It had been so long since U.S. troops engaged in massive combat that Pentagon ammunition buyers feared before they went into Operation Desert Storm that prolonged combat would strip the cupboards bare.

Pentagon insiders were concerned in mid-January that the operation could exhaust much of the crucial ammunition supply before the mission was over. In fact, much of the ammunition sent to the Persian Gulf was used in practice firings.

A top Pentagon official recently confided that the ammunition reserves are at such a low that U.S. forces almost ran out of crucial Mark 66 2.75-inch rockets in the 10-day invasion of Panama in December 1989. The rockets provide a massive spray of firepower from helicopters. The Pentagon is still short on those rockets, more than a year after the Panama invasion. The Air Force has some in stock. But typical interservice infighting is getting in the way. The Air Force isn't sharing with the Army unless the Army buys replacements from Canada to replenish the Air Force inventory.

U.S. troops also are reportedly short on M791s, a 25mm armor-piercing round fired from the Bradley and the Marines' armored vehicles. That shortage resulted from a 1986 decision by the Pentagon to build a better mousetrap. The new rounds were developed and ordered, but will not be delivered for several weeks. To fill the gap, the Dutch government has offered to sell the United States 2.5 million M791 rounds. But so far the Pentagon is in slow motion and hasn't bought the Dutch ammunition.

Despite the known shortages, the Pentagon didn't rouse itself out of business-as-usual until almost the eve of the deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait. Even after troops were deployed to the gulf by the hundreds of thousands, the head of the Army's Munitions Command told Congress that if he had more money, he wouldn't know how to spend it. Maj. Gen. Paul Greenberg told Congress that the Army had all the ammunition it needed.

Pentagon insiders told our associate Jim Lynch that the Army doesn't know what ammunition it has, or where it is.

Sources tell us that those in charge of procuring ammunition have focused on affordability rather than need during a time of budget belt-tightening. It wasn't until Jan. 11 that Pentagon planners began to study combat surge capabilities -- the ability to expand production to meet wartime demands.

As one Pentagon veteran told us, "I'm concerned that they're not doing everything possible to give our troops the best chance out there."

Part of the blame for shortages must be placed on the politics of Pentagon spending. In recent years, the sexy, high-tech weapons systems have received more attention and money than bland items such as bullets.

Congress has compounded the shortage by deciding that ammunition was not a controversial line item and could therefore be cut with a minimum of fuss from anyone. As recently as September, the General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, suggested a $434 million cut in the ammunition budget. This year's budget for ammunition is $2 billion. Just six peaceful years ago it was $4 billion.