Washington. -- In control of the executive branch for the first time since Jimmy Carter's presidency, Democrats apparently are determined not to be tagged -- again -- with the responsibility for letting the U.S. military forces become "hollow" and unready to fight.
The only part of the Clinton administration's new defense budget that shows an increase is the account for the daily operation and maintenance of the shrinking forces, to ensure that they could respond swiftly to any presidential decision to send them into action.
This increase was made possible in large part by a big shift of money from the investment accounts, that is, from the development and production of future weapons and associated equipment to keep the forces modernized. More help came from bit of luck on lower-than-expected inflation and from holding next year's pay raise to 1.6 percent. A big increase in readiness money therefore could be stuffed inside the Clinton budget boundaries.
The result is a delicately balanced defense plan for fiscal 1995, starting next Oct. 1, and one that already has the Defense Department's top civilian and military leaders asking themselves whether they are slighting the future to pay for the present. Are they spending too much to keep a too-large force in constant readiness at the expense of future weapons development and procurement?
They don't think so at the moment, a senior official said in briefing the press on the new budget. The forces can live for now with the huge arms stocks put on order in the Reagan administration -- some still being delivered -- but, he said, Defense Secretary William J. Perry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be increasingly asking themselves whether they have the right balance.
Combat readiness is a matter of great importance to the civilians now running the Pentagon, particularly Mr. Perry, who during the Carter administration was an undersecretary of defense in charge of research -- in charge of the future, so to speak. He of all people would not want to have to endure what he did in the late 1970s. While he was riding herd on the development of new weapons -- the weapons that performed so well in the Persian Gulf war -- he had to sit by while the combat readiness of U.S. forces deteriorated.
The Pentagon budget briefer put it this way: "The guidance from Dr. Perry and from [predecessor] Secretary [Les] Aspin was: readiness is your highest priority, and you can trade off anything else to get the readiness package that you need."
The result was a budget that played well among the military leaders and ought to appeal to Congress, where readiness is always a concern that any administration neglects to its later dismay. Rep. John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the House's potent defense appropriations subcommittee, has been warning about falling readiness and is doubtless one of those the budget is most meant to placate.
"Hollow" is a term long used to describe forces that may be substantial in size but are short on training, working weapons and ability to move rapidly to trouble spots. The term was given currency by Gen. Edward C. Meyer, the Army chief of staff from mid-1979 to mid-1983. After years of post-Vietnam War cuts, he said he had a "hollow Army." His successors, in the Army and the other services, argue that too rapid a build-down of the forces so laboriously and expensively rebuilt during the Reagan and Bush administrations could reduce them to "hollowness" again.
The Pentagon budget sent to Congress Monday called for $252.2 billion in spending authority for fiscal 1995, up $3.2 billion from this year. That's not quite enough to offset inflation, so there is a slight decline in purchasing power. Within that total, the operations and maintenance account is by far the largest -- $92.9 billion, up by $4.9 billion and more than enough to offset inflation. This account has more than double the once-huge sums in the procurement account.
The emphasis on readiness is even greater than first appears. The 5.6 percent increase in operations and maintenance funds comes in a year when the military force structure itself continues to decline, by roughly 7 percent in fiscal 1995. Some average monthly net declines in fiscal 1995 will include 7,100 active-duty military personnel, 3,800 reservists, 4,100 civilians, one warship, 37 warplanes, one combat battalion and one military base. So, much more money is to be spent to keep fewer people and less equipment combat ready.
A large question will loom in a year or so, however, as to whether there still are more people and equipment -- a bigger military force -- than can be paid for within the budgets that Mr. Clinton has planned. In his State of the Union speech, he said he intended no more defense budget cuts. But the question likely will become whether he will allow any increases -- or will further cut the forces.
The emphasis is on readiness during a transition period. But, said the Pentagon budget briefer, priorities will have to turn "in the future" to modernization -- purchases of a range of new weapons. Some current programs will be ended by that time and funds can be shifted to the newer material, offsetting some of the costs.
But few doubt that a crunch is coming. Reconciling readiness, new weapons, planned numbers of combat units and budget totals will be an awesome task.
Charles Corddry covers defense and security issues from the Washington Bureau of The Baltimore Sun.