"We shouldn't spend the money for increased defense investment," the lecture goes, "until our strategy is clearer -- until we have a better idea of the scenarios in which our armed forces will be used. If the military would just get its act together and explain to us what kind of war they're going to need to be able to fight, then we can begin to make some progress on sorting out our national security problems."

We have here the early summer song of the Butter-Feeding Strategic Ponderer. Deceptively melodious, it has led many participants in the defense debate to pause and gaze ruminatively into the distance for lengthy periods of time while the years and the studies roll on and rust gathers on the production lines.

It's not that strategic thinking is unimportant, nor is that even more plentiful and less valuable commodity, strategic talking. But much of what passes for either one these days is really neither -- it is a patina for procrastination.

It's important to distinguish between two very different types of military planning: operational planning and force planning. The former is planning how to fight with what you have; focusing on specific geographic areas and detailed schemes about how to use weapons and forces is often essential. The latter is deciding what weapons you want to buy and how many of what forces you need -- how much is enough, and all that.

It is this latter, force-planning process that has become mired in its own intellectual pretensions. It wants very much to be as precise as its cousin -- operational planning. When it's told it can't be, it sits and pouts and contemplates its navel, indefinitely.

There are some -- a very few -- weapon systems decisions that profit from lengthy study of the specific scenarios in which the weapon might be used. But for many, and especially for a weapon as widely useful and as badly needed, for example, as the general-purpose submarine, their utility is so general that agonizing studies of specific scenarios are a waste of time.

Modern submarines, with the advent of the cruise missile, can now be used not only for anti-submarine warfare and to attack surface ships with torpedoes; they also have a whole range of additional uses, including the ability to attack land targets with conventional warhead cruise misiles as a and to carry nuclear-warhead cruise missiles as a secure and mobile theatre nuclear deterrent. You can simply look at the Soviet construction rate of 10 such submarines a year and our rate of one a year and agree with Bob Dylan: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Detailed and lengthy force-planning studies, and much of process that accompanies them in government, are frequently bureaucratic gambits to delay programs and reduce defense budgets without admitting that such is the purpose. The weapons often get used for purposes radically different from those for which they were designed anyway.

Consider the B52: designed and first used as a high-altitude bomber to carry nuclear weapons, then used as a low-altitude nuclear bomber (normally requiring a very different design -- but the old workhorse could do it), then as a cinventional bomber in Vietnam, now as a cruise-missile carrier. Young SAC pilots are flying B52s that their fathers flew.

Or take the carrier Midway: its keel was laid in the midst of a war with Japan; its home port is now in Japan and it is helping defend lines of supply to raw materials that it was designed to help destroy. That's some change in scenario. Happily, the force planners who were around when the the B52s and Midway were built didn't delay production until they had completed exhaustive strategic studies, or we might still be using propeller-driven bombers and pre -World War II carriers.

Not only do the weapons last longer than the countries; sometimes the studies last longer than the countries. Instead of dawdling around on weapons programs until we can do a better job of something we'll never be able to do -- forecast the location and nature of future wars -- we need to change the nature of the weapons we buy so that they are more readily adaptable to whatever comes along.

The aircraft carriers have been able to be modernized and to change missions so readily because their aircraft can be changed; the B52s have had structural stability and have also seen many changes in the weapons they carry. What is needed is to make more weapon systems as easily modernizable as the carriers and the B52s.

The electronics revolution is helping to make this more imaginable. Through the use of micro-processors, chips and the like, weapons can be made more modular -- with sensors, guidance or other components that can be replaced quickly and readily without throwing everything away and starting over.

It will take time for such a way of designing weapons to evolve, especially given all the procedural checks and balances with which the weapons-development process is now blessed. In the meantime, we will have to do the best we can with the systems already developed and in production.

But the last thing we need to do is to delay clearly needed investments in our armed forces because we're waiting to decide exactly which one-and-a-half wars we might have to fight where and when. That's like waiting for Godot, and a good deal more dangerous.