Talking About Defense: Bush's Texas-sized challenge

Imagine President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and budget chief Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. sitting around a table at the White House, talking about how to make good on Bush's campaign promise to strengthen national defense. Imagine also that their "horseholders" (eager-beaver aides) are holding thick notebooks on their laps and are sitting-but never squirming-in hard chairs behind their bosses. The conversation might well go something like this (the dialogue is fanciful but the numbers and issues are real):

Bush: OK, Dick. Give us the good news and the bad news.

Cheney: Mr. President, the good news is that everybody agrees we need to raise military pay, improve housing and health benefits, buy more new weapons, and step up research. The bad news is that we're not going to have as much money for defense as we thought.

Bush: How can that be? We've got a $5.6 trillion surplus out there. Isn't that enough to outdo Clinton on defense?

Cheney: It is and it isn't, Mr. President. The Congressional Budget Office has indeed forecast a $5.6 trillion surplus over the next 10 years. But about half of that amount will be in the Social Security fund, which we can't touch. So we're down to around $3 trillion. Subtracting from that the $400 billion surplus generated by the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, another untouchable, leaves us with $2.5 trillion.

Bush: Still a helluva lot of money, Dick.

Cheney: Again you're right, Mr. President. But your $1.6 trillion tax cut, together with tax credits already on the books, will pretty much eat up the surplus. We can't raise Clinton's $310 billion defense budget much without going into the red, especially if inflation goes up.

Bush: Hell, you mean I won't have a dime of that $5.6 trillion to spend on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps while I'm their commander in chief?

Cheney: That's pretty much the case, Mr. President, unless we cut some programs.

Bush: Is Dick right, Mitch?

Daniels: Dick could be off a little on his numbers, depending on the economy, Mr. President. But this is roughly where we are, sir. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a pretty good private outfit not under the thumb of the defense contractors, ran numbers that are close to our own. It concluded that we'll be lucky if we can increase the defense budget by 1 percent a year, after allowing for inflation.

Bush: Damn! Then what do we cut to get money for my boys? You know, they really love me out there. I got more hoo-ahs from them last week than Clinton got in his whole life. And don't tell me to cut education or Social Security or to give up my tax cut.

Horseholder: Our latest polls, Mr. President, show that people outside the Beltway are much more concerned about money for education and Social Security than they are about national defense.

Bush: I know, I know. But help me. Find me some more money for the military. And don't forget we've got to build a missile defense system, too.

Powell: Why not yank some of those nuclear missiles out of the ground? The Air Force boys have been silent silo-sitters long enough. The MX missile would come down under START II, anyhow, and it's costing us millions to keep all those Minuteman missiles from rotting. We've got plenty of nukes in submarines; we still have plenty for bombers. Our new precision-guided weapons can take out anything we want to without using nukes.

Rumsfeld: Careful, Colin. We don't want to give the Russians ideas or panic the Europeans.

Powell: Where are they going to go? The Russians have to take down their nukes-they can't afford to keep them. The Europeans shouldn't be telling us what to do, anyway; they're not spending any real money on defense. They can't even hold up their end on simple bombing raids. They were pathetic during Desert Storm and Kosovo.

Cheney: We could, and probably should, reduce our nuclear forces, Colin. Taking them off alert would take some strain off the Air Force and make the world breathe easier. And you're right. We don't need all those 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads out there. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff have signed off on going down to the START III limit of 2,500 to 3,000.

Horseholder: Yes, Mr. Vice President, but Congress in the fiscal 2001 defense authorization forbade us from going below the START I level of 6,000 strategic warheads until Russia approved START II, a treaty that would take us down to no more than 3,500 warheads on each side. Our Senate ratified START II in 1996. The Russians finally approved START II in April, but they attached strings. The strings have hung up START II. So, Mr. President, technically you can't get rid of our excess warheads without breaking the law.

Bush: That's crazy. Let's get some people from the Hill down here and get rid of that restriction.

Cheney: We'll do that, Mr. President. It should be easy. It was really just anti-Clinton language. But I have to warn you, sir, that getting rid of some nukes-even though it's the right thing to do at this time-won't gain us much spending money. The nukes are already paid for. We need to cut something big that hasn't been paid for.

Powell: How about your old favorite target, Mr. Vice President, the Marines' V-22 Osprey? That thing is going to bankrupt the Corps. Tell `em to buy Blackhawk helicopters for one-fourth the price.

Cheney: Been there, tried that, Colin. So did Harold Brown when he had Rummy's job. The Marines rolled both of us. Getting the Osprey has become a test of their manhood.

