WASHINGTON — THE changes sweeping the Pentagon in the post-Soviet era are indeed historic, insisted Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He proffered an enormous bar chart to prove his point.
The chart's towering left-hand column represented the total number of nuclear warheads, short and long range, possessed by the United States in September 1990: 21,000. The squat right-hand column stood for the number the US will have if all the nuclear offers made by President Bush in recent weeks come to pass: 6,300.
"This is a remarkable achievement which shows the Pentagon's willingness to adjust to the new reality," said General Powell at a Wednesday press briefing.
As the Pentagon enters the post-Soviet era, unprecedented changes are afoot. But in recent months they have been concentrated largely in the nuclear area. The president's proposed 1993 defense budget does eliminate some big conventional weapons systems. But it doesn't make any reductions in conventional force structure plans beyond those drawn up before the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Symbolic of this paradox is the US Army's continued plan to keep two divisions based in Western Europe. "It will be lower than that, I guarantee you, within the next four to five years," Gen. Edward Meyer, a former Army chief of staff, said earlier this week.
The proposed 1993 defense budget unveiled Wednesday asks for $268 billion in spending authority. That's about a 7 percent reduction from 1992.
Since its Reagan buildup peak in 1985 the defense budget has been on a steady decline. The last eight budget years have seen a one-third cut in real terms, according to the Pentagon.
And Defense Department plans call for cuts to continue through 1997, at an average pace of 4 percent a year. That would leave Pentagon officials "with about the same buying power as the 1960 defense budget," said Defense Secretary Richard Cheney. More flexibility sought
Clearly, this money will be buying a different sort of US military in the years ahead. After long arming and planning largely against a Soviet threat, US forces will have to become more flexible, admit Pentagon officials. They'll have to be able to adapt to surprise threats - such as the invasion of Kuwait - relatively quickly. Call it a Pentagon 911 force. House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, among others, has said that this year his panel's budget hearings will focus on a comprehensive plan for what sort of equipment and units the US now needs to best serve its interests.
"We need an analysis from the ground up of the real threats Americans face in this new world," said Representative Aspin in response to the Bush budget. "We haven't gotten that analysis yet from the Bush administration."
On the question of nuclear forces in particular, it's hard to fault the White House for the speed and boldness of its proposals.
In offering to make cuts in submarine missile warheads, if the Russians will agree to go along with elimination of multiple-warhead land missiles (MIRVs), Bush has broken new arms-control ground. The US Navy has long resisted any encroachment on its nuclear territory.
It's widely assumed in Washington that national security adviser Brent Scowcroft is the hidden hand behind these moves. A retired Air Force general, Mr. Scowcroft has long advocated moving away from MIRVs to improve nuclear crisis stability. Procurement policy change
Weapons-procurement policy also now faces major post-cold war changes, at least in theory. With the budget Pentagon officials unveiled a new acquisition approach that calls for more emphasis on research and development, and prototypes of new weapons, while moving fewer weapons into actual production.
As part of this policy, spending on basic science and technology not tied to specific weapons is supposed to increase to $12 billion in 1993, from $10.6 billion in 1992.
A Pentagon chart also claims that capping the B-2 at 20 airplanes, for a net savings of $14 billion over the next five years, and ending Seawolf submarine production, a $17 billion savings through 1997, reflects the new acquisition policy. But many analysts felt these programs - the biggest individual cuts announced for 1993 - were already in deep trouble in Congress.
The 1993 budget leaves untouched the so-called "base force the number of military units Pentagon planners feel they need to match US strategy. Current plans call for an Army base force of 20 active and reserve divisions, down from 26 in 1991; 12 Navy carrier battle groups, down from 16 in 1991; and 26 Air Force fighter wings, down from 34.
The base force represents about a 25 percent reduction in manpower from the levels of two years ago, and Pentagon officials insist they couldn't go down any faster even if they wanted to.
"The idea that you could get substantial savings in manpower in 1993 makes no sense at all," said Secretary Cheney. The requisite wholesale firings "would destroy the morale of the force."