Let's tell it like it is: The nation's military budget is being sustained at artificially high levels because members of Congress fear that massive cutbacks will result in job losses in their own districts -- hence, will cost them reelection.

Therefore, the armed services are still being financed at nearly the peak levels of the Cold War, but not because the nation's security demands it. In part, the military budget now amounts to a sort of giant public-works program to prevent a worsening of recession.

Predictably, the Pentagon is circling the wagons. In a transparent effort to keep the military-industrial complex happy, the Pentagon has conjured up a series of improbable "resurgent/emergent global threats" that can justify high spending levels.

Yet common-sense economics and the end of the Cold War make clear that there should be dramatic reductions, and neither the president nor Congress has had the guts to make the right policy decisions.

In a report last week, the Congressional Budget Office indicated that since the Red menace has evaporated, further reductions in defense spending, beyond those proposed a year ago by the administration, are inevitable.

"That undeniably good news casts a shadow, however. The substantial defense spending reductions being proposed will result in additional unemployment, business failures and temporarily depressed communities around shuttered air bases," the CBO said.

Cast a shadow? This is a great opportunity to be seized, not something to be feared and resisted. Now is the time to start channeling huge amounts of defense dollars into civilian programs that would help restore America's competitive edge -- lost during the four decades in which our best efforts were poured into containing the evil empire.

How often have you heard it argued that "the peace dividend has already been spent"? The rationale behind that misleading but widely held belief depends on a refusal to question the government's assessment of how much is needed to protect the nation's security.

No one suggests cutting defense outlays to near-nothing overnight -- or, indeed, to near-nothing, ever. America still needs a competent and efficient fighting force, preferably one in which intra-service rivalry has been subdued.

Wharton School professor Lawrence R. Klein, a leading advocate of pursuing a real peace dividend, acknowledges that the nuclear threat to the United States has not been eliminated, a fact that erodes the potential size of the peace dividend. For example, the danger persists of a spread of nuclear technology to terrorists, and some forces therefore must be maintained to handle such contingencies.

Congress gets a special chill at the thought of military-base closings. But a 1990 Pentagon study, cited by Klein, showed that over a period of 29 years, there has been an impressive record of success in converting almost 100 military bases to civilian use. It does take time and patience.

Officials must make the tough decisions to slash defense spending -- however painful in the short run. To be sure, some workers and companies will be displaced, and public funds will have to be spent for retraining and adjustment to alleviate economic hardship.

President Bush's fiscal 1993 budget provides $286 billion for the Pentagon. With no additional reduction, the military budget would still be $255 billion in fiscal 1997 in constant dollars (adjusting for inflation), a level that the well-informed chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), says is too high.

Aspin this week floated a modest proposal that would cut the level of (constant-dollar) spending to $235 billion in fiscal 1997 -- and to as little as $210 billion, given a more optimistic scenario -- still well above the total that many critics think reasonable.

In a telephone interview, Aspin acknowledged that the fact of recession affects congressional thinking: "The question is, how long should it take you to get to {a significantly lower defense budget} -- five, seven, nine years? Here's where political pressures come in. We've got a recession; if we didn't have that, we could {do it} in three or four years."

Others argue that the Pentagon budget can and should be cut more, and sooner. For example, the Center for Defense Information holds that the budget can be cut to $196 billion in constant dollars by 1995. The CDI, a research organization run by retired military officers frequently critical of Pentagon planners, insists that this total would amply enable the U.S. military to carry out its assigned missions.

To be sure, the economic impact of a changeover to peace can't be ignored. After World War II, fears of a massive cutback in military spending led to predictions of a depression. But in fact, the reconversion process, fed by a huge consumer demand that had been shut off during the war, proceeded smoothly.

Economic conditions now are different: The military cutback dictated by the collapse of the Soviets comes at a time of domestic economic stagnation. But we should be astute and determined enough to manage and absorb a steady, sharp decline in military spending. It's not only the right thing to do, but our survival as a global economic leader in the post-Cold War era may depend on it.