WASHINGTON -- GOP front-runner George W. Bush is considering cutting proposed increases in Pentagon spending on new weapons systems by 20 percent to make room for his promised increases in defense research, military salaries and the deployment of a national missile defense system, top Bush advisers say.
Bush's economic and defense advisers discovered they must make tough choices on weapons systems if they are to meet the governor's promised defense research increases -- and provide the tax cut Bush plans to unveil early next month. That will mean an estimated $15 billion cut to President Clinton's weapons purchasing budget, which is scheduled to increase by a total of $72 billion over the next five years.
The current $53 billion defense purchasing budget is slated to rise sharply over the next four years, to $64 billion under a blueprint proposed by Clinton and approved by Congress.
Clinton plan 'a disaster'
The Clinton proposal "was a complete disaster," one top Bush defense adviser said. "We had to come up with something sane."
Other "unspecified" cuts would come in operations and maintenance, which funds everything from training and housing to peacekeeping missions.
Advisers stressed that a detailed defense budget has not been completed, and all proposed cuts are subject to change. Their overall defense budget should keep pace with the $112 billion cumulative increase in military spending that was proposed by Clinton through 2005.
"Governor Bush has provided a detailed and comprehensive proposal to rebuild our nation's military, and as president, will submit a realistic, balanced budget that will meet his priorities," said campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett.
But keeping the budget balanced will mean a significant shift in defense priorities.
Richard Perle, a former Defense Department official in the Reagan administration and Bush defense adviser, said Bush can do more with less spending on new weapons systems by reorganizing forces into more agile units and adapting the military to advanced technology.
Perle hinted that detailing defense cuts during the campaign would be politically perilous, especially during the primary season, when Bush must appeal to the GOP's conservative base.
"You will hear more of the tough choices voiced between now and the end of the campaign," Perle said. "There are things you do before you get the nomination and things you do after the nomination."
And Perle insisted that Bush has put the Pentagon on notice that cuts to Clinton's budget plan are coming.
"He has talked about a review, and when somebody talks about a review, it strongly hints he isn't satisfied with the current plan," Perle said. "His advisers are saying, 'We can't do everything in the plan.' "
Still, the decision to rein in new weapons purchases has raised concern among conservative defense hawks and independent budget analysts, who say even Clinton's proposal could fail to keep up with the needs of the military.
Bush aides dismissed Clinton's long-term purchasing budget as a political gimmick, since the largest spending increases would take place long after the president leaves office.
But Clinton's budget has been adopted by Vice President Al Gore.
Moreover, Bush's tough talk on defense -- including a pledge to add $20 billion to military research and development and $5 billion to military salaries over five years -- has left the impression in defense circles that those increases would come on top of defense increases already proposed by Clinton and adopted by Congress this year.
"I've never been left with the impression that they would be taken out of hide, that they would have to take from other areas of defense spending to increase R&D; spending," said Baker Spring, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
In his Sept. 23 defense speech in South Carolina, Bush proclaimed, "Not since the years before Pearl Harbor has our investment in national defense been so low as a percentage of GNP."
The governor's most recent campaign advertisement proclaims, "Because a dangerous world still requires a sharpened sword, I will rebuild our military."
Although he has alluded to a planned review of the military's force structure and weapons purchasing plans, Bush has not specified any weapons systems he would cut.
"The bottom line is, if you're not going to talk about any tough choices during the campaign, how are you going to feel you have a mandate to make them once you get elected?" asked Michael O'Hanlon, a defense budget expert at the Brookings Institution.
Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the procurement budget must rise to $60 billion per year to begin to replenish the current stocks and modernize weapons systems. Clinton's weapons purchasing budget would not reach that level until 2003.
Clinton has understated by at least $10 billion a year the funds it would take to carry through many of the weapons system upgrades planned, O'Hanlon said. Even if a Bush administration canceled two of the three advanced fighter planes now in the pipeline, the Pentagon would need Clinton's proposed procurement levels, he said.
And O'Hanlon complained that the Bush team was squeezing weapons purchases in part to fund a $5 billion pay raise that would come on top of a 4.8 percent salary increase approved by Congress this year, the largest in a generation. He called the proposal a "cheap political way to get military people to like him."