Stage is set for wide-ranging debate on future of defense

President Bush in his first 100 days has set the stage for the greatest debate since the Cold War ended on how much money is enough--and how it should be spent to enable the U.S. military to combat the radically different threats of the 21st century.

The debate in Congress will be part of the run-up to the 2002 and 2004 congressional and presidential elections, with Democrats already trying to hurl the "weak on defense" charge back at Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., his party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, gave a sample of what is to come by declaring recently on the Senate floor that Bush's first Defense budget is so small that it contradicts his campaign rhetoric.

"The check must have been lost in the mail," Lieberman, a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, quipped as he unsuccessfully pushed for a 10-year, $100 billion increase in the Bush budget.

Another political battle will be over whatever weapons that Bush, on the recommendation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tries to delay or cancel to save money. The barest of hints from the Pentagon that Bush may call for an end to construction of the $6 billion Nimitz-class aircraft carriers has put Sen. Armed Services Chairman Warner at battle stations.

"The commander in chief, the President, proposes; Congress disposes," said Warner in warning that such a recommendation would find tough sailing in Congress. Every other weapon on the Rumsfeld chopping block also has powerful defenders in Congress.

The talk by Bush and Rumsfeld about the need to cancel Cold War weapons and otherwise revolutionize the armed forces for the changed threats of the 21st century will remain just talk--unless Bush invests an unusual amount of political capital to make this happen, longtime defense specialists in Congress and Pentagon agree.

"The Bush team has the best chance since [President] Eisenhower to make real change," said one Republican analyst--noting that the administration has a relatively peaceful world, a Republican-led Congress and an American public more worried about butter than guns.

"The unknown is how hard Bush will push his reforms," this analyst added.

While the argument over what weapons should be canceled will be heated up in Congress by the prospective loss of jobs and campaign contributions, other friction will be generated inside and outside the Defense Department as Bush tries to make good on campaign promises to leapfrog over the military programs he inherited from President Clinton and pursue something brand new--such as finding a way to kill enemy missiles right after launch instead of chasing their warheads down in space.

How much money Bush will have after his tax cut to keep existing forces ready to fight today while restructuring them for tomorrow will also be a major shaping force in the defense debate looming large in the new President's future.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who broke ranks this month to join Lieberman and other Democrats in calling for $100 billion increase in defense spending from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2011, described in these words all the horses the new administration will be trying to ride at once in the coming months:

"Anyone who dismisses our serious readiness problems, our concerns with morale and personnel retention and our deficiencies in everything from spare parts to training is either willfully uninformed or untruthful. What concerns me the most is that the highly skilled service men and women who have made our military the best fighting force the world has ever seen are leaving in droves, unlikely to be replaced in the near future."

Added McCain: "Their reason is obvious: They are overworked, underpaid and away from home more and more often. Failure to fully and quickly address this facet of our readiness problem will be more damaging to both the near- and long-term health of our all-volunteer force than we can imagine."

McCain continued: "The cure for our defense decline will neither be quick nor cheap. The proper solution should not only shore up the [armed] services' immediate needs, but should also address the modernization and personnel problems caused by years of chronic underfunding. The solution will be found by using a comprehensive approach in which the president, civilian and uniformed military leadership as well as Congress will be required to make tough choices and even tougher commitments."

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, comprised of the nation's top-ranked military officers, are another big question mark. Will they endorse, when Congress asks for their personal opinions, the size of the Bush budget as well as the specific program cuts slated to be unveiled in mid-May? Or will they give the Democrats fresh political ammunition by criticizing the proposed restructuring?

The defense budget numbers Bush has given to Congress are incomplete. They do not include the expected Bush request for emergency funds for fiscal 2001, said to be about $12 billion, nor the planned redistribution of dollars among the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and their research, procurement and readiness accounts for fiscal 2002 and beyond.

Citing a report former Defense Secretary William Cohen sent to Congress just before leaving office in January, Democrats have said that Clinton intended to ask for more for defense for FY02 than Bush officially requested.

Republicans counter that such intentions should not be considered as a formal request--rather, that Clinton's official budget submitted in January 2000 should be used as the yardstick for measuring his six-year budget plan against Bush's.

Arguments about the comparative toplines aside, there is general agreement among congressional Democrats and Republicans that more defense dollars than Bush has projected in his six-year plan will be needed to finance such here-and-now programs as military health care, readiness and procurement--and future ones such as national and theater missile defense.

"There is not a soul in this body who doesn't know that when the President's strategic review is completed, they will come back and ask for additional money," Senate Budget ranking member Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told colleagues when they were trying to decide how much to allocate for defense in the fiscal 2002 budget resolution.

"When they come back" to ask for more money, Conrad said of the administration, "the cupboard will be bare."

The Senate shortly before its spring recess added $10 billion to Rumsfeld's request for fiscal 2002 after rejecting the attempt by Lieberman and others to provide an extra $100 billion over 10 years for housing, health care and other military needs.

Earlier, the House had passed a budget resolution which, in effect, invited Bush to request as much additional money for defense as he desired after finishing ongoing reviews.

Despite the one-year addition provided in the Senate budget resolution and the blank check in the House measure, Rumsfeld is under pressure to cut Pentagon programs to offset ballooning costs of maintaining existing weapons and to free money for generation-skipping ones.

Consequently, in his first 100 days, the new Defense Secretary has been eyeing several weapons with the idea of cutting or canceling them, including these:

  • Joint Strike Fighter. The appeal of killing or stretching out this aircraft being developed for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and several foreign nations is the huge amount of money that could be saved. The Pentagon estimates it would cost about $200 billion to build 3,000 of these aircraft, the most expensive procurement projected for the 21st century.
  • Air Force F-22 Fighter. The cost of this air superiority aircraft--already tagged at $182 million a copy and rising--together with doubts within the Pentagon about whether the threat justifies buying the 341 copies the Air Force wants, make it tempting for Rumsfeld to buy fewer to save some of the $62 billion projected for the full program.
  • Army Crusader artillery piece. This outsized and heavy weapon does not fit the call for a lighter and more mobile Army, according to critics of this "legacy" weapon designed for toe-to-toe combat against Warsaw Pact forces on the plains of Europe. Pentagon insiders see outright cancellation of the $4.3 billion program more likely than a slow death through stretchout.
  • Marine V-22 Osprey. The Marine Corps suffers from a credibility gap in regard to this troop carrier that takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies straight ahead like an airplane. The Marines took what turned out to be fatal shortcuts in developing this complex aircraft, according to critics inside and outside the Corps, and should at least extend the test program by a year before starting production of the aircraft projected to cost $83 million each, counting development costs. Rumsfeld is expected to recommend more extensive testing and might even try to do what Cheney tried to do while Defense secretary: cancel the Osprey altogether.
  • Navy warships. How to find the money to keep the Navy fleet at more than 300 surface ships and submarines has pushed to the fore the question of whether the next generation of destroyer, the electric-drive DD-21, is too much too soon.
Whether it would be preferable to restructure the fleet to include an arsenal ship, basically an armored barge loaded down with guns and missiles, smaller aircraft carriers and fewer $2 billion a copy nuclear powered attack submarines is one of the many questions being debated in the myriad reviews under way in the Rumsfeld Pentagon. Warner and Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., loom as the first row of floating mines for Bush if he tries to change today's fleet in ways that will cost jobs in shipyards located in the home states of powerful lawmakers.
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