Keeping America's military forces in top fighting form is a national priority, President Clinton told a gathering of top generals and admirals Tuesday.

"Readiness must be our number one priority," Clinton said. "It is being monitored and addressed every day at every level of command."Clinton made his remarks at the opening of a closed-door meeting Tuesday at Fort McNair in the shadow of the nation's Capitol, where he was hearing about strains on the military.

"Our forward-deployed and first-to-fight units are highly ready, and our overall force is fully capable of carrying out our national military strategy," the president said. "But I'm determined that we don't relax our vigilance to keep our forces ready to protect our security today and well into the 21st century."

Clinton, who had an uneasy relationship with the military establishment in his first term as president, slipped up with an unintended reference in Tuesday's speech to the Secret Service - one of the key players in the Monica Lew-in-sky scandal haunting him.

"The Secret Service, excuse me, the service chiefs and the commanders in chief have worked tirelessly also to improve the quality of life for our men and women in uniform," Clinton said.

Many military leaders are growing concerned about battlefield readiness.

Reports of pilot and spare parts shortages, maintenance backlogs, recruiting deficits and morale problems have been rife in recent months, particularly as deployments for the 1.4 million-member force have lengthened in such places as Bosnia and the Persian Gulf.

In a speech Monday to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Defense Secretary William Cohen said spending on readiness "is high" and the forces in Bosnia, Korea and the Persian Gulf are ready to do their job.

"But we are facing some strains, particularly in the follow-on forces," he said, describing those troops who would act as a second wave of support to front-line troops in a longer conflict. A text of the speech was released in Washington.

Cohen said the Navy and Air Force have recruiting shortfalls and problems retaining more senior people, given "attractive job offers" in a booming economy. The Army, he said, "has had to take money out of base operations and infrastructure accounts to pay for readiness."

The secretary pledged to work with Clinton and Congress "to ensure that our armed forces have the resources they need to protect U.S. interests in the 21st century as well as they have in this century."

Earlier Monday, the secretary was asked about a Wall Street Journal report that the Joint Chiefs are ready to tell Clinton that planned defense budgets of $250 billion must be increased by as much as $10 billion to $15 billion annually to stave off problems.

"We're looking at all of the readiness issues," Cohen replied.