"If we go to war tomorrow morning," Gen. Frederick Kroesen recently told a gathering of the Association of the United States Army here, "we go with an obsolescent kind of Army."

The four-star general, who commands the 200,000-plus U.S. Army troops in Europe, may be right. If he is, the Army bears a large measure of respnsibility.

Kroesen told his audience that the Army needs its new M1 tank, its new M2 infantry fighting vehicle and the Patriot air defense system. "We owe our soldiers that modern equipment," he said.

The fact is, however, that the Army and its industrial contractors have spent much of the past two decades trying to develop, produce and field just such equipment, and have largely failed to do so.

There is still no new tank, infantry fighting vehicle, field air defense system, advanced attack helicopter or even new five-ton truck in the hands of the troops, despite years of trying.

The Army is not alone among the armed forces in having problems with its new weapons. But this factor -- the military's role in creating some of the weaknesses in U.S. defenses -- has been all but forgotten in the debate that has been raging during this election year over U.S. prepardness for battle.

The campaign charges mostly involve money. Has this administration spent enough on defense? Did previous presidents spend enough?

But the Army's longest running problems involve projects which, by and large, are amply funded by Congress in the past. These projects eventually were canceled or had to be continuously restarted in part because of overly technical specifications, occassionaly poor management and big cost increases that meant there no longer would be enough money to buy the needed number of weapons.

There is plenty of blame to go around -- on Capitol Hill, among civilian officials in the White House and Pentagon and in the military leadership -- for whatever real weaknesses there are in U.S. defenses. The Army's track record since the early 1960s, however, provides the most glaring example of why the debate over readiness is not a matter to be settled just by politicians pointing fingers at one another.

The Army has been trying since 1963 to produce a new main battle tank to replace the post-World War II workhorse, the M60. A joint effort with West Germany, which was favored more by Pentagon civilians than by military leaders, collapsed in 1970 after seven years of work. A follow-up solo effort by the Army to design a more austere version collapsed in 1971, when Congress called it "unnecessarily complex, excessively sophisticated and too expensive." c

In 1972, the Army got started on its new XM1 super-tank, which, barring more technical troubles than it has already had, will begin arriving in field units in another year or so. Still, a report by the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, published in January was headlined "XM1 Tank's Reliability Uncertain," suggesting that the controversial tank may not be out of the woods.

Another GAO report, published this month and critical of the Air Force design for its proposed new CX jet cargo plane, also warned that proposed modifications to the XM1 may make it too heavy for the CX to airlift.

At best, the new plane would be able to carry one tank at a time to distant battlefields, and the report reflected congressional frustrations about lack of coordination between services in designing new equipment.

The Army's efforts to design a new M2 armored infantry vehicle to replace the M113 armored personnel carrier goes back 17 years, according to Army testimony before Congress.

"It has been a record of study and restudy, changing requirements and vacillating guidance from time to time," Brig. Gen. Phillip Bolte told Congress last year. It will be another two or three years, the Army says, before the first of these new vehicles is delivered to field units.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) calls the M2 "a horror story" of design and technical complexity, but says he voted money for it simply because at some point "we've got to get something in the field."

The Army's ill-fated efforts to develop a field air defense missile system to protect ground troops from air attack goes back even beyond 17 years, and the latest incarnation of that effort, called "Patriot," is years away from deployment.

Patriot is now 6 years old, starting after the previous SAM-D project was cut off after nine years of work and $700 million in costs because its critics saw it as too complicated and cumbersome for field use and too expensive to purchase in needed quantities.

In 1972, the Army's technically troubled Cheyenne attack helicopter was canceled after six years and $400 million in expenses. The Army wanted Cheyenne to replace its aging fleet of Cobra gunships. Since then, Army hopes have been riding on the Advanced Attack Helicopter as the replacement for the venerable Cobras.

Army leaders this year acknowledged to Congress that technical problems in this project, too, had caused delays, but Lt. Gen. Donald R. Keith added that "We think we have our arms around the technical problems now."

Assuming Keith is right, first delivery of these new choppers is still about three years away.

The other services are hardly trouble-free.

The Navy's new Trident missile-firing submarines are at least 26 months behind schedule, reflecting not only Navy-ordered changes and White House-caused delays but trouble in the nation's shipyards.

The Navy's new F18 carrier-based jet fighter, once meant specifically as a low-cost aircraft so it could be bought in large numbers, has quadrupled in cost, according to some congressional estimates, and continues to create doubts about whether it can perform as advertised.

In the early 1970s, the Air Force gambled with the very-high-technology and breakdown-prone F100 jet engine for its new F15 and F16 front-line fighters, and that engine is still causing problems with the daily readiness of these aircraft.

In Congress and among many outside specialists, technology is seen as the main culprit in these projects in the form of an almost irresistible attraction within the military and civilian hierarchy for the latest in gadgetry. Nunn, a leading defense specialist in Congress, says, "The way we handle technology has got to be re-examined."

In some areas, the United States clearly must keep its lead. But in many cases, Nunn says, the most important thing is to get equipment to the troops fast, in sufficient numbers and in a sufficiently simple form so it can be operated by a military with fewer and fewer skilled personnel.

The military counters that U.S. defense is largely based on offsetting the numerical superiority of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces with weapons of superior quality. Clearly, there is some merit to this argument.

But in its report in September on the new defense budget, the House Appropriations Committee warned that "Our weapons tend to be so complicated that they break down too often and are difficult and expensive to maintain."

Ultimately, this has meant that not enough spare parts or skilled people are available to fix them, and this has "a direct relationship to the extremely low readiness of military aircraft and other weapons, and has an indirect impact on moral and retention of military personnel," the report says.

In trying to keep the debate over today's combat-readiness in perspective, other factors must be kept in mind.

In 1974, as Air Force Gen. Billy M. Minter points out, the Air Force was faced with replacing the heavy losses suffered in Vietnam, and made a conscious decision to spend its money on bringing in a whole new array of more modern planes first and buying the spare parts later. For one thing, nobody was sure what spares would be needed for the new F15s, A10 attack planes and airborne early warning craft.

Though the lack of spares is now an issue, another general points out that nobody was really thinking of fighting a war again in the early and mid-1970s, when many key long-range decisions were made. There was still a generally antimilitary hangover from Vietnam, and the era of U.S.-Soviet detente, fostered by several administrations, contributed to the idea that nobody would be fighting soon.

It was Congress, much of which is now complaining that the United States has no way to move forces quickly to the Persian Gulf, that continued to reject efforts by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. to beef up the U.S. civilian fleet of jetliners so they could haul military cargo in an emergency.

It was also in the mid-1970s when the Navy essentially lost several years in its efforts to figure out what kind of new ships to build. Former chief of naval operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt tried to push the fleet in the direction of more and smaller ships, and his successors then undid much of what Zumwalt had set in motion.