Pentagon priorities questioned Cohen's budget: New defense secretary wants more money for new weaponry.


DEFENSE SECRETARY William S. Cohen finds himself in the awkward position of defending a Pentagon budget that still reflects a downward trend he openly deplores in the procurement of advanced weaponry. Since 1990, he says, such funding has plummeted 53 percent as the U.S. has basked in a post-Cold War "holiday." "We can no longer afford to continue to raid procurement funding," he says, "and put it into O&M; [operations and maintenance]."

The candor of the Cabinet's sole Republican is refreshing, especially when compared to the party-line effusions of his Democratic peers. But in calling attention to this "major challenge," Mr. Cohen is resisting the balanced-budget mantra in Washington and the desires of his former GOP colleagues in the Senate to plunge ahead with a national missile defense system at the expense of other weapons the military brass would rather have.

Mr. Cohen has about a year's grace while a top-level Quadrennial Defense Review pursues the strategic inquiries that could lead to a shake-up in Pentagon priorities. Faced with massive downsizing as the Russian threat withered, the military establishment has chosen to emphasize spending on personnel and O&M; while relying on existing weapons systems that remain far superior to those of any other nation. This now has to change, according to the new secretary, as the United States reaches for "leap-ahead systems" and "state-of-the-art technology" that envisages "complete knowledge of the battlefield" rather than just "situational awareness." Translation: smart weaponry of mind-numbing sophistication.

While Mr. Cohen continues to champion more spending for advanced weaponry, budget details revealed that actual acquisitions will drop from $45.3 billion in the current fiscal year to $42.6 billion next year. Research and development will also go down. Since the current budget he has to sell is mainly the handiwork of his predecessor, William J. Perry, Secretary Cohen may escape a lot of heat. But his personal "holiday" will surely end next year, He will have to launch a projected 50 percent boost in weapons spending while living within a tight overall defense budget.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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