The Republicans now in control of Congress have promised to cut back federal spending, but they intend to make one big component of the budget—defense spending—even bigger. The GOP Contract with America promises a vote on the “need to ensure a strong national defense by restoring the essential parts of our national security funding.”

Robert Dole (R-KS), majority leader of the Senate, says “We ought to be putting money into our defense budget instead of taking it out.” Strom Thurmond (R-SC), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued recently that as much as $12 billion should be added for training and new weapons.

In the House, Rep. Floyd Spence (R-SC), the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, recently issued a report by his staff that concludes military readiness has declined. Spence has called President Clinton’s commitment to add an additional $25 billion to future defense outlays “a welcome, albeit a very modest first step.”

As Americans evaluate the coming debate, they should ask two basic questions. First, is the existing military budget being used efficiently? Second, what ultimate purposes will be served by the vast Pentagon expenditures, and are these purposes themselves well-justified?

Clearly, the existing military budget is as badly managed as ever. According to a recent GAO study, the services could save $500 million by tightening inventory management, and $400 million by revamping commissaries.

The Army’s request for flight and vehicle training exceeds the amount likely to be used by $549 million. The Air Force is budgeting for training more pilots than it will actually be able to train. The Navy gets more money for shipyard labor than it will actually need. Civilian labor costs have been overestimated by $564 million. Taxpayers deserve better management of existing resources before coughing up additional billions.

Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense for manpower in the Reagan administration, regards all the talk about “hollow” forces as mere political rhetoric. Disputing recent allegations, he maintains “there are no cutbacks in training.”

Congress itself continues to lard the defense budget with billions for porkbarrel projects like the additional Seawolf attack submarine, V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft for the Marine Corps, and more F-16 fighter planes, not to speak of a new aircraft carrier priced at $3.6 billion. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) charges that this year’s defense budget contains almost $1 billion in congressional add-ons for construction projects, some at bases slated for closure. If our country is really in danger, how can members of Congress justify using the defense budget as a welfare program for favored constituents?

How much danger, really, does the United States face? Obviously the world continues to be troubled and violent. Regional disputes and civil wars abound. But do any of these conflicts constitute a serious threat to the lives and property of Americans?

The Soviet Union has dissolved, and Russia is struggling just to survive. Its disintegrating military, most recently humiliated by the ragged Chechen street fighters, poses no real threat, present or future, to the United States. In the words of Lt. Gen. Aleksandr I. Lebed, “Russia doesn’t have an army anymore. It has only toy soldiers, formations of boys with no capacity.”

So where are the threats? North Korea, with its wretchedly poor and imploding command economy? Serbia, grasping at the fragments of shattered Yugoslavia? Cuba, whose sick and starving population is receding into pre-industrial destitution? Iraq, whose armed forces torment its own people but turn tail when confronted by a potent opponent? Iran, another basket case? China, galloping toward capitalism and eager for trade with the United States?

Of course, plenty of opportunities will present themselves to any administration willing to use its soldiers as globocops and welfare workers. Localized catastrophes like those in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti will surely recur. But Americans finance the defense budget to protect their own lives, property, and national independence. Intervening in distant disorders misuses our servicemen and women, driving up Pentagon costs in quixotic crusades unrelated to our vital interests.

Everybody favors a “strong national defense,” but this venerable motto, now tacked onto the GOP contract doesn’t get us far in making sound decisions about defense spending.

Before adding to an already enormous defense budget, we need to ask whether defense officials are using the money efficiently and whether legitimate uses of our military forces really require more lavish funding.