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Defense funding regains stature; First real increase since '85 boosts pay, big weapons program; Priorities challenged


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration unveiled a budget for the Defense Department yesterday that includes the first real spending increase since the Cold War heyday of 1985, with $12.6 billion in new money to cover the sharpest military pay increase in 17 years and more research into building a national missile defense system.

"The budget includes the first sustained increase in defense spending since the end of the Cold War," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters, noting that the total budget will be $267 billion for the fiscal year beginning in October. "The central aim of the fiscal 2000 budget is to preserve America's military strength."

But with military spending still accounting for just 3 percent of the gross domestic product -- compared with, say, the 4.7 percent that was spent during the Carter presidency -- Republicans say the increase is too little. The Republicans are pushing for increases of $20 billion or more. While Cohen calls for a 4.4 percent pay raise for the military, Republicans are pressing for a 4.8 percent increase.

Some defense analysts criticized the budget choices, saying they are weighed down by the planes, tanks and submarines designed to win the Cold War.

"We're still thinking and preparing and spending money to fight World War III against a major power," said retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information, pointing to the $658 million for upgrades to the Army's Abrams tanks. "We've got the best tanks in the world, and here we are putting money into making them better."

Carroll and other former defense officials suggested putting more money into weapons systems that are more mobile and high-tech -- perhaps a lighter tank, or one with radar-evading stealth capabilities that could deal with brush-fire wars and potential hostage situations, such as an attack on a U.S. embassy.

"That's much more of what we're facing than an armored division coming at us," Carroll said.

Cohen acknowledged yesterday that the military threats to the nation are evolving. He noted that "one of the gravest threats we're going to face in the future will be chemical and biological attacks." The budget calls for $250 million for 10 National Guard teams to respond to such incidents, along with a $74 million in increased purchasing power for the Chemical and Biological Defense Program.

Still, the Pentagon's emphasis on buying traditional -- and expensive -- weapons systems, such as the $63.8 billion F-22 fighter plane program, may "lock you into capabilities that may be less relevant over time," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis and a former member of the National Defense Panel.

Cohen argued yesterday that the new weapons the Pentagon wants to buy are not mired in a Cold War strategy. The jets flying against Saddam Hussein are not "relics" of another era, he said.

Citing plans to add money to the effort to build a national missile defense program, Cohen said that "we have to invest in the kinds of technology that will anticipate changes that are taking place."

Cohen's budget calls for research into missile-defense systems that will protect U.S. forces in hot spots around the world, and a further $6.6 billion for research into a missile defense program.

Defense analysts complain that too little money is going into research and development for emerging threats. One program -- Joint Experimentation at the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va. -- looks into the future of warfare, and its tasks range from devising computer simulation war-games to testing new technology.

The budget for Joint Experimentation will be $45 million for next year and could rise by $10 million to $20 million by 2005. But Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense analyst for the Brookings Institution, favors a budget for Joint Experimentation of about $250 million a year.

How much extra money actually will be available for defense is unclear. Of the $12.6 billion increase that the Clinton administration proposes for next year, only about $4 billion can actually be considered an infusion of money.

The rest is a combination of anticipated savings from lower inflation rates and lower fuel prices, efficiencies from privatizing government work and unspecified cuts to programs. Rather than return that money, the Pentagon will be allowed to keep it.

Experts said that Republican calls for adding $20 billion to the military next year may prove difficult to realize. Because defense spending is capped under a 1997 budget agreement, any new money will have to be taken from other domestic spending programs -- never an easy process.

"There isn't going to be an awful lot [of new money] unless they can play a lot of games with the budget," said Paul Nisbet, defense analyst with JSA Research Inc.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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