Congress aims to cut defense -- but where?

Like the bow wave from a battleship at flank speed, criticism of the Pentagon's largest-ever peacetime budget is running strong on Capitol Hill.

Professional analysts at the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office are raising warning flags, and even some of the Defense Department's best friends in Congress are saying that the administration's $258 billion plan for military authorizations must be cut back.

As opposition mounts, however, it is becoming clear that it could be extremely difficult to reduce Pentagon spending significantly. Outlays for expensive new hardware (like the B-1B bomber) are relatively small in the early years of development.

Holding back funds for other high-cost weaponry already in production (like Navy and Air Force fighters) can add to per-unit costs in the long run. Operations and maintenance are the easiest areas to cut, but they are essential to readiness and sustainability, which all agree need improving.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (a group that is generally more accommodating of the Pentagon) are particularly restive as they begin considering the budget.

Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, a former secretary of the Navy, questions the administration's desire for more expensive big aircraft carriers and apparent desire to achieve ''maritime supremacy.'' He wonders whether high federal deficits and a consequently weak economy are not ''just as threatening as the Soviets.''

''I have supported a strong national defense,'' says freshman Republican Dan Quayle of Indiana, who serves on both Budget and Armed Services Committees. ''But the hard-core reality is with the deficits we're facing. We simply are not going to be able to accommodate these increases in national defense.''

Committee chairman John Tower promises that ''this budget will be scrutinized as never before.''

Says the Texas Republican: ''This will involve canceling or altering programs which are not cost-effective.''

Democrats are even more critical. They not only charge the President with showing favoritism for defense over social spending, but also criticize him for what Democratic Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Sam Nunn of Georgia call ''the gap between budget and strategy.''

The administration argues that its defense budget is well thought out and (as Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger contends in his five-year defense posture document sent to Congress this week) ''can substantially reduce the dangers we now face.''

But to Republicans and Democrats alike, reducing deficits may be just as important.

In its annual report on budgetary options, the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) notes that ''while defense spending will almost certainly continue to grow, the Department of Defense may be forced to consider revision or elimination of selected lower-priority programs.''

The CBO then outlined several money-saving options. Among these were scrapping the controversial B-1B bomber, increasing the number of B-52s on day-to-day alert, and accelerating the Advanced Technology (''Stealth'') Bomber for a saving of $24 billion over five years. Similarly, the CBO suggests that rejecting two new nuclear aircraft carriers and building four new battle groups around reactivated battleships could save $37 billion while ''establishing a credible US naval presence.''

Those kinds of decisions will come later. For now the congressional focus is on the infamous cost overruns that continue to beset the Pentagon. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona last week criticized the Army for a new attack helicopter that had jumped more than 40 percent in cost in just one year.

For years, the General Accounting Office has been recommending ways the Pentagon can save money, but Controller General Charles Bowsher said this week, ''We have not seen the consistency and perseverance needed to implement them over a long period of time.''

Administration officials concede this, and point to the ''management initiatives'' and other efficiencies they have instituted to bring about ''honest budgeting.'' Mr. Bowsher says he is encouraged by these moves, but it is too early to know whether they have been effective.

In his report to Congress this week, Secretary Weinberger acknowledges that national strength requires ''broad support at home'' for defense policies.

Judging by the opening rounds of the debate in Congress, this support may only come with a defense budget that differs in size and shape from the one he has presented.

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