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Cuts in Defense: How Much Is Too Much?


Washington. -- "This deep and no deeper."

Thus did President Bush warn Congress, in his State of the Union speech, about cuts he would accept in the U.S. defense program. The end of "imperial communism" enabled him to chop additional $50 billion from the five-year military plan (1993-1997); "to do more would be ignorant of history."

This statement of resolve could have a shorter life than the 1988 "read my lips" commitment against tax increases, which broke down in 1990.

Even before the speech Tuesday night and submission of his new $286 billion defense budget the next day, Congress was bulging with hopes and plans for financing domestic programs with deeper defense cuts. A rough average of sundry proposals would double the president's cuts to $100 billion, the figure in fact that Sen. George J. Mitchell D-Maine, the majority leader, has fastened upon.

The world is still full of dangers and pesky tyrants with no goodwill for America and American interests, even if the Soviet Union has fallen off the screen, the president and his security advisers are saying.

Defense authorities in Congress agree with that. But they contend the administration is trying to maintain a larger force than is needed -- a larger force, say, than it would take to defeat a foe like pre-gulf war Iraq, which is about as big a threat as is likely to arise -- and also deal with lesser provocations, such as a Manuel Noriega in Panama.

Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is presiding over a mammoth series of studies of how much defense is enough. Later this month, he will offer four options for conventional military forces designed for a variety of possible conflicts. About the toughest enemy he can conjure up is one with the power Saddam Hussein had before two-thirds of his Iraqi forces were destroyed in the gulf war.

All Mr. Aspin's options would cost less and would call for smaller forces than the 1,626,000 people in uniform envisioned in administration plans. That figure, a cut of 548,000 from 1987 strength, would be reached in 1997.

This year's budget battle and defense debate are largely joined, of course, over the question of whether such external threats as admittedly exist are as immediately demanding as the nation's mountainous problems at home.

It should be stressed, all the same, that this is the period in the congressional budget cycle when criticisms of the executive and calls for drastic slashes are loudest.

Later on, a raft of conflicting concerns will emerge to make hacking away at defense rather more troublesome. These include worries about reducing manpower faster and turning soldiers out on the street at an awkward time, efforts to restore pet congressional projects that the Pentagon has tried to get rid of, and pressures from defense contractors (big employers) whose numbers are sure to diminish in the post-Cold War world.

In the end, for the fiscal year covered by the new budget, Congress may be unable to scratch out very large amounts beyond the $10 billion Mr. Bush proposes cutting from previous plans. Over the whole five years, however, his $50 billion cut clearly will be exceeded and quite likely more than doubled. In both the Pentagon and Congress, detailed planning takes that as a given.

The military plan just handed Congress gets most of its savings from canceling what some call Cold War weapons -- chiefly the Navy's Seawolf attack submarine and (after five more are built for a total of 20) the B-2 stealth bomber.

Considerable savings, moreover, will come from Mr. Bush's separate move for drastic cuts in strategic nuclear arms, some unilaterally and some in negotiations with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The blueprint does not allow for any further reductions in conventional ground, air and sea formations and troop cuts. Manpower cuts bring quick savings, whereas savings from arms procurement cuts are spread over years.

The administration holds out that the force is being reduced enough under plans fashioned in 1990; beyond that, it did not want to break faith with troops by prematurely putting them out and adding to unemployment. Congress will likely hesitate on that point as well. Next year, however, both the Pentagon and Congress are likely to look with favor on further cuts.

With both qualitative and quantitative superiority over any likely foe, the Defense Department proclaimed a fundamental change in the way it buys -- or now will put off buying -- new weapons to modernize its forces. Whether it works remains to be seen.

The idea is to switch huge sums from weapons purchasing accounts to research and development to keep ahead of the pack in technology. This seems to mean continuously modernizing current weapons while developing -- but putting off production of -- new ones.

There is no longer any need for introducing new weapons at the pace attempted during the Cold War to ensure being ahead of the Soviets.

"The U.S. armed forces today are more capable than any force they are likely to face," the Pentagon said. To guarantee keeping them that way there will be hot pursuit of new technologies. But many of the possible weapons do not have to be produced in quantity, at least for the foreseeable future.

This way, the Pentagon hopes, it can minimize technical, production and operational problems that have been known to plague new weapons.

There are, at the outset, two major exceptions to the new policy: the Air Force F-22 fighter and the Navy AX attack plane, both in development, will be pushed toward production over coming years because both services would otherwise begin to run low on modern airplanes.

The new purchase policy is likely to be controversial as it is being worked out. What will happen to experienced work forces if weapons are developed but not produced?

And, as an old hand in these perennial battles asked: Will possible foes be cowed by high tech weapons that have been developed but not actually given to troops?

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