BEFORE THE eruption of the Persian Gulf crisis, the need to cut the federal deficit to meet the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings target, combined with the evaporation of the Warsaw Pact and the decline in Soviet conventional military capabilities, made it almost certain that the defense budget would be cut significantly. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney sought $307 billion for defense in FY 1991; the Senate offered $289 billion and the House Armed Services Committee $283 billion just before Saddam Hussein's boot came down on Kuwait.

Now there is talk of a budgetary reversal. President Bush castigates those who would cut national defense. Assistant Defense Secretary Henry Cooper argues that the Iraq crisis indicates a need for strategic defenses. Supporters of the stealth bomber argue that the crisis demands the B-2's capabilities.

We should not be playing such political games with our security needs. The first lesson of the current crisis is that the United States already possesses more than adequate troops and equipment to cope with the Iraqi situation. If we can't draw that lesson, we wasted the more than $2 trillion spent on defense over the past decade.

Even the costs of the Gulf operation do not support a case for restoring funding that the House and Senate have cut. In fact, the costs of the deployment are relatively small in terms of the overall defense budget. These divisions, carriers and air wings already exist; it is not a matter of raising and equipping new forces, even with the reserve call-up. Added costs involve principally those of transporting forces by air and sea, resupplying them once there, maintaining a higher pace of operations (flying hours, steaming days, combat vehicle miles) than they might have engaged in otherwise; and paying full salaries to reservists who have been called up.

The Defense Department has calculated this net cost at roughly $46 million per day, a figure which should decline once the forces are fully deployed. Let's assume that this means roughly $1 billion per month in additional costs spread over five to six months.

However, as the administration has already pointed out, the United States will not assume all these costs. The Saudis have agreed to provide funding for fuel, food and other supplies for U.S. forces, and the Kuwaitis and others have declared their willingness to assist. Even if the United States paid for the entire operation, the additional cost, over five to six months, is approximately the same as the difference between the House Armed Services and Senate defense numbers. Costs beyond six months, if any, could be covered by a supplemental appropriation or by reducing the level of operations for the 90 to 95 percent of U.S. forces not involved in the Persian Gulf. Nor can the Iraqi threat justify restoration of individual weapons targeted for cuts. In the area of strategic weapons, for example, it is argued that funds for the B-2 bomber (cut by the House Armed Services Committee), the Strategic Defense Initiative (reduced by both the Senate and the House) and the Milstar communications satellite system (cut by the Senate) should all be restored, thanks to Saddam Hussein.

The B-2, its supporters suggest, would be useful for conventional bombing missions against Iraq. However, at $860 million per plane, the increase in bombing capability (assuming the B-2 performed as planned) has an unreasonably high price tag, especially since we have numerous other systems available for this mission (tactical aircraft, B-52s, B-1Bs and cruise missiles).

Advocates of SDI argue that it is needed in response to the risk that, one day, the Iraqis will possess long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting U.S. territory. However, Iraq currently possesses only short-range missiles, against which an SDI system is not useful. Moreover, SDI technologies are far from ready for production. It would be imprudent to rush to deploy an ineffective system against a phantom threat, only to jeopardize strategic arms control talks with the Soviet Union, which could contribute much to the security and deficit reduction efforts of both countries.

Milstar could provide communications links between commanders and forces in the field -- but it is excessive and redundant for this mission. In canceling Milstar, the Senate Armed Services Committee argued that we already possess substantial command, control and communications capabilities, having invested some $40 billion in such systems during the 1980s. The additional expenditures for Milstar are meant primarily to maintain communications after an extended nuclear exchange, a problem thankfully unrelated to the current situation in the Middle East.

Furthermore, the Gulf operation provides no reason to reverse the troop reductions -- between 100,000 and 129,000 active duty personnel -- proposed by Congress. The forces deployed in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are likely to total roughly 100,000, or five percent of total U.S. active duty personnel. Should the deployment double, it would still place only 10 percent of our forces in the region. Projected reductions tied to changes in the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet threat should be able to continue at the rate projected by Congress, leaving ample active forces for Third World contingencies.