Powell: But how about confronting the Marines with a choice: "You can have either the Osprey or the Joint Strike Fighter, but not both"?

Bush: How much money we talking about here?

Cheney: The Osprey, including what we've already put in it, is going to cost us about $38 billion for 458 aircraft, or $83 million each. The Joint Strike Fighter program could run $200 billion if we did what Clinton planned to do, and that was to buy 3,000 of them.

Bush: Holy cow! Two hundred billion? Now there's some real money we can put in pay, housing, readiness, and hardware.

Horseholder: We hear the Joint Strike Fighter is running way above original cost estimates, something like $4 billion over.

Cheney: Sounds like the Navy A-12 I canceled in 1991 because nobody could tell me what it would end up costing.

Bush: So why not cancel the Joint Strike Fighter?

Rumsfeld: The Marines would go ballistic, Mr. President. They refused to buy the Navy F/A-18 E and F, for fear of losing their own Marine air force to the Navy. They've been counting on the Joint Strike Fighter.

Bush: Well, hell, Don. Everybody can't get everything they want. Give them the Osprey and tell them to make do with the Navy's new F-18 instead of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Rumsfeld: I could do that, Mr. President, but we have only two companies left that can build an airplane from scratch: Boeing and Lockheed Martin. With no JSF, Lockheed might go under. Then we've got no competition.

Bush: Wait a minute, now. Lockheed has the F-22, the C-130, and it still builds the F-16 in Fort Worth. Boeing has a lot of transport orders, including the C-17.

Horseholder: I think the worry is that we won't have competing fighter designs, Mr. President. Also, remember that some of our European friends have put money in the Joint Strike Fighter.

Powell: You could save big bucks if you canceled the Air Force F-22 fighter and stopped building those $2 billion attack submarines, Mr. President. The modernized F-16 is plenty good enough for anything it would be up against. And because the Russians nowadays don't have many subs at sea, our attack subs aren't kept all that busy. So why keep buying them for $2 billion apiece?

Cheney: We're pretty far down the road on the F-22, Colin. And the theater commanders keep asking for more attack subs to listen in on the bad guys.

Bush: What's the F-22 going to cost us?

Horseholder: About $62 billion for 341 airplanes.

Powell: That makes it almost $200 million a fighter. Who's out there to challenge us? Nobody. And what about the Army? If you want to transform it into something lighter and better, you have to give it more money.

Rumsfeld: We could buy fewer F-22s. Treat them as silver bullets to be saved for special occasions, as we're doing with the F-117 Stealth bomber.

Cheney: That's what Clinton did-just cut down on the number of F-22s you buy.

Bush: Can't do that, then. Well, I guess we could. If I stop building subs, I'll have [Sen.] John Warner on my neck. My dad told me Warner worked out a deal to have half the subs built in his home state, at Newport News, Va., rather than building all of them at Electric Boat in Connecticut. Wouldn't mind stiffing Connecticut and Joe Lieberman, though. Give me a paper on what I'd save by cutting back on the F-22 and new subs.

Cheney: We haven't talked about how to pay for national missile defense, Mr. President, when we have to pay big bucks to actually deploy it.

Bush: Why not trade the Joint Strike Fighter for NMD? Give me a paper on that, too.

Cheney: We haven't talked about the big death spiral we're in, either, Mr. President. It's costing us more to keep old planes flying than we paid for them in the first place. Yet the new planes cost so much, that we can't afford to replace the old ones one-for-one. Unless we find a lot more money, the only way out is to make the Air Force and Navy air forces smaller so that they won't need so many planes and pilots. We could end up with not enough Navy planes to put on all our carriers, though.

Rumsfeld: The same thing is happening in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, Mr. President.

Horseholder: The Army is bloated with headquarters staff. It would be better off if we ordered another downsizing. Wouldn't hurt them to cancel the Crusader artillery rig, too. It's too heavy to get anywhere in a hurry--and will cost some $4 billion. We could save the Navy money if we slowed up the electric drive DD-21 destroyer. The admirals are fighting the idea of manning it with only 95 people anyhow; they say you need more sailors aboard to win a battle.

Bush: So you want me to pull a Clinton and downsize, do you? Well, hell, if that's the right way to go, give me a paper on it. I told `em I'd make the military leaner and meaner. Next meeting, we'll talk about bringing more of our troops home. You say I can't pull troops out of the Balkans without panicking the Europeans, but how about from Korea? Do we still need 37,000 troops there, after all this time? I want to surprise everybody by shaking up the military. Hey, they can't fire me for four years. If the Joint Chiefs of Staff don't like it, I'll remind them we still have civilian control of the military in this country. Now, everybody get out of here. I need to pump some iron.

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