Budget error prompts Aspin to seek additional $5 billion for defense budget


WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced yesterday that the Clinton administration wants to increase defense spending by $5 billion from 1995 to 1997 to make up for overestimated cost savings in weapons programs, base closings and management reforms.

Mr. Aspin's decision came after outside experts told him that the Bush administration overestimated the savings from assorted budget-cutting initiatives by as much as $15 billion -- or roughly $5 billion more than the savings shortfall Clinton budget planners have already anticipated.

"The cuts in defense spending we have already made are enough. Planned budget levels will be protected," Mr. Aspin said in a statement that appeared designed to help the Clinton administration curry favor with the military.

His remarks accompanied the release of a report by an independent panel led by Philip A. Odeen. The report warned the Clinton administration to expect as much as $3 billion in added weapons costs and up to $1.5 billion in higher environmental cleanup costs that would eat into the savings from shutting down military bases.

The panel, which Mr. Aspin created to evaluate projected cost savings, generally corroborated his claim earlier this year that management reforms begun by the Bush administration would save about $60 billion instead of $70 billion. In fact, the panel predicted a shortfall of between $9 billion and $11 billion.

"Some critics . . . feared shortfalls in the program of as much as $30 billion to $50 billion," Mr. Aspin said in a letter yesterday to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "The examination by our outside experts has assured us, that while shortfalls do exist, we do not face a problem of that magnitude."

The administration's proposed 1994 defense budget totals $263.4 billion, which pares about $12 billion from the 1994 budget outlined by former President Bush. The long-term Clinton budget plan through 1998 would cut defense by $126.9 billion.

Military officials had braced for the possibility that the Clinton administration would call for even deeper defense cuts if the Odeen panel found a huge gap between projected and actual savings, but Mr. Aspin told Mr. Dellums: "We will not chip away at our defense program. Instead, we will add $5 billion to our defense budget projections to make up for the additional shortfall."

Last month, Mr. Aspin pledged to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that budget cuts and financial management problems, especially those plaguing the $81 billion Defense Business Operations Fund, will not be allowed to hurt the military's combat readiness.

As a result, a senior defense official explained yesterday, the extra $5 billion is intended to discourage the military from cutting back on training and operations to free money for environmental cleanup or other unexpectedly higher costs.

The official, who asked not to be named, suggested the money could shore up accounts for weapons production and environmental programs, but he said the allocation of the money hasn't been decided. Nonetheless, without extra funds "it's our fear . . . that the easiest accounts to raid would be in readiness. We want to protect these," he said.

The Odeen panel endorsed the idea behind the troubled business fund, which was created in 1991 to centralize the system used by the military to buy goods and services.

But it urged the Pentagon to defer any plan to expand the scope of the fund's operations.

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