WASHINGTON -- Politely, but firmly, Sen. Bob Kasten stared at Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and told him what families of Army reservists from such Wisconsin cities as Appleton, Tomah and Eau Claire had been saying for weeks: "With the war over, why can't we now make a stronger effort to get our reserves back?"
Then, without missing a beat, the Republican senator criticized Pentagon proposals to slash military reserve strength by more than 20 percent through 1995.
"Are you re-evaluating this position at this time?" Mr. Kasten asked last week after declaring the cuts to be excessive.
An exasperated Mr. Cheney, looking at Mr. Kasten and other Senate defense appropriations subcommittee members who raised the same points, wondered aloud about the wisdom of keeping thousands of reservists on the payroll "if I can't deploy them and use them because everybody wants me to hurry up and bring them home once we've got them deployed."
"Either it's part of the total force or it's not," he snapped.
Long before the Senate hearing, Mr. Cheney was incurring the wrath of lawmakers by proposing a drastic restructuring of the military reserves, along with the active-duty services, over the next five years in response to the declining Soviet threat in Europe and a new defense strategy geared toward responding quickly to regional conflicts, such as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August.
He continues to mount what amounts to a direct attack on one of Congress' sacred cows: the National Guard and reserves, the nation's part-time armed forces, which have been a strong source of local economic benefits, patronage and political support for state governors and members of Congress for generations.
Besides providing an effective, low-cost military force for national defense, drug interdiction, natural disasters and civil emergencies, the federally supported program has been popular among lawmakers who are eager to dispense Pentagon pork in their home districts. Recent budgets have approached $20 billion,which includes a payroll of about $9 billion.
"The best way to spread around defense spending is to have National Guard and reserve units in our different communities, where those reservists can receive additional income, educational benefits and serve his or her country," Representative G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery, D-Miss., said candidly last week.
Mr. Montgomery, known as "General Montgomery" by his
colleagues, is recognized widely as the champion of the Guard and reserve on the House Armed Services Committee, where he is third in seniority. He played a pivotal role in a decision by the full House last week to restore most of the 107,526 Guard and reserve personnel cuts sought by Mr. Cheney in the 1992 defense budget.
Representative Norm Dicks, D-Wash., upset Mr. Montgomery during a floor debate last Tuesday by openly suggesting, "We're going to, for political reasons, protect these units." The provocative remark was later withdrawn from publication in the Congressional Record.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate defense appropriations panel, who favors some cuts in reserve ranks, lamented that politics overwhelms any serious consideration of both Guard reductions and military base closings.
"Cutbacks translate into loss of jobs and loss of economic base, and politically, that is of considerable concern to most, if not all, members because it affects constituents," he said Friday. "And the people screaming the loudest are the ones who are quick to cut the defense budget, but 'not in my backyard.' "
Since the end of the draft in 1973, the United States has relied heavilyon a "total force" policy that calls on the reserves to reinforce active forces in wartime. The Pentagon has also shifted a wide range of specialized duties, including aerial medical evacuation and minesweeping, to the reservists, largely to cut costs.
The reliance on reservists is so great that so-called "weekend warriors" belonging to the Army National Guard and the Army Reserves now outnumber regular Army troops, Pentagon figures show. About 776,000 troops, or more than 52 percent of the Army's total strength, are part-time soldiers.
At issue now is Mr. Cheney's proposed five-year plan that would cut active and reserve forces by nearly the same percentages by the end of the 1995 fiscal year. The current active-duty strength of 2.04 million personnel would shrink by 19 percent to 1.65 million, a loss of about 391,000 jobs.
Under the plan, Mr. Cheney wants to eliminate about 270,000 BTC Guard and reserve jobs over the same period, a 23 percent cut that would scale back the reserves from 1.176 million to 906,000 personnel.
"If you take down the active-duty components from 18 to 12 active [Army] divisions, you don't need as many combat support, service support units . . . so you've got to draw down [the reserves] as well," Mr. Cheney told Senate appropriators last week. "Otherwise, you're preserving force structure that doesn't have a mission."
Now that the threat of a sudden, global war against the Soviet Union has subsided, the U.S. military is "faced with the need to deal with regional contingencies," he said. "We can move into an era in which we have smaller, but very flexible and
Pentagon officials trying to sell the plan to Congress, including Stephen M. Duncan, assistant defense secretary for reserve affairs, have insisted that deactivating or merging Guard and reserve units would help "meet the requirements of the new strategy." There is no effort "to merely have active and reserve forces share the pain of budget reductions equally," he told several skeptical lawmakers recently.
Many independent budget analysts see nothing wrong with deep, across-the-board cuts.
"If you don't cut reserves very much, you might have to cut actives below the level that's adequate for the missions you want to give them," said Stephen Alexis Cain of the Defense Budget Project, a research group that often criticizes Pentagon spending priorities.
Nonetheless, reservists across the country have rallied their local officials and community associations to press their case against the Cheney plan. Their collective mission clearly is aimed at heading off any personnel cuts, at least in 1992, lawmakers said.
Other advocates have argued that the reserves should be expanded so that relatively low-cost billets would be available for trained personnel who leave active duty in the next few years. The Pentagon agrees that the Guard and reserves are cheaper to run; the operating cost of an Army Reserve unit is roughly 25 percent of the cost for an equivalent regular unit, for example.
Last week, the House approved a 1992 defense budget that scaled back the proposed reserve personnel cut from 107,526 jobs to 37,580, reflecting only a 3 percent cut below the current level. Lawmakers also added $290 million for National Guard armories in 19 states and $650 million to upgrade Air National Guard F-15 and F-16 aircraft and buy other equipment, including trucks and C-23 transport planes for the Army National Guard.
After the House action, Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, faulted Mr. Cheney for not devising a more convincing case for deeper force cuts, but he acknowledged that Congress acted without a defense strategy of its own because it "hasn't come to grips with that yet."
"We made some progress this year," Mr. Aspin said, explaining that he spent "an enormous amount of time" negotiating with Mr. Montgomery and others to accept even a 3 percent cut next year.