Next year the legislative firewalls disappear. The Pentagon will be as vulnerable as a lone infantryman in the middle of a tank battle. No longer will it be protected from deep cuts by a 1990 budget agreement which ruled that any savings on defense spending must be used to reduce the deficit, not to boost domestic outlays. So the first real post-Cold War defense budget may be on the way, its prospects clouded only by a recession that makes lawmakers leery about closing down bases and canceling weapons contracts.
Just before the 102nd Congress adjourned, it cranked out a treading-water $274 billion defense bill. No major weapons systems were scrapped. Savings were made, as usual, in operation and maintenance -- categories as unspectacular as they are crucial. National Guard and Reserve units, heavy hitters in every congressional district, once more were allotted more resources than requested at the expense of regular forces. Star Wars came down from Reaganspace and turned into a single ground-based anti-missile site in conformity with existing arms-control treaties.
No less than four new-generation aircraft were funded although legislators know some will have to be canceled. With military spending on a down glide, the $300 billion eventual cost of such projects is out of sight. This is bad budgeting.
What Congress did not do was get a handle on what kind of a military establishment will protect the United States, sustain this nation as a world power and yet not wreck its economy into the Twenty-first Century. Nor did Congress fashion a convincing "conversion" plan to aid communities, businesses and especially uniformed personnel in their return to a civilian, peacetime economy.
Out on the hustings, Bill Clinton and George Bush have offered competing defense programs whose differences are less than meets the eye. Mr. Clinton says he wants 10 aircraft carriers rather than 12, a greater reliance on reserve forces, 100,000 rather than 150,000 personnel in Europe and, ironically, attack submarines and V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft that the present Pentagon leadership rejects as unnecessary. But his $1.36 trillion military spending projection over the next five years is only 5 percent lower than the $1.42 trillion proposed by President Bush.
In an effort to dispel the imagery of Democrats as doves, Mr. Clinton put strong use-of-force language into his party's platform. But aside from the squabbling over Mr. Bush's role in the buildup of the Iraqi military machine, defense policy has not figured large in the campaign. Anti-Communism has all but disappeared as a Republican political asset. Neither candidate wants to dismantle NATO and retreat to a Fortress America.
Failure to produce a convincing post-Cold War defense budget this year puts the pressure on Congress and the White House to come up next year with a force structure that reflects the real-world economic and military situation.