Pentagon faces tough choice between arms or forces to field them

After years of plenty, Pentagon officials face a future of flat budgets, at best. The result may be a United States military far different from the one they had planned. ``The United States may have reached a crossroads in determining the future quality and quantity of its military capabilities,'' says a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at Georgetown University.

In the offices of the Pentagon, officials are putting the finishing touches on a fiscal 1987 budget that will call for 3 percent inflation-adjusted growth. They will submit that budget to Congress next month.

They are not likely to get that much money. In fact, if Congress can't meet the deficit-reduction targets set by Gramm-Rudman, and automatic budget cutting begins, the Pentagon may suddenly find its budget shrinking after years of large increases under President Reagan.

``Gramm-Rudman would have a profound impact on US military capability,'' complains Harlan Ullman, director of the Georgetown study.

The bill could result in budget cuts of 10 percent a year for the military, says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who complains that Pentagon officials have shown no sign of understanding how draconian Gramm-Rudman could be.

``They're talking about protecting `star wars,' '' he says, in an exasperated tone of voice, referring to President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). ``If this kicks in after 1986, you can't protect anything.''

If the Gramm-Rudman deficit bill is invoked in fiscal years to come, the Defense Department will have little choice about where reductions will be made. Every one of their programs will lose money.

If officers plan their own cuts in an effort to head off the automatic Gramm-Rudman machinery, they are likely to blanch. The Georgetown report gives an idea of the sort of decisions they will face.

Even if the Pentagon's budget increases 1.5 percent after inflation, says the report, the Army may not get three divisions it is counting on having by 1990. Air forces might be short six air wings (each includes several squadrons) of tactical fighter planes. The Navy would have only 12 carrier battle groups, instead of the 15 it badly wants.

Either that, or the military would have to drastically cut ammunition stocks, training time, and the other stuff of which readiness is made. The force structure would reach the size projected in today's plans -- but it would be a military without real fighting ability.

``What you'd have is a hollow force, like that of the 1970s,'' says Robert Pirie, a former assistant secretary of defense who helped produce the study.

The tanks, planes, and ships of US conventional forces would also face growing competition for money from programs such as the SDI and the Midgetman mobile missile, the report points out.

Of course, these dire forecasts are made with the Pentagon's predicted 1990 budget, laid out in this year's DoD Report to Congress, as the baseline. The study calculates that 1.5 percent annual growth after inflation would give the military $290 billion less than it currently wants over the rest of the decade.

The Georgetown report was put together by a group of retired officers and former Pentagon officials who generally hold that today's military budget, though it has doubled in the last five years, is still barely sufficient for national security.

The study concludes that defense budget growth of about 5 percent a year, after inflation, is ``what is needed to maintain and modernize current forces at high levels of operational readiness.''

But such growth is an almost impossible dream, and defense budget cuts in the years ahead are inevitable, concede those at Georgetown University who worked on the study.

Meanwhile, on Friday House and Senate negotiators agreed to allot the Pentagon $298.7 billion for fiscal 1986. The bill, which still must be approved by a conference committee this week before the House and Senate can act on it, includes a ban on testing antisatellite weapons, $21.7 million for chemical weapons, and $2.75 billion for SDI.

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