WASHINGTON — IN recent years big weapons have dominated Washington's defense budget debate. From the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), to the B-2 bomber, to the Seawolf submarine, expensive new systems always seem to become symbols of a larger struggle for priority-setting power between a Democratic-controlled Congress and the Republican White House.
With the annual defense budget exercise swinging into full gear, it appears that, this year, Congress may have a larger-than-usual say in the future of big-ticket items. This doesn't necessarily mean less money for all these systems. No longer are lawmakers just trying to scale back administration defense requests. With jobs on the line during economic tough times, they are finding that, in some cases, it is easier to add than subtract.
That doesn't mean the old standby headline of "Congress, White House in Defense Budget Clash" won't apply. Administration officials are still complaining bitterly about how defense money is being moved around. Congressional efforts "put money back into the budget for things we don't need and take money out of the budget for things that we do need," said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams last week.
So far, the Seawolf sub is the most famous case in point. Throughout the late 1980s there were mild attempts in both the Senate and House Armed Services committees to kill off the Seawolf as unnecessary and, at $1 billion a copy, extremely expensive.
But when the Department of Defense earlier this year proposed ending Seawolf production due to budget pressure and the end of the cold war, Connecticut lawmakers cried foul. The attack subs are built at the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation in Groton, and loss of Seawolf means loss of thousands of jobs throughout nearby communities.
The Pentagon wants to give back money already approved for construction of two Seawolves this year, but both House and Senate have voted so-called recision bills that would force the Navy to build the boats. Maintenance of US sub-building capability is crucial, according to backers of the move.
Less noticed is the fact that both House and Senate recision bills would restore funds for at least two other programs the Pentagon doesn't want: upgrades for the M-1 tank and the F-14 aircraft. In recent years the Long Island-built F-14 upgrade in particular has had more than nine lives, with the New York delegation doing everything it can to keep the plane breathing.
Money to pay for these changes would be taken from administration favorites: the B-2 bomber and SDI.
A final recision bill has yet to be drawn up, and Mr. Williams said that "if the legislation were to pass in its current form, the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto."
The recision bills, however, aren't the main pieces of defense legislation now facing Congress. The annual authorization legislation, which outlines defense plans for 1993, outweighs them in significance.
With the House Armed Services Committee scheduled to draw up its version of the authorization bill this week, it's high defense season on Capitol Hill. Big-ticket items face big-ticket changes in this forum, too.
For one thing, the chairman of the House panel, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, says he wants to put his own stamp on how the Defense Department buys aircraft. With the support of Republicans on the committee, Mr. Aspin is proposing to increase emphasis on the Navy's next-generation attack plane - the AX - at the expense of fighter aircraft development.
The AX budget for 1993 would increase from the $160 million requested by the White House to $725 million under the Aspin plan. At the same time, funds for developing the next-generation Air Force fighter, the F-22, would be trimmed by $200 million. The $1 billion requested by the Navy to build an upgraded F/A-18 would be slashed in half.
The experience of the Gulf war showed that long-range attack aircraft will be one of the US military's most crucial future requirements, according to Aspin. "In particular, the Navy needs a more capable aircraft to perform the deep-strike mission from its carriers," says a committee report on the move.
Meanwhile, SDI is sure to undergo fundamental change. Plans for stationing SDI weapons in space will be deemphasized more than ever. SDI director Henry Cooper told members of Congress last week that, in response to their criticism, he was shifting a further $2.6 billion from space weapons to ground-based weapons development accounts.
One result of this reorientation is that work on the exotic X-ray laser, a nuclear-powered device that proponents once claimed might be able to shoot down hundreds of missiles by itself, has been quietly stopped. As for the B-2, Congress may well go along with an administration request for $2.7 billion to buy four last production bombers.