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Dissecting The Politics Of Defense

George W. Bush says the military has a morale problem, but he hasn't been on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman and watched bomb crews at work.

Aboard the Truman, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports the picture is hardly one of a dispirited military, but it is the picture of an overworked military. The Truman's crews will load bombs for 12 hours at a time, which is why Bush could tell the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the U.S. military has been stretched too thin.

"The next president will inherit a military in decline," Bush, the GOP presidential candidate, told the VFW's national convention in Milwaukee on Monday.

But the military is still the strongest by far in the world today, even though military leaders like Gen. John Jumper have been warning for some time that they are being asked to do too much with too little.

"We have lived, I think, almost continuously stretched thin in one aspect or another. But right now, I will tell you in many places we are broken," said Jumper.

Taking inflation into account, America's defense budget has gone down in 14 of the last 15 years, beginning in the Reagan administration through the Bush and all but one of the Clinton years.

Still, there was plenty for Vice President Al Gore to brag about when he went before the same veterans audience.

"If anyone doubts our strength, let them remember our overwhelming victory in Kosovo without a single American life lost in battle," Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate told the VFW convention on Tuesday.

In the Kosovo campaign, 38,000 missions were flown with only two planes shot down - and both pilots were rescued. But it was an effort that drained the U.S. Air Force of everything from spare parts to cruise missiles.

Bush says help is on the way. The Texas governor means, of course, if he becomes president. But the truth is no matter who is elected, help is on the way, beginning with a military pay raise.

"In my first budget, I will ask the Congress to further the pay raise by a billion dollars a year." promised Bush to the VFW.

"I will fight for another military pay increase," Gore vowed to the same group.

And just last week, the Clinton administration promised the Pentagon an extra $16 billion. But the bomb crews on the Truman may not stick around long enough to see it. A recent survey of nearly 4,000 aviation crew members found the working conditions so onerous that three-quarters of them were thinking of getting out.