For the past four years our national security debate has focused on two underlying themes: first, how much the defense budget should grow each year, and second, how much our military forces have improved relative to the 1980 defense posture under President Carter.

A shift in this myopic national security debate is long overdue. The reference point for measuring improvement should be not our 1980 defense posture but rather our national military needs and objectives.

Faced with zero to 3 percent annual real defense growth for the foreseeable future, we can no longer afford the luxury of an intellectually deficient defense debate that never rises above the level of President Reagan's famous slogan: "Are we better off now than we were four years ago?" Meaningful benchmarks are difficult and challenging, but essential. The Reagan administration and Congress must begin to focus on the real challenges and questions that should guide our national security decisions.

1)Following the U.S. expenditure of approximately $700 billion on NATO-related forces since 1980, can NATO meet the requirements of defending its territory? The recent description of the supreme allied commander, Gen. Bernard Rogers, of our NATO military posture as one that requires the release of nuclear weapons "in terms of days, not weeks or months" is a good starting point for examining our NATO defense posture.

2)Can we meet the rigorous requirement of defending our interests in the Persian Gulf that have been defined as "vital" by both President Reagan and President Carter? Do we have the strategic mobility, on-the-scene allies and a clear military strategy required to defend an area 7,000 miles from home against Soviet subversion and aggression?

3)Are our mobilization goals appropriate and can we meet them? Should we continue to base our mobilization objectives on developing the capability to fight for many months in Europe when our allies would start to run out of ammunition in less than two weeks and NATO's war plan calls for 30 days of sustainability?

4)Will any level of defense spending provide us the capability to meet the requirements of the administration's 31/2-war strategy? (Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has testified that this administration's "long-term goal is to be able to meet the demands of worldwide war including concurrent reinforcement of Europe, deployment to Southwest Asia and the Pacific, and support for other areas.") Has the "strategy-capability gap" narrowed over the last four years with the expenditure of $1 trillion in the U.S. defense budget? Will this gap close with the planned expenditure of $1.3 trillion over the next four years?

Defense experts will undoubtedly differ in their answers to these questions -- but certain conclusions are inescapable:

1)Our current military strategy as set forth in Weinberger's defense posture statements has little relationship to our present capability or to foreseeable resources.

2)Our own defense planning is out of sync with that of our allies, and our mobilization goals are out of sync with NATO capabilities and war plans.

Even using the "Are we better off now than we were four years ago?" benchmark, the answer is "yes," but not in proportion to the dollars spent. Our force structure (Army and Marine divisions and Air Force wings) is essentially the same, though we do have more Navy ships. The readiness of our forces has improved primarily because of the increased quality of our manpower. Our ability to sustain a war has improved, but is far short of our announced goals. Modernization of our weapons systems is under way, but is in serious jeopardy in a no-growth environment.

To justify increased defense spending, Weinberger frequently displays charts that show how the Warsaw Pact is outproducing NATO in various categories of weaponry. The secretary has a point. In 1984 NATO produced 1,760 tanks, 755 artillery tubes, 80 rocket launchers and 525 fighter aircraft. The Warsaw Pact produced 3,650 tanks, 3,200 artillery tubes, 700 rocket launchers, and 1,070 fighter aircraft.

Yet, we must consider the fact that NATO has consistently outspent the Warsaw Pact for the past decade and a half, especially over the last four years. This raises some tough questions. If we are already outspending the Warsaw Pact but are getting so badly outproduced, how do we cure this problem? Moreover, we should ask whether it is the administration's goal to match the Warsaw Pact tank for tank, plane for plane. If so, how, and at what cost?

Unless the administration and Congress refine our military objectives and concentrate on the overall U.S. and allied defense output, defense in the 1980s and 1990s will increasingly fall into the same disrepute that many domestic programs are now in. The recent budget debate and congressional votes on defense indicate that trend is well under way.

Those who advocate a strong national defense, in both political parties, must start asking, "Where are we going, and what are we getting?" rather than simply "How much should we spend?"

We must recognize that defense spending has leveled off after five years of growth. It is likely to stay that way until the American public and Congress are convinced that the deficit is being reined in and that increased defense spending can really narrow the gap between our capabilities and our strategy.

In approaching national security challenges with a new realism, there are a number of essential steps that our nation must take to maximize the effectiveness of our defense expenditures:

We must revise our military straegy to one based on U.S. and Western strengths and Soviet weaknesses.

We must coordinate our weapons programs with those of our allies to eliminate wasteful duplications. We must ensure that the United States and our allies are marching to the same war plans, and we must insist that our European, Japanese and Pacific friends follow through in meeting agreed-upon strategy and defense goals.

We must expose the Pentagon procurement system to a strong dose of free-enterprise competition and accountability. We must devise a method by which the Department of Defense increases the number of efficient production lines by eliminating lower-priority weapons and by restricting the number of new starts.

We must insist that the administration define the Strategic Defense Initiative realistically to avoid public disillusionment in the years ahead; and

We must carry out long overdue and badly needed reforms in the structure of the military services, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the entire Defense Department.

History will judge us not by the number of dollars going into the Pentagon, but by the military capabilities coming out.