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Battling for the military budget. Belt-tightening hits the Pentagon

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 1987


The new AH-64 Apache is the Army's premier attack helicopter. It looks like a giant insect carrying a machine gun and missiles, and would hop from meadow to meadow, providing troops with firepower support. The Army has ambitious plans for attack copters, a relatively new type of weapon. Pilots call them more deadly than tanks and say they will eventually dogfight in the air like jet planes.

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But in a surprise move, the Pentagon recently announced that the Army will buy 82 fewer Apaches than it wants. Purchases will end after 1988. The reason? ``Funding limitations,'' says Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in his annual report to Congress.

The Defense Department is not known for its reluctance to spend money. When it unilaterally forgoes favored weapons, a trend is at hand.

After two years in which their budgets have shrunk in real terms, Pentagon planners are beginning to come to terms with the inevitable. Huge budget deficits and highly publicized stories of Pentagon waste have eroded congressional and public support for the Reagan administration's military plans. The defense budget has been cut in real terms in each of the last two years, and the outlook this year is for zero real growth or a slight increase at best.

This recognition of political reality is shown in President Reagan's proposed 1988 budget, which asks for only a 3 percent rise in the military budget after inflation, to $312 billion. Last year the administration tried for a 7 percent real increase, alienating many members of Congress who felt the request was wildly unrealistic.

Thus the military budget debate has changed focus. No longer will it be primarily an argument between the administration and Capitol Hill about how big the total budget should be.

Instead, many analysts say the debate will focus on what function should get what portion of the budget pie. Are Army tanks more important than Navy ships? Should funds for nuclear weapons increase at the expense of conventional forces? What needs more money - ammunition and other readiness categories or new weapon purchases?

Key legislators are attempting to prepare Congress to make the choices. Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees plan to hold their first hearings this year, not on the budget, but on the foundation of US military strategy. Committee members will hear testimony on such topics as the purpose of United States forces in Europe.

``We're focusing on strategy, because it's the logical starting point for formulating policy and budgets,'' said the Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, at his kickoff hearing last month.

In the Defense Department, budget planners will likely turn more of their energy to intramural conflict than they have in the past, as the Army, Navy, and Air Force each fight to increase their share of a budget that isn't growing. The bitterest struggles may be within services - Army helicopter pilots vs. tank commanders, etc.

``There are going to be real turf battles in the Pentagon,'' says Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a private watchdog group.

Some factions have already been caught in the defense budget squeeze.

Consider fighter pilots. They are the losers in the proposed 1988 Air Force budget. While funds for such things as nuclear-missile purchases would increase under the administration plan, the equivalent of five fighter squadrons would be disbanded to save money. The Nevada-based 474th Tactical Fighter Wing would be broken up, for instance, and its three squadrons of 66 F-16s transferred to the reserves.

Officially the Air Force has long planned to increase today's 37 fighter wings by three. But that jump now seems a distant dream.