Even the Defense Department projects a 25 percent reduction in active forces by 1996 (roughly 500,000 troops). After such reductions, the services would continue to have forces in and intended for Europe, deployments in the Pacific, and a rapid-reaction force of seven air wings, and five airborne and light infantry Army divisions, as well as Marine Corps forces and reserves to respond to Third World conflicts.

As for the reserves, a call-up of 50,000 reservists (to date, roughly 9,000 have been called up) would involve only 4 percent of selected reserve personnel. The reserve call-up does not indicate that active duty forces are inadequate. Reserves are being activated because, under the "Total Force" policy, the reserves supply the majority of medical, water supply, transport, refueling and other support services for active forces. In any case, reserve personnel were not reduced by either the House committee or Senate actions. Advocates of conventional modernization programs are also trying to hitch a ride on the Iraqi threat. Now we truly need the C-17 cargo plane, its supporters argue, since airlift has become so important. But the Senate did not delay procurement funding for the C-17 in order to cancel it. Instead, the Senate argued that the program requires additional testing before production. This sound principle -- "fly-before-buy" -- should not be jettisoned simply because the Saudi operation demonstrates the importance of airlift. In reality, as former defense official Russell Murray recently pointed out, we could have purchased approximately 70 C-5 aircraft for the money we have already invested in just the R&D on the C-17.

Sealift is another requirement demonstrated by the Gulf operation. Since buying eight fast sealift ships in the early 1980s, the Navy has purchased no more. For 1990, Congress appropriated $600 million for fast sealift but Cheney sought to transfer all these funds. In the end, $225 million was reprogrammed, but the remaining funds have still not been spent. Sealift could be important to long-term military operations in the post-Cold War world; it has not had the priority it deserves.

The House committee and the Senate have also been criticized for reducing funding for -- or deferring -- other new hardware modernization programs: the Navy's A-12 attack bomber and SSN-21 submarine; the Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter, JSTARS aircraft and AMRAAM missile and the Army's LH helicopter. But none of these systems has any bearing on the current operation, since none will be operational anywhere close to the likely time frame of the Gulf deployment. Moreover, if war broke out, it would be more important to keep production lines for operational systems open than to rush new weapons into production. Thus the Middle East operation tends to support Congress's emphasis on improving current systems over starting new programs.

It might still be argued that these new programs are needed to stay ahead of potential adversaries. Nothing in the Gulf situation suggests, however, that staying ahead of the Iraqis technologically is part of our military problem. Their fighter aircraft and tank forces are more than a generation behind ours.

Aside from sealift, there is one other area where the Gulf operation may give budget-cutters pause. The House defense committee cut FY 1991 operations and maintenance (O&M) funding by $6.3 billion and the Senate cut it by $3.9 billion. Some of these funds may need to be restored to support the Persian Gulf operations. Particularly harmful would be the indiscriminate automatic cuts that would be imposed by Gramm-Rudman should Congress fail to develop a realistic budget alternative.

But even the O&M accounts are not sacrosanct. Saudi contributions and other potential allied support may limit the need for fund restoration. Moreover, as is frequently overlooked, not all of the O&M budget is essential for readiness, and much of it is wasted. And planned force cuts and reduced operations for Europe-oriented forces will free up operating funds.

In short, the Gulf deployment should not provide an excuse for reversing the course on which Congress has set defense funding and planning: slowing the rush into the untested and expensive next generation of military hardware; measuring each item against the new world realities to make sure we need it; making sure that it can perform as advertised; and moving toward the lighter, more mobile, more reserve-based forces that the new world requires. Nothing in the Gulf situation changes that sound strategy.

Gordon Adams is director and Stephen Cain is research director of the Defense Budget Project, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization in Washington.