objective scrutiny from this administration, is the unproven $60 billion national missile defense shield program that has dismayed our allies and triggered talk of another arms race.
Just buying all of the new weaponry already in the pipeline, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, would require increases of at least $30 billion a year in defense spending. That includes the Marine Corps' controversial V-22 Osprey tilt-wing rotor craft; Army desires for new types of ground vehicles and more than 1,100 new Comanche helicopters; and Air Force hopes to replace its current F-15 fighters with expensive new F-22 Raptors.
There is little doubt an eroded military needs attention. In a decade of downsizing, the Army has declined from 18 to 10 combat divisions, the Air Force has dropped from 22 to 12 fighter wings and the fleet is down from 600 ships to 316, on a reduced replacement program that leads eventually to a 200-ship Navy.
But Bush is correct in seeking to develop a new strategic vision for the military before committing a flood of new money to defense. When the money is spent, it should be targeted on the threats we're most likely to face, and not just the threats we have faced in the past.