The nation's top general said Tuesday that without more pay, benefits and new equipment, America's undersupplied and overworked military will go into "a nosedive" and suffer irreparable damage.

"Our forces are showing increasing signs of serious wear," Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Our current readiness is fraying, and the long-term health of the total force is in jeopardy."The Army general was flanked by the chiefs of each of the military services, and each echoed Shelton's call that Congress and the administration increase both current and long-term Pentagon budgets to stem the flood of top-quality men and women leaving the ranks.

"We need to put additional dollars into taking care of our most important resource, the uniformed members of the armed forces," Shelton said. "The best tanks, planes and ships in the world are not what make our military the superb force that it is today. Our people are more important than hardware."

Pentagon budgets, now in the range of $250 billion annually, have resulted in more than a decade of reduced weapons purchases. The emphasis has been on putting money into keeping the front lines of the 1.4 million uniformed force in top form and readiness to fight.

The budget cuts and post-Cold War reductions in the size of the force have been coupled with increased missions to Bosnia, Haiti and the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the wear and tear on men, women and equipment have taken a toll, the commanders said.

"Right now the force is fundamentally sound, but the warning signals cannot and should not be ignored," Shelton said. "In my view, the plane has `nosed over,' and our readiness is starting to descend. We must `pull back on the stick' and begin to climb before we find ourselves in a nosedive that might cause irreparable damage to this great force we have created, a nosedive that could take us years to pull out of," Shelton said.

The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael Ryan, said the temptation of commercial flight pay is enticing pilots to shun the uniform. The service is now 700 pilots short, despite hefty bonus offers, and will be 2,000 short by 2002, he said.

The chief of naval operations, Adm. Jay Johnson, said he's seen the highest rate of aviation mishaps in five years, which he called troubling. "We are paying for today's readiness with our future," he said.