Germany defends latest trims in defense spending

To the West German government, its latest scrapping of some projected weapons procurement is a sensible rationalization. It's a much-needed setting of priorities in an age of exorbitant technology. It does not dangerously reduce the nation's defense capability.

To the conservative opposition, on the other hand, the trimming of defesne plans is yet another sign that the Social Democratic-Liberal government is starving the armed forces of essential funds. Shadow Defense Minister Manfred Worner estimates the shortfall at 10 billion deutsche marks ($5 billion) over the next few years and says that this renders the armed forces incapable of adequately defending West Germany and carrying out NATO assignments.

To the US, the West German government interpretation makes sense -- and Defense Minister Hans Apel's conspicuous promise of West German "host-nation support" for American forces stationed here is a welcome signal. Yet the opposition fears also bear watching.

To Bonn's European allies, the March decisions by the Defense Ministry's top brass effectively kill off joint European arms production in the key items of the 1990s' French-German battle tank and the French-British-German tactical combat aircraft intended to replace the American Phantom. West Germany now plans instead to upgrade its own Leopard II tank and probably buy an American fighter once more.

This is the crux of the ruthless medium-term planning executed this month by the West German Defense Ministry's top generals and civilian planners. It disappoints some other Europeans. It does not yet create problems for an America that has prssed Bonn to expand its defnse budget by at least an annual 3 percent. But it could do so if supplementary defense funds are not forthcoming.

As things stand now, there is no money allocated for the hostnation support that Apel will begin negotiating with US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in Washington at the end of March. Nor is there the 1 billion marks ($500 million) in additional funds required even for the drastically reduced domestic defense procurement through the mid-'80s. The earliest that additional money could be made available would be next fall, in the customary "supplementary budget."

One high government official explains that this month's procurement slashes do not mean cuts in the approximately 1.7 percent real budget increase for defense this year. On the contrary, he suggests, the stark setting out of the armed forces' financial straits could strenthen the defense minister's bid for an increase from the gimlet-eyed Finance Ministry.

The projects that have been axed, besides the European tactical aircraft and tank, include: the Air Force's Roland antiaircraft missile, the fourth production run of the Milan antitank and antiaircraft missle, modernized radar and guidance systems for the aging Hawk antiaircraft missile, antiradar drone, and some electronic counter-countermeasures.

Projects that are being postponed include: construction of the Navy's seventh and eight F-122 frigates (with the building start now set for 1987), identification and guidance systems to link the Army's armored antiaircraft vehicles Gepard and Roland with Air Force weapons (1985), and the Air Force Patriot missile set to replace the elderly Nike (1986).

this still leaves untouched the major early 1980s procurements of 322 European Tornado combat aircraft, 1,800 West German Leopard II tanks, and six West German F-122 frigates.

Some political misgivings have already begun to challenge the shelving of the French-German tank -- and a phone conversation between French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- have elicited West German murmurs that the project might be reconsidered.

The West German murmurs remain anonymous, however, and observers here tend to believe that once the spring elections in France are out of the way, the joint tan k project will in fact be laid to final rest.

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