Pentagon Penny-Pinching

PRIVATIZATION is a popular tool among government efficiency experts, with application to everything from school lunches to toxic-waste cleanups. But national defense?

Actually, the Pentagon has been making significant use of privatization in recent years and hopes to do more. Not, obviously, at the front line - carrying rifles or operating tanks, ships, and planes. But when it comes to maintaining the country's war-fighting equipment, private contractors have a large role.

Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says privatization is one way the armed services hope to stretch their current budget, more than $260 billion, to cover future modernization needs.

The Defense Department estimates that savings from more extensive privatization of maintenance could reach $15 billion a year. At present, military maintenance is concentrated at a small number of depots. By law, the government-run depots get 60 percent of the work, with 40 percent farmed out to private concerns.

Like all military installations, the maintenance depots have strong local political constituencies. Scaling back their operations will cause some protests. But like the base closings, it simply makes sense, and a budget-minded Congress should go along.

The Pentagon has cinched in its belt considerably since the high-spending days of the late 1980s. But more economizing should lie ahead in the '90s push toward a balanced federal budget. Self-imposed efforts, such as the privatization plans, should help the armed forces attain their longer-term priorities, such as the procurement of new equipment - which ought to be both more technologically sophisticated and more economical to run.

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