The chiefs of the military services are due to gather today at a super-secure Pentagon conference room for a "tank" session, but instead of hassling over war plans their do-or-die agenda will focus on health care.

After six months of study by a high-level working group, the Joint Chiefs are expected to finalize and approve a multibillion-dollar plan to improve medical benefits for active-duty personnel, their dependents and retired service members. The proposals come in response to widespread dissatisfaction with high and sometimes unexpected costs, clumsy claim service and lack of options in TRICARE, the Defense Department's key managed-care and health insurance program, say defense officials.

"We want to correct some of the deficiencies that currently exist in the TRICARE system," said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen during a recent speech to Marines at Camp Pendelton, Calif. "It is one of the basic complaints that I hear time after time, that the TRICARE system is not working as well as we had intended."

Service members who do not live near a military medical treatment facility would benefit most immediately with reduced enrollment fees and co-payments in the program that covers health care they receive from civilian providers. Other measures would attempt to reduce the amount of time and effort required to get medical attention at military facilities, officials said.

After the chiefs sign off, Cohen will have to decide whether there is money for all the initiatives in the fiscal 2001 defense budget, which is scheduled to be unveiled by the end of the month.

NETWORK NEWS: The Y2K glitch that crashed a major intelligence satellite computer network has revealed the limits of the $3.6 billion Defense Department effort that was supposed to ensure a glitch-free millennium rollover, senior officials said.

The network, which processes data from two key surveillance systems, had been tested in segments but never altogether and never with the satellites configured in space as they would be on New Year's Eve, the officials said. Moreover, some, but not all, of the possible hookups among various elements of the network were tested for Y2K compliance, they said.

More extensive tests would have required entirely shutting down the flow of imagery from space and that was judged to be undesirable by military leaders. Instead, they relied on extrapolations from the limited tests that mistakenly indicated the network could tick happily into 2000.

Pentagon officials thankfully noted that other major systems tested the same way did not crash and that a backup system took over the collapsed network's critical tasks within a few hours. But the experience provided sobering reminders that no systems are 100 percent reliable and that fatal flaws can be buried in places no one can see, officials said.

BTW: The dialect of the English language spoken by the U.S. military is constantly refreshed with an unending supply of new words and usages and, of course, a cascade of new acronyms and abbreviations. There was a time, for example, when "if you will" was in vogue--as in "these are designed to show a spectrum, if you will, of attacks" (Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs), and the expression still crops up regularly.

But now, the word "robust"--"We faced a very robust, multilayered, sophisticated air defense system in Serbia" (Shelton again)--has become a ubiquitous expression for military strength sometimes used so repetitiously that it can be distracting. Rear Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Navy's director of surface warfare, recently used "robust" four times to describe the prowess of a new destroyer design in a presentation that was only 750 words long. Similarly, an Air Force officer giving a briefing on a new missile defense system last week found three occasions to term it "robust."

The military should not be faulted, however, because for every expression that is overused, men and women in uniform add several new ones to the nation's idiom. Two current favorites: "delta" and "up-smooth." Playing on the use of the Greek letter in mathematical terminology, the word "delta" can be synonymous with change, especially one that can be measured numerically, as in "We're expecting a positive delta in recruiting next month." Drawing on helicopter lingo, "up-smooth" can mean to facilitate something, as in "I'll up-smooth that for you with the boss."

Two of the best abbreviations to surface recently: "RMA" for Revolution in Military Affairs such as "Information technology will produce the next RMA." And, "ROW" for Rest Of the World, as in, "We are concerned about new missile threats from North Korea and Iraq but less so for the ROW."