WASHINGTON — WAR may be raging in the Middle East, but the Bush administration's just-released budget still proposes that the Pentagon get less money for defense in 1992 than it will in 1991. There are two reasons for this apparent paradox. First, Congress has agreed that the cost of Desert Storm will be handled outside the annual defense bill.
Second, the proposed 1992 defense budget represents a significant attempt to reshape the United States military in light of the declining Soviet threat to Western Europe.
Use of strong-arm tactics by Soviet troops in the Baltics could presage a worrisome trend, said Defense Secretary Richard Cheney Feb. 4.
But with the loss of bases in Eastern Europe and the constraints imposed by the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, the Red Army currently does not appear capable of mounting a surprise strike outside the Soviet Union's borders.
``We can now focus more upon regional contingencies as being the driving factors in force size rather than the need to be prepared to go into global conflict with the Soviets on short notice,'' Secretary Cheney said.
Under the White House budget plan, the Department of Defense would get $278 billion in budget authority in 1992. That would represent a drop of about $5 billion from the comparable 1991 figure and would continue a long-term trend of declining military spending.
Since 1985, the high point of the Reagan military buildup, the Pentagon budget has shrunk 24 percent, after inflation is taken into account.
Unless the cold war reappears or Desert Storm drags on and on, the military budget will continue to go down. Current Defense Department planning calls for an average annual decline of 2 percent after inflation through 1995.
Such shrinkage would result in US military forces significantly smaller than they are today. The Pentagon projects that by 1995 there will be 12 Army divisions on active duty, as opposed to 18 in 1990.
The number of battle-force ships is projected to fall to 451 from 545 over the same period. Active-duty tactical fighter wings could go from 24 to 15.
Besides a smaller-size military, budget plans now call for ``significant reductions in modernization,'' according to an analysis by the Defense Budget Project.
The largest project jettisoned so far is the A-12, the Navy's next-generation carrier-based bomber, which was undergoing major technical and cost problems in development.
By canceling the A-12, Secretary Cheney saved the US $22.2 billion over the next five years, according to Pentagon figures.
Other big cancellations include a re-manufactured version of the Navy's F-14 fighter ($14.8 billion in savings through 1997) and the F-16 aircraft, which will be terminated after 1993, saving $15.4 billion.
The Defense Department also seems to be counting on saving by purchasing fewer numbers of some weapons, particularly missiles, than had been planned, says the Defense Budget Project. For instance, the Army wants to buy only 300 of its ATACMs ground-to-ground missiles in 1992, 111 fewer than it had originally planned on purchasing next year. Depletion of stocks in Desert Storm may mean these savings won't be realized.
``Many of these missiles are playing (or could play in the future) prominent roles in the war with Iraq,'' notes the Defense Budget Project analysis.
While Secretary Cheney says the Pentagon is reorienting itself toward ``regional contingencies'' such as Desert Storm, some controversial strategic weapons systems intended to counter the Soviets are slated for big money.
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) would get a whopping raise, from $2.87 billion in 1991 to $4.58 billion in 1992, under the Pentagon plan. Department of Defense officials say they are reorienting the program to guard against such threats as ballistic missiles in the hands of third-world nations. They also could well be playing a time-honored budget game, jacking up the SDI budget while knowing full well Congress is likely to slice off at least $1 billion or so.
The Pentagon also intends to press ahead with the B-2 bomber program, which barely survived the congressional budget process last year.
The proposed '92 budget includes $4.8 billion for the B-2 program, which would buy four planes.
US systems designed for nuclear war are receiving continued emphasis, said Cheney, because the Soviets have yet to cut back in that area.
``We do see continued emphasis on strategic capability,'' he said.