Rush to fill in chinks in world cop's armor

Politics may help drive US military budget to its highest levelsince cold war.

After 14 years of declining defense spending, the White House and the GOP-run Congress are now racing to outdo each other to boost what is still by far the world's biggest defense budget.

The push is being driven by military leaders' contentions that budget and manpower cuts - and a grinding level of overseas operations - are wearing out equipment and hobbling the recruitment and retention of troops.

There may also be a political element to this. With their eyes on the 2000 elections, Democrats are well aware that Republicans may try to blame them for the problems with military readiness. "They are playing politics with defense. All of them," says Leon Sigal, a defense expert at the Social Science Research Council in New York.

The proposals to raise Pentagon spending to its highest level since the cold-war military buildup of the 1980s are provoking other serious questions, including how it can be done without new cuts in domestic programs or a trashing of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. Another, perhaps more critical issue is how much is enough?

Preparing for war

President Clinton and many congressional Republicans and Democrats contend that without a massive infusion of funds, the armed forces' readiness to fight wars will be jeopardized. "We must undertake this effort today so that our nation will remain strong and secure tomorrow," asserts Mr. Clinton.

But some lawmakers and independent analysts dispute the need for a defense-spending increase of the magnitudes being considered. They agree that military pay and retirement benefits should be boosted and some new money added for training and spare parts. But they say the Pentagon's unrealistic cold-war-era security strategy is locking the United States into buying ever-more-costly and sophisticated weapons that are of doubtful use against the kinds of threats it faces in the new century.

"Essentially, what we run the risk of doing is locking ourselves into the wrong future," says Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington. "This may be a case in which funding increases may be counterproductive to long-term military effectiveness."

Instead, Mr. Krepinevich and others say the Pentagon should use the opportunity provided by US military superiority to examine ways of better addressing threats like terrorism, information warfare, and a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

US defense spending has for years been held flat at about $260 billion annually, which in real terms represents a steady decline due to inflation. At the same time, American troops have been engaged in an unprecedented number of overseas operations. Still, the US spends more on defense than the rest of NATO combined. China and Russia each spend about $50 billion per year.

The new drive to boost defense spending began Jan. 2, with Clinton announcing that his proposed fiscal 2000 federal budget will contain the biggest Pentagon funding hike in a decade. It will include a 4.4 percent increase in pay and a restoration of cuts made in retirement benefits.

GOP leaders fired back, condemning as inadequate Clinton's plan to add $12 billion to the Pentagon budget in fiscal 2000 as a downpayment on a six-year, $110 billion effort to preserve military readiness. Pointing out that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have called for a $148 billion hike, they pledge to top Clinton in the budget they pass sometime next year.

"It's going to be up to Congress to do the heavy lifting," Sen. Robert Smith (R) of New Hampshire told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. While saying Clinton's plan would meet their "most critical needs," the chiefs told the meeting it would still leave them underfunded. Whatever the outcome of the debate, critics say the overwhelming bulk of new funds will be used to accelerate or add to the purchase of new weapons, many of which were designed during the cold war.

The services insist these weapons are required by the nation's global security strategy. This calls for the military to be ready to fight and win wars that erupt at almost the same time in the Persian Gulf and Korean Peninsula. But many experts dispute such a scenario.

Changing tactics of war

They also contend that it's unlikely the US will ever find itself in the kind of wars that it fought in the past: large, set-piece battles against conventionally armed foes. Instead, future enemies are expected to resort to terrorism and biological and chemical warfare, against which advanced US weaponry is useless.

Another major concern is that whatever the final number, the funding increase won't allow the services to buy all the new weapons it hopes to purchase. "The outcome will be that the Pentagon gets enough money to maintain its plans, but never enough to buy more than half the weapons it wants," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington thinktank. "The overall force will be left unreliable and less safe and the caliber of the military will decline."

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