Tucked away in Defense Secretary Les Aspin's proposed Pentagon budget reductions are increases for at least two politically charged weapons programs still awaiting justification. Congress will have to determine if another Seawolf nuclear submarine, at $2 billion a pop, fulfills real defense needs or just a Clinton campaign promise. It should also decide whether former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was right, after all, in opposing a V-22 Osprey aircraft program that could cost $30 billion.
A more fundamental question, one the Bush administration never answered convincingly, is whether projected outlays will pay for the force structure envisaged. Mr. Aspin has received plans from the armed services to reduce the defense budget by $10.7 billion and cut troop strength by 375,000 in five years. That cut will be too much for Senate Armed Services chairman Sam Nunn and too little for House counterpart Ron Dellums.
In fashioning a military establishment for a world in which "bipolar rigidity" has been replaced by "multipolar complexity," Mr. Aspin has said that old hawk-dove, conservative-liberal, Republican-Democratic demarcations don't matter. What does, he suggested, is whether a particular legislator's district has military bases and defense contractors.
That is an astute comment. By year's end, the Clinton administration will have to drive through the third round of base closings in less than half a decade. Congress will resist. But if the United States is to have a leaner armed force capable of carrying out post-Cold War missions, it will have to shrink the present military-industrial complex.
In this undertaking, the domestic economy will play a large role. Congress is demonstrably skittish about any savings that cost jobs. Cancellation of the Milstar Communications Satellite system, a $27 billion project that would have cost $800 million in fiscal 1994, will affect contractors in many parts of the country. More localized impact will come from service proposals to eliminate five Army weapons systems, to stop production of F-16s (an Aspin favorite), to cancel the overhaul of the Forrestal training carrier and a host of other cutbacks.
As offset, Mr. Aspin is calling for more funds to pay for the conversion of military plants to civilian use and to re-train defense workers and mustered-out service personnel. But the jury is out on whether conversion really works consistently and whether savings in defense dollars could be better used for deficit reduction or domestic spending.
In shaping the armed forces, Mr. Aspin will be dealing with a disputatious Joint Chiefs of Staff, with allies carping at U.S. troop withdrawals while slashing their own forces and with politicians who are all for a smaller Pentagon budget as long as it does not affect home turf. The controversy over gays in the military and struggles in Somalia, Bosnia and the Middle East complicate matters. In the end, he and President Clinton cannot escape their responsibility to protect the nation's security, no matter what the situation, at home or abroad.