Good and Bad News Defense Budget

Just how the Persian Gulf war tangles up a defense budget predicated on the end of the Cold War is well illustrated by the newest Washington debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative and the B-2 Stealth bomber.

To hear Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tell it, you would think the success of Patriot missiles in shooting down Iraqi Scud rockets is evidence the nation should go ahead with Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" project for combating a massive Soviet intercontinental missile strike. You would think, too, the effectiveness of F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers in hitting Iraqi targets unseen by enemy radar makes a case for the B-2.


Not everyone agrees. Rep. Charles E. Bennett, D-Fla., argues that the Patriot is a land-based tactical weapons system on which the space-based SDI ($4.58 billion requested for the next fiscal year) should not be allowed to ride piggyback. Speaker Tom Foley calls it a "disingenuous" argument.

As for the four B-2 bombers the Air Force wants to build in fiscal 1992 at a cost of $4.6 billion, Rep. John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, says new bombers to penetrate Soviet air space remain "unnecessary and unaffordable." "The gulf war has proven the effectiveness of standoff (unmanned) weapons such as the Tomahawk cruise missiles," he contends.


This discussion is complicated by what Mr. Cheney calls the "enormous uncertainty" caused by the resurgence of hardline militaristic elements in the Soviet Union. His $295.2 billion budget request, which does not include an anticipated $15 billion add-on for the gulf war, was formulated on a "good news" prospectus about the Soviet threat that the defense secretary doesn't quite believe.

Missile defense is an issue that encapsulates the contradictions implicit in a post-Cold War budget issued in the midst of a hot regional war at a moment of Soviet regression.

Within the $4.58 billion SDI request are three disparate elements. The major item -- sure to be reduced by Congress -- contemplates huge continuing expenditures on a space-based system to combat a massive Soviet strike. A secondary item follows up President Bush's call for a "refocused" SDI to deal with limited nuclear strikes anywhere in the world. Also included is a $603 million request for a tactical missile defense program that presumably would be one of the successors to the Patriot, which, ironically, is being phased out despite its effectiveness against Scuds.

bring up these points not in opposition to the Cheney budget, which represents a commendable effort to develop a trimmed-down military establishment, but to point to some of the imponderables that must be faced in the coming defense debate.

The armed forces of the future should not be predicated just on a "good news" interpretation of Soviet intentions but on a "bad news" acceptance of regional turbulence in the Third World.