WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military services say the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union and the nearly non-existent threat of global warfare against Soviet forces will have virtually no effect on their proposed budgets for 1993.
Although the services have already embarked on an extensive restructuring to cut forces by 25 percent over five years, defense analysts warn that the military appears to be postponing painful budget decisions and risking drastic cuts brought on by mounting federal deficits and lawmakers in search of a "peace dividend."
"The military's looking for trouble," said Steven Kosiak, an analyst with the Defense Budget Project, a research group that has been critical of Pentagon spending priorities.
Because of a budget deal struck last year between the Bush administration and Congress, the 1993 defense budget will be as high as $291.5 billion, but still nearly 4 percent less than the 1992 level after adjusting for inflation. The 1992 defense budget, which needs congressional approval this fall, is expected to be $290.8 billion.
Several military officials said last week that the services were reluctant to consider deeper cuts for the 1993 budget year -- which does not begin until October 1992 -- without a clearer understanding of how the political changes in the Soviet Union would affect that country's offensive military capabilities.
They also asserted that, for assorted bureaucratic reasons, military planners could not easily rewrite major portions of the 1993 spending plan, which are already nearing completion. Each service has an Oct. 15 deadline to submit its budget to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who must send final proposals to the White House by late December.
"What happened in the Soviet Union was so unexpected and so late in the process, we're really marching on the same course" in 1993, said Chief Warrant Officer Randy Gaddo, a Marine spokesman. "It's too late to make adjustments, even if we wanted to."
An Army officer familiar with budget planning remarked, "Probably the big chance to make changes will be in the 1994-1995 budget submissions. The '93 budget will just be sort of an update of the '92 budget.
"The Army budget won't be whipsawed around by what happens every year," he added.
As for Mr. Cheney, there are no signs that he will deviate from the Bush administration plan, initiated last year, to trim the military by 25 percent over five years, cut the number of troops in Europe roughly in half and restructure the forces to respond quickly to possible regional conflicts around the world.
Mr. Cheney has banked heavily on new technology to give U.S. forces an edge over the larger Soviet military. He has sought to cancel or cut purchases of tanks, combat aircraft and munitions to pay for strategic arms, "star wars" anti-missile defenses and the next generation of weapon systems, including the B-2 stealth bomber, SSN-21 Seawolf submarine and the Army's experimental Comanche light helicopter.
"We've got an excellent strategy in place, and we ought to stick to it over the course of the next several years," Mr. Cheney told an audience here late last month, 10 days after Soviet hard-liners launched an unsuccessful coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
"We have to take a long-term perspective in developing national security policy," he said. "We cannot simply be in the business of responding to the developments of the moment."
Although top defense officials will continue to review U.S. security policy annually, no review is anticipated in the near future, and there are no plans for a broader reassessment by the Bush administration, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said last week.
The events in the Soviet Union "don't change our fundamental assumptions about the nature of the Soviet conventional threat in Europe or, indeed, about the possibility of the Soviet strategic threat," Mr. Williams said. "We really haven't seen much change in the capability" of Soviet military forces, he said.
Officials were not inclined to adjust the defense budget "the way you would manage a stock portfolio by reading the daily stock quotations," Mr. Williams added.
Maj. Pete Keating, an Army spokesman, said that the last time senior defense officials gave the Army any guidance for preparing the 1993 budget was in May, about the same period when the Joint Chiefs of Staff made its last comprehensive assessment of worldwide threats to U.S. interests. No other high-level instructions are expected before Mr. Cheney gets the budget requests in October, he said.
Mr. Kosiak, among several outside analysts, acknowledged that the military was "already on a path toward making substantial reductions in force structure with a decline in defense spending by about 3 percent every year through 1996."
But he and others said pressures were clearly mounting for deeper cuts long before Soviet hard-liners tried to seize power in Moscow. Both the administration and Congress have been confronting newly revised estimates of a larger federal budget deficit this year, prompting questions over whether to revisit the budget summit deal they made last year to limit federal spending. "There's some desire to set even tighter lids on discretionary spending, and that would affect defense," Mr. Kosiak said.
Robert F. Hale, a national security analyst with the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, said last year's budget summit created a serious dilemma that might require sharper cuts in the 1993 defense budget than the military anticipates. The alternative would be Draconian cuts in 1994 and 1995 that would bring on the nightmare of large-scale involuntary discharges of career military personnel, he said.
While the budget summit agreement capped defense spending in 1993, it set a ceiling only on total federal discretionary spending in 1994 and 1995, leaving it up to the president and Congress to decide how to parcel out the necessary cuts between defense and domestic programs to meet deficit-reduction goals, he explained.
"If you look at the Bush administration's defense plan for 1994 and 1995, you'd have to take substantial cuts in non-defense areas," Mr. Hale said. A CBO analysis this summer concluded that non-defense programs, including education, health and welfare funding, would have to be cut by nearly 10 percent over two years to give the administration all the money it wants for defense in 1994 and 1995.
Any effort to protect domestic spending would send the ax down hard on the military, so Congress might seek to soften the blow by cutting more deeply in defense spending for 1993, Mr. Hale said.
"We're going to be in trouble because of a real mismatch between available funds and the production of new weapons," Mr. Kosiak said. "It was already a good idea to look at that, and the changes in the Soviet Union only drive home the point more strongly that we should re-examine the need for all the weapons."
The military has been counting on many new, expensive weapons to counter anticipated improvements in Soviet radar defenses, aircraft, submarines and other systems into the next century. Before last month's upheavals, U.S. officials continued to justify the $75 billion B-2 bomber program, a $60 billion tank modernization program and other expensive projects by telling lawmakers that the Soviets would continue "robust" spending in strategic systems, despite their economic woes.
Michael Brower of the Union of Concerned Scientists said such appeals were no longer credible.
"If we see the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there's going to be a powerful argument that the entire Cold War defense structure is obsolete," he said.
Mr. Brower predicted intense battles over the 1993 budget that would be far more decisive than the debates this fall over the still-unapproved 1992 spending plan.
"The debate this year has been shaped by the Persian Gulf war and the need to feel strong on defense," he said. "They'll put these issues off until next year."