The Clinton administration plans to give the military a belated holiday gift: the largest proposed increase in defense spending since the military build up of the 1980s, which occurred during an especially tense period of the Cold War. The president will propose increases in funding of about $110 billion over the next six years.

Congress may be in an even more festive mood. John Warner, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared that the administration’s proposal falls short of the $148 billion increase that the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted. He promised that Congress would top the administration’’s generosity.

The ostensible impetus for providing all of this holiday cheer is a whole host of readiness problems, including retention of pilots in the Air Force and personnel shortfalls in the Army and Navy. The Joint Chiefs and Congress raise the specter of the “hollow force” of the 1970s if more funds are not provided for increased retirement benefits and across-the-board pay hikes to remedy the alleged gap between military and civilian pay.

In fact, however, the U.S. military is far from being a hollow force. More is being spent per soldier on military readiness than during the Reagan defense build up of the 1980s.

Moreover, a study by RAND undertaken for the Department of Defense--which is being conveniently ignored in the race to see who can increase the defense budget faster--shows that the pay gap between the military and civilian sectors is largely illusory. The study showed that most enlisted personnel actually earn more than their civilian counterparts of the same age and education. Even the pay gap between the senior enlisted personnel and officers and the civilian sector is slight. According to RAND, instead of across-the-board pay raises and increases in retirement benefits, targeted pay increases to specific ranks or job categories would cost less and result in greater personnel retention and productivity.

Both Congress and the White House could fund any truly necessary steps to improve readiness if they could only break some bad habits.

Congress has refused to save billions by agreeing to a new round of closing unneeded military bases, and simply can’t resist the temptation to add weapons to the budget that even the Pentagon has not requested. The cost of all this defense pork runs into the tens of billions. Congress also refuses to challenge the Pentagon’s desire to build weapons that are unneeded or are relics of the Cold War--for example, the purchase of three new types of fighter aircraft despite the more benign post-Cold War threat environment.

For its part, the White House continues to indulge a propensity for sending U.S. troops into far-flung “peacekeeping” operations such as in Bosnia. Not only is the Bosnia mission projected to cost the U.S. 10 billion dollars by the end of this fiscal year, it has actually undermined U.S. security by causing a reduction in the training and exercises needed to prepare U.S. forces to fight a major war.

Savings from cutting redundant bases, unneeded weapons, and expensive, ill-advised overseas deployments would more than finance a targeted pay hike to increase the retention of certain military personnel that are in demand in the robust civilian economy, as well as pay for any other readiness improvements that are needed.

Despite all of the hysteria about a “readiness crisis,” the U.S. military is in a class by itself. Even before the proposed spending increases, the U.S. budget for national defense was equal to the defense budgets of the next 10 highest spending nations combined. Most of those nations are friendly to the United States. The only two major powers that may not be--Russia and China--along with the rogue states of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Cuba, have combined defense spending equal to less than one-third of the U.S. total. The United States has the only truly integrated military in the world, with by far the best weapons, training, intelligence, and logistics. And the gap between U.S. military capabilities and those of the next most capable militaries in the world--our rich allies--is growing.

The U.S. military doesn’t need more money. The Cold War is over. The decrepit militaries of Russia and China are unlikely to threaten the United States for decades (if ever). The $280 billion spent on national defense in fiscal year 1999 is already about 90 percent of the average spent during the Cold War. The administration and Congress are moving to increase it above that level to satisfy powerful interest groups--the military services and their industrial contractors--who are demanding their share of the budget surplus. In other words, they’’re preparing to increase the defense budget because they can (for the moment at least), not because they should.

The better course is to pay for readiness improvements by changing policies and priorities within the defense budget, and giving a tax cut to taxpayers already burdened with an annual bill for national defense of more than $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.