WASHINGTON -- Should he become the military's commander in chief in 2001, George W. Bush says, he would curtail foreign peacekeeping missions for U.S. soldiers, boost their pay, provide them with better housing and devote billions of dollars to creating a more high-tech, mobile military for the next century.
In a speech yesterday at the Citadel, South Carolina's military college, the Texas governor said he would also pump more money into a top Republican priority: the creation of a national missile defense system.
Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, outlined his defense goals in a state with a strong military tradition and a large veterans population -- and a state where a Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, is trying hard to make political inroads.
The governor, who served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, made a veiled swipe at President Clinton, whose relations with the military have been strained since he entered office. Clinton has been subject to criticism because of his avoidence of the Vietnam draft, his advocacy of equal treatment of gays in the military and a tenure marked by rising problems with recruiting and combat readiness.
"The common defense is the sworn duty and chief responsibility of a president," Bush told an overflow crowd that included gray-uniformed cadets, some of whom pumped their fists as he was introduced.
"And, if elected, I will set three goals: I will renew the bond of trust between the American president and the American military. I will defend the American people against missiles of terror. And I will begin creating the military of the next century."
Aides said Bush would offer a "significant increase" in Pentagon spending as president, explaining that he believes there is enough money in the budget surplus to pay for the defense increases, for a big tax cut and for shoring up Social Security. In reality, Congress is struggling this year to meet spending needs without spending the Social Security surplus, and it is not contemplating a big defense increase.
The spending increases outlined by Bush include military pay raises, which would average about $750 a year over five years for each of the 1.4 million military personnel on active duty. Congress has approved a 4.8 military pay increase, more than the 4.4 percent increase pushed by Clinton.
"Recently, after years of neglect, a significant pay raise was finally passed," Bush said, noting that thousands of soldiers are on federal poverty assistance. "My first budget will go further -- adding $1 billion in salary increases. We also must target special bonuses for special skills. Two-thirds of military family housing units are now substandard, and they must be renovated."
The governor also said he would devote $20 billion more for research and development of new weapons during his first term. Bush pledged to set aside 20 percent of the Pentagon's purchasing budget for items that "propel America generations ahead in military technology."
The candidate also said he would give his defense secretary "a broad mandate" to review military forces, strategy and weapons systems, changing a heavily armored military organized for Cold War threats into one with sophisticated computer systems, stealth and precision-guided weapons.
Bush asserted that the Clinton administration has moved too slowly to modernize the military, saying "inertia and idle talk" have marked the past seven years and "the real goal is to move beyond marginal improvements."
"This will require spending more -- and spending more wisely," Bush said. "Our forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable and require a minimum of logistical support."
David Leavy, a White House spokesman, responded: "The charges that we've underfunded the military are unfounded. Our armed forces are the best-trained, best-led and best-equipped fighting force in the world."
Leavy noted that the president's Pentagon budget plan through 2005 offers the first inflation-adjusted increase in defense spending since 1989.
Bush's aides said that while the governor supports full funding for the new F-22 fighter -- the source of an acrimonious budget battle between Senate and House Republicans -- he is expected to question modernizing such traditional weapons as the M1-A1 tank.
Unlike Republicans in Congress, Bush says he could pay for his defense increases out of the projected budget surplus -- forecast by the Clinton administration to be $142.5 billion next year -- which he would also use to cut taxes and shore up Social Security, said Condoleeza Rice, the governor's foreign policy adviser.
Warning against too many missions abroad, Bush contended that the military has seldom been so "freely used," even though it has been cut by some 40 percent since the end of the Cold War. He said that as president, he would order an immediate review of the dozens of overseas deployments being handled by U.S. forces.
"The problem comes with open-ended deployments and unclear military missions," Bush said. "In these cases we will ask, 'What is our goal, can it be met, and when do we leave?' We will encourage our allies to take a broader role. We will not be hasty. But we will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties."