Current plans for projecting American power around the world are so grandiose that the Joint Chiefs of Staff says carrying them out would require 50 percent more troops, fighter planes and aircraft carriers than now deployed, along with another Marine amphibious force.
The chiefs' estimates are contained in a secret Pentagon planning document now circulating. They suggest that it would cost more even than the Reagan administration has budgeted to transform past defense rhetoric into fighting forces.
But the same document, called "Defense Guidance" and designed to tell the armed services how their forces should be structured over the next five years, makes clear that the administration has no intention of filling what in the past it has dismissed as the military's "wish list."
Instead, this document stresses, the administration will set priorities and live within a limited amount of money.
The "Defense Guidance" also indicates that the administration, like the Carter administration before it, has given up on the idea of regaining military superiority over the Soviets in either nuclear or conventional forces and will rely instead on quality to offset quantity.
The gap between the chiefs' literal translation of past defense rhetoric and what the administration actually intends to do over the next five years may help explain why President Reagan's national security affairs adviser, William P. Clark, said in his first policy speech last week that "there is not enough money available to eliminate [all] the risks overnight."
The near-final draft of the new guidance sent to the military services under Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's name shows a similar sense of limits.
One chart in the document says that between today and 1991 the Joint Chiefs of Staff has estimated that it would take these leaps in military strength to carry out the guidance they have received from civilian superiors:
Troops. From 16 Army divisions to 25. A division is about 15,000 people. Going all the way up to 25, then, would require finding 135,000 additional soldiers, perhaps requiring a return to the draft.
Aircraft carriers. From 13 to 22, along with escorting warships.
Air Force fighter wings. From 24, each with about 70 planes, to 38.
Marines. From three Marine amphibious forces, of about 50,000 people each, to four.
Cargo and troop planes. From 522 to 1,090, with about one-third of them for short hauls within one battle zone and the remainder long-distance transports like the Lockheed C5 to reach distant hot spots like the Persian Gulf region.
Rather than trying to buy so many extra forces, the latest Weinberger guidance shows a decision to stick with the all-volunteer military and to settle for a much slower-paced rearmament effort.
The latest administration blueprint calls for going up between now and fiscal 1988 by only one Army division, one aircraft carrier battle group, three fighter wings and keeping the Marines at their present structure. A big increase in long-distance airlift is still planned, though it will take some years to get the planes built and delivered.
Having decided that there is not enough money in sight to buy everything the military leaders say they would need to execute a full-court press on the Soviets and their allies, the Weinberger guidance paper reveals the administration drawing up a list of global priorities and counting heavily on economic pressures, not just guns, to contain Soviet adventurism around the world.
Reagan's planned additions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the MX missile and B1 bomber, are designed to close the current gap. They "will not, however, restore U. S. nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union," the guidance paper says.
And when it comes to non-nuclear forces -- the soldiers, tanks, ships and cannons for extended warfare -- "Our allies and we cannot expect to match the Soviets in quantitative measures of military power. But there are also qualitative dimensions where we have countervailing strengths and advantages" which can poke at the chinks in the Soviet armor.
These strengths include superior ability to develop and field modern weapons and deploy them more effectively on the battlefield, thanks to officers and sergeants who know how to take the initiative to exploit ever-changing situations, according to the guidance paper.
Besides such advantages, the ailing Soviet economy is light at the end of the tunnel from the perspective of the United States and its allies, according to the Pentagon document.
For example, it says: "By the end of the 1980s, the Soviets may encounter major economic difficulties, just when the U.S. military and allied programs are beginning to show fully the effects of major improvement efforts. We should use this opportunity to help shape the future competition in ways which are advantageous to the United States."
In a U.S.-Soviet confrontation, the Pentagon's prescription is not a rush to nuclear weapons but a series of carefully controlled responses designed to prevent and, failing that, contain the conflict. The administration's game plan sounds little different from President Carter's here.
If the Soviets should threaten such vital interests as Persian Gulf oil, the Pentagon guidance calls for rushing U.S. military forces to the area "to signal U.S. commitment" in hopes of deterring a direct Soviet attack. Failing this, the idea is to try to limit the conflict while preparing to hit the Soviets at other places where they are vulnerable.
The guidance strongly suggests, however, that administration leaders believe that the United States dare not flinch from the risk of putting American troops on the ground in the Persian Gulf area if oil is threatened, saying:
"It is essential that the Soviet Union be confronted with the prospect of a major conflict should it seek to reach oil resources of the gulf. Because the Soviets might induce or exploit local political instabilities, their forces could be extended into the area by means other than outright invasion. Whatever the circumstances, we should be prepared to introduce American forces directly into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened."