WASHINGTON -- When the U.S. military impressed the world in the 1991 Persian Gulf war by making cruise missiles turn street corners to hit targeted Baghdad buildings, it was exploiting "smart weapons" technology developed a decade earlier.
That 10-year lag between developing a weapon and using it is at the core of growing bipartisan concern that today's cash-strapped Pentagon is jeopardizing U.S. weapons superiority in the 21st century.
The central fear, voiced during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, is that research and development on the next generation of weaponry is being deferred by the Clinton administration to pay for day-to-day military operations.
At the hearing, lack of long-term modernization appeared to replace shortfalls in military readiness -- which the Pentagon has said it is moving rapidly to address -- as the prime issue.
"I think the modernization is where I have my greatest concern now," said Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the panel's ranking Democratic member, as the committee reviewed the administration's proposed fiscal 1996 defense budget. "I think there are clearly insufficient funds going into modernizing the forces."
The committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, sounded the same note, telling Defense Secretary William J. Perry: "My concern for the future is that the armed forces have the means to deter potential aggression and if necessary fight and win decisively with minimum casualties."
Mr. Perry, who was a Pentagon technocrat during the 1970s, helped develop the "smart weapons" used in the gulf war. Yesterday he was called on to defend the decision to boost short-term military readiness at the expense of new weapons procurement and of research and development on the next generation of systems.
Under the Clinton budget, sent to Congress this week, weapons procurement is projected to cost $39.4 billion next year, $9 billion less than the amount projected just last year for fiscal 1996 and the lowest since 1950. Research and development spending next year would be $34.8 billion, $500 million below last year's projection.
Spending on procurement is budgeted to fall almost 50 percent during this decade, while research and development investment will be reduced by more than 40 percent, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. Financing for major weapons systems already is being stretched out, deferred or canceled.
TC While these two key modernization accounts are being reduced, spending on personnel and operations is being increased. The fiscal 1996 budget adds $2.5 billion over last year's projections to personnel spending, and $3.1 billion to operations and maintenance, the key readiness sector.
This reflects the Pentagon's determination to maintain near-term military readiness to fight two almost simultaneous regional conflicts, such as wars in the Persian Gulf and the Korea Peninsula, even at the cost of long-term modernization.
The readiness issue erupted last fall, when all the services reported training and maintenance setbacks because their funding had been diverted to pay for unanticipated and unbudgeted overseas missions such as Rwanda relief and the Haiti operation. The Pentagon is seeking special funding to cover those costs and to avoid a repetition of the problem in future.
Mr. Perry told the Senate committee yesterday that he informed the service chiefs as they prepared their fiscal 1996 budgets that any program could be traded off in favor of military readiness.
"That was very strong and unambiguous guidance," he said. But, acknowledging that the Pentagon's modernization program was suffering as a result, he told Sen. Daniel R. Coats, a Indiana Republican, that any extra defense funds authorized by Congress would go to modernization.
"I would not just focus on replacement systems in the field," Mr. Perry said. "But on the modernization of them, the new generation."
Terry Nyhous, defense budget analyst for the accounting and consulting firm of Price Waterhouse, said in an interview: "There are these three pots of money -- for readiness, force structure [manpower], and modernization. Clearly, the Clinton administration has made the choice among these three pots to protect force structure and readiness. The on-the-ground effect is we may lose the technological edge that the U.S. forces have always enjoyed."
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate committee yesterday the "dangers" of not investing in the future were "very, very real and very great." He warned both Congress and Mr. Perry that a proposed increase in modernization funding scheduled for fiscal 1997 should proceed as planned and not be diverted to other uses.
Under the Clinton plan, a 71 percent real decline in weapons procurement since 1985 would bottom out next year, and then increase by 47 percent by the year 2001. Savings from base closures and increased purchasing efficiency would provide the extra funding, according to the administration.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, noted that while the post-Cold War era did not present the sort of threat to national survival posed by the former Soviet Union, new and sophisticated adversaries could emerge. He added: "It is at our peril that we under support modernization."
And Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, an Idaho Republican, warned: "Unless we pay for continuous modernization . . . we will have an aging obsolete force that costs a fortune to maintain. I firmly believe that is where we are headed under this current administration budget proposal."
An outside defense analyst, Steven Kosiak of the Defense Budget Project, a nonpartisan research group, pointed to the basic dilemma of the defense debate: "Do you really need that amount of near-term capability? Or would it make more sense to shift your near-term capability a little and put those savings into to modernization, which ultimately is going to make you stronger. To the extent people start focusing on the long-term, that's good."