More Base Closings Will Be Tough Sell
A Republican defense secretary goes before GOP-led Congress with a plan to trim $15 billion and boost weapons purchases
WASHINGTON — It was in the post-electoral spirit of bipartisanship that President Clinton tapped a retired senior Republican senator as his second-term defense secretary.
Clinton's choice is about to face his first major test.
Defense Secretary William Cohen will be taking the lead in trying to sell to the GOP-led Congress proposals to cut the armed forces by 60,000 troops, scale back purchases of advanced jet fighters, and close additional military bases.
The proposals are to be presented on May 15 to Congress in the Quadrennial Force Review (QDR), the Pentagon's third post-cold war reassessment of United States defense strategy.
They are part of an initiative to reverse years of decline in spending for new weapons and equipment by saving $15 billion a year over the next five years.
Defense Department officials say the plan would also add $2 billion to an administration program to develop by 2003 a defensive system to protect the United States against missile attacks.
Modernizing the armed forces and building a national missile defense system are high priorities among many majority Republicans and some Democrats on Capital Hill. But winning their support for the QDR will not be easy.
"I'm not sure that Cohen could have come up with a QDR that could get a warm reception of Capitol Hill," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "No matter what QDR you chose, you are going to make some enemies."
Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the US has cut its armed forces back from just over 2 million personnel to 1.4 million. Military spending has dropped from from a cold war high of more than $400 billion per year to about $250 billion, where it is expected to remain for the next five years.
Many Republicans and some Democrats have for some time expressed concerns that those cuts have already impaired the military's ability to fulfill its main task: fighting and winning two wars that erupt at almost the same time in different parts of the globe.
While the plan is expected to call for personnel cuts from all three services totaling 60,000 men and women, Mr. Cohen has already said that the QDR will retain the "two war" scenario as the major contingency for which the military should be structured and outfitted.
AT the same time, the plan is also expected to propose that the Pentagon gear up for new peacekeeping missions, take stock of non-traditional threats to US security, and exploit advanced technologies that represent a revolution in military affairs.
Relying on QDR previews and news leaks, some lawmakers and independent experts say they're pessimistic the Pentagon can meet all those goals while at the same time cutting manpower, maintaining a high state of readiness, and finding funds to boost modernization.
"Call me a skeptic, but I do not believe that you can get there from here," House National Security Chairman Floyd Spence (R) of South Carolina told a panel hearing last month
Perhaps an even more thorny issue is base closings. Many lawmakers oppose shutting down military bases, which are important sources of jobs and business in numerous districts. Local economies are still recovering from four rounds of base closures that have shuttered 97 major facilities and reduced operations at hundreds of others since 1988.
Adding to the resistance are perceptions that Clinton played politics with what was supposed to be an nonpolitical process. In 1995, he spurned an independent commission's recommendations to close huge Air Force depots in Texas and California, states whose large crops of electoral votes he coveted for his re-election campaign.
Pentagon officials say that while the size of the military has been cut back by 33.5 percent, the number of bases has been reduced by only 18 percent.
Cohen is expected to ask Congress to approve legislation authorizing two more rounds of closures - in 1999 and 2002 - designed to save about $3 billion.
"Secretary Cohen ... concluded that we are carrying and paying for more infrastructure than we need," says Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon. "And he concluded that we had to cut our infrastructure."
Cohen also announced this week that he will appoint an outside panel of experts to recommend ways of reducing the Pentagon's bureaucracy as a source of additional savings.
Sources familiar with the QDR say it will seek additional savings by reducing the numbers of advanced jet fighters the Air Force and Navy are planning to purchase over the coming decade. The Air Force would buy 339 F-22s instead of 438, while the Navy would scale back purchases of F-18 E/Fs from 1,000 to under 800, sources say.
Experts familiar with the QDR disagree over whether it will generate the savings required to close the shortfall in defense spending sufficiently to boost the budget for new weapons to $60 billion, a target set by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Paul Taibl of the Washington, DC-based Business Executives for National Security, says Cohen must aggressively reduce the Pentagon work force and introduce other steps, such as privatizing logistics and other ancillary operations at military bases.
"If you can achieve 10 percent savings [through restructuring] you can close the gap," he asserts, though he is skeptical that it can be done.
THE US MILITARY'S
* The US had some 2 million active-duty troops when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Since then, it has trimmed about one-third - more than 600,000.
* Since 1988, 97 of 495 major bases in the US have been shut down - about one-fifth of the total.
* Because a bigger proportion of troops than bases has been trimmed, Defense Secretary Cohen says more bases must be closed.
* Mr. Cohen's new plan would close an unspecified number of bases - as well as cut 60,000 active-duty troops.
* The trims are an attempt to make up a $15 billion annual gap between what the military planned to spend and the amount of money it will have. A key reason for the cuts is to maintain a $60 billion budget for buying new weapons